Cosmetics company Estée Lauder has reached an out-of-court settlement with three make-up artists who lost their jobs after being asked to take a video interview that was assessed by an algorithm.
The women, who worked for Estée Lauder subsidiary MAC, were told they were being made redundant, partly on the basis of an automated judgment by a computer. Initially, they had been required to reapply for their positions.
None of the women had been warned about performance issues previously and they began legal proceedings against the cosmetics giant.
The software, created by the recruiting platform HireVue, measured the content of their answers and their expressions, and gauged the results against other data about the women’s job performance.
In the Computer Says No documentary broadcast last night on BBC3, the women said no one could tell them why their applications had not succeeded.
One of the women, identified as Anthea, said: “I literally thought we would be videoed and someone would mark it after. I found out that wasn’t the case. Nobody saw the video, it was all algorithms.”
Estée Lauder denied not having informed them about the nature of the assessment.
Sacked by algorithm
Anthea’s colleague, Lizzie, added. “They pasted the same sentence about algorithms and artificial intelligence and this tiering bucket of 15,000 data points. I still don’t know what all that means – to me that isn’t an answer.”
The interview, said the women, involved questions about applying make-up – which would have been easier to answer by demonstration rather than a verbal description of the process.
Automated hiring software is used by many firms to make it easier to filter and assess job applications and to help ensure fewer biases creep into the process.
HireVue said that since 2020 it has no longer used visual analysis in its software. It said research had demonstrated that advances in natural language processing meant that “visual analysis no longer significantly added value to the assessments”.
HireVue CEO and chairman Kevin Parker said: “Over time the visual components contributed less to the assessment to the point where there was so much public concern to everything related to AI that it wasn’t worth the concern it was causing people.”
Estée Lauder said that interviewees were fully briefed, and that “using the HireVue process in tandem with human decision-making produces fairer outcomes and we stand by it”.
A spokesperson said: “The company takes significant steps to counter unconscious bias in all our employment-related decisions. In the situation described, facial recognition accounted for well under 1% (0.25%) of employees’ overall assessment.
“The company has teams who overlay objective performance-related data and other qualitative feedback, which accounted for the majority of the employment assessment, to make decisions on employment. Thus, any suggestion that facial recognition technology played a decisive role in any employment-related decision at MAC UK & Ireland or the Estée Lauder Companies UK & Ireland is patently false.”
The women received an out-of-court settlement. Lizzie said the hardest part of the experience had been what she perceived as the injustice of it: “I doubted myself massively when all that happened . . . Because she told you you’re not good enough for something. But that was never a valid reason to lose my job. That’s why it was so difficult, because I knew I was good enough but being told I wasn’t was really hard.”
After feeling she had been sacked by algorithm, Anthea said she felt it was important to push back. “I’m speaking out now so people can hear the truth and people can hear that this is actually happening,” she said. “It needs to be heard and needs to be stopped.”