Are Chatbots HR ready?

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Artificial Intelligence chatbot sitting at a computer while overlooking city skyline

It’s a headline all too familiar to HR professionals:  workers fear robots will take their jobs.  While there is some genuine fear to be accepted, new research finds many want to start leveraging artificial intelligence in their day to day job activities.

According to the study:

“…93 percent of respondents would trust orders given by a robot. They also believe that AI will have a positive impact on their organizations, primarily by increasing productivity.”

Workers aren’t the only ones.

HR professionals are also looking to AI to help with Learning and Development, performance management, compensation and payroll, recruiting, and employee benefits.

But are they ready for it?

HR leaders at Unilever say yes.

Chatbot strategy at Unilever to change HR

Unilever is a global leader in consumer goods.  The company’s products, which span everything from home care goods to food, can be found in more than 190 countries.

HR leaders just announced that in 106 of those countries, employees will be using their new chatbot technology.  The chatbot, named Una, was developed by the company itself.  According to the Employee Benefits website, employees will be able to connect with the chatbot through Skype for Business.

Keith Williams is the HR services director for Unilever.  He said Una was developed “to remove the need for employees to go into a separate system for HR queries. She has the ability to provide information and carry out transactions using a conversation. “

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When the chatbot goes live in those 106 countries, it will be able to chat with employees in 32 different languages.  That is one of the challenges in developing the technology.

“When you create a chatbot, it has the language understanding of an 18-month-old child.  If it’s going to be useful, you have to turn it into having the language understanding of an adult, and understand people 95% if the time.”

Change in Mindset

Another challenge Williams discussed is that of change management and shifting the mindset.  The company wants to move to a digital lifestyle for employees.  In fact, when Una goes online in each of the countries, the company switches off the HR telephone numbers and email address.  Employees have to use Una to address their HR needs.  This creates an “always on HR” system.

Other Unilever AI strategies

Una is not Unilever’s first dive into artificial intelligence.  They also use it to attract talent, specifically millennials.

“Our executives expect that 60 percent of our workforce to be Millennials by 2020,” Melissa Gee Kee said.  She’s the Strategy Director to the CHRO and Global HR4HR Director for Unilever.  “With this in mind, we needed to engage with this generation through innovative technology that is engaging, dynamic, and able to move quickly.”

The company created the Future Leaders Programme in response.  The coveted program targets recent college graduates.  Of the 250,000 applicants, only 800 individuals are chosen to participate.

At the time, Unilever had an outdated process.  It used paper, phone and manual assessments.  As a result, it took 4-6 months to sift through those 250,000 applicants.

A change was needed.

The team transformed the outdated recruitment process to focus on speed and to close the time-to-hire gap.  Unilever partnered with multiple solutions to create and end-to-end engaging and digital candidate experience.  Part of that included mobile phone-based recorded video interviews and interview assessment technology.

“We had to ensure we had a digital process, but one that felt very human, not robotic,” Gee Kee said.  “It had to be better and more efficient at selecting candidates than an in-person interview.”

Once those assessments were submitted, Unilever used an artificial intelligence tool to filter the candidate pool.  The company used data points including facial expressions, body language, and keywords.  Up to 80% of the candidate pool was scrubbed leaving a smaller group of candidates.  Those candidates were the ones most likely to be successful.

AI significantly improved the process.  It saved more than 50,000 hours in candidate times, and the company saved more than £1 million in the first year alone.  The company saw a 90% reduction in time to hire and saw a 16% increase in diversity hires overall.


There is some concern companies aren’t preparing for the role AI could play in the workplace or how it will impact the future of work.  Indeed most are concern the skills needed to work with AI will be severely lacking.

“71% of employees surveyed believe AI skills and knowledge will be important during the next three years, but half (51 percent) are concerned that they will not be able to adjust to the rapid adoption of AI. In spite of this finding, nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of HR leaders say that their organizations do not offer any type of AI training program. What's more, nine in 10 HR leaders are concerned that they lack the power to address the AI skills gap they see in their workplaces.”

One thing is for certain:  respondents believe not adopting Ai will cost companies their competitive edge.  That’s not all.  A failure to adopt the technology could have negative impacts on their careers.


Mason Stevenson
HR Exchange Network