Some large employers have left their hiring, promotion, and firing decisions up to computers instead of real humans. And while that may be more efficient, it may also be causing them to reject disabled applicants. EEOC has issued a guidance on The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Use of Software, Algorithms, and Artificial Intelligence to Assess Job Applicants and Employees. The guidance provides examples of when computers can cause disability discrimination.
EEOC lists some types of employment screening tools that employer use which could cause disability discrimination. These include "resume scanners that prioritize applications using certain keywords; employee monitoring software that rates employees on the basis of their keystrokes or other factors; “virtual assistants” or “chatbots” that ask job candidates about their qualifications and reject those who do not meet pre-defined requirements; video interviewing software that evaluates candidates based on their facial expressions and speech patterns; and testing software that provides “job fit” scores for applicants or employees regarding their personalities, aptitudes, cognitive skills, or perceived “cultural fit” based on their performance on a game or on a more traditional test."Per EEOC, the most common ways that an employer’s use of these decision-making tools could violate the ADA are:
The employer does not provide a “reasonable accommodation” that is necessary for a job applicant or employee to be rated fairly and accurately by the algorithm.
The employer relies on an algorithmic decision-making tool that intentionally or unintentionally “screens out” an individual with a disability, even though that individual is able to do the job with a reasonable accommodation. “Screen out” occurs when a disability prevents a job applicant or employee from meeting—or lowers their performance on—a selection criterion, and the applicant or employee loses a job opportunity as a result. A disability could have this effect by, for example, reducing the accuracy of the assessment, creating special circumstances that have not been taken into account, or preventing the individual from participating in the assessment altogether.
The employer adopts an algorithmic decision-making tool for use with its job applicants or employees that violates the ADA’s restrictions on disability-related inquiries and medical examinations.
EEOC provides multiple examples of how these violations might occur:
- [A] job applicant who has limited manual dexterity because of a disability may report that they would have difficulty taking a knowledge test that requires the use of a keyboard, trackpad, or other manual input device. Especially if the responses are timed, this kind of test will not accurately measure this particular applicant’s knowledge. In this situation, the employer would need to provide an accessible version of the test (for example, one in which the applicant is able to provide responses orally, rather than manually) as a reasonable accommodation, unless doing so would cause undue hardship. If it is not possible to make the test accessible, the ADA requires the employer to consider providing an alternative test of the applicant’s knowledge as a reasonable accommodation, barring undue hardship.
- An example of screen out might involve a chatbot, which is software designed to engage in communications online and through texts and emails. A chatbot might be programmed with a simple algorithm that rejects all applicants who, during the course of their “conversation” with the chatbot, indicate that they have significant gaps in their employment history. If a particular applicant had a gap in employment, and if the gap had been caused by a disability (for example, if the individual needed to stop working to undergo treatment), then the chatbot may function to screen out that person because of the disability.
- Another kind of screen out may occur if a person’s disability prevents the algorithmic decision-making tool from measuring what it is intended to measure. For example, video interviewing software that analyzes applicants’ speech patterns in order to reach conclusions about their ability to solve problems is not likely to score an applicant fairly if the applicant has a speech impediment that causes significant differences in speech patterns. If such an applicant is rejected because the applicant’s speech impediment resulted in a low or unacceptable rating, the applicant may effectively have been screened out because of the speech impediment.
- [S]ome employers rely on “gamified” tests, which use video games to measure abilities, personality traits, and other qualities, to assess applicants and employees. If a business requires a 90 percent score on a gamified assessment of memory, an applicant who is blind and therefore cannot play these particular games would not be able to score 90 percent on the assessment and would be rejected. But the applicant still might have a very good memory and be perfectly able to perform the essential functions of a job that requires a good memory.
- [S]ome pre-employment personality tests are designed to look for candidates who are similar to the employer’s most successful employees—employees who most likely work under conditions that are typical for that employer. Someone who has Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) might be rated poorly by one of these tests if the test measures a trait that may be affected by that particular individual’s PTSD, such as the ability to ignore distractions. Even if the test is generally valid and accurately predicts that this individual would have difficulty handling distractions under typical working conditions, it might not accurately predict whether the individual still would experience those same difficulties under modified working conditions—specifically, conditions in which the employer provides required on-the-job reasonable accommodations such as a quiet workstation or permission to use noise-cancelling headphones. If such a person were to apply for the job and be screened out because of a low score on the distraction test, the screen out may be unlawful under the ADA. Some individuals who may test poorly in certain areas due to a medical condition may not even need a reasonable accommodation to perform a job successfully.
- [S]uppose that an employer uses an algorithm to evaluate its employees’ productivity, and the algorithm takes into account the employee’s average number of keystrokes per minute. If the employer does not inform its employees that it is using this algorithm, an employee who is blind or has a visual impairment and who uses voice recognition software instead of a keyboard may be rated poorly and lose out on a promotion or other job opportunity as a result. If the employer informs its employees that they will be assessed partly on the basis of keyboard usage, however, that same employee would know to request an alternative means of measuring productivity—perhaps one that takes into account the use of voice recognition software rather than keystrokes—as a reasonable accommodation.
- [I]f a personality test asks questions about optimism, and if someone with Major Depressive Disorder (“MDD”) answers those questions negatively and loses an employment opportunity as a result, the test may “screen out” the applicant because of MDD.
EEOC has some specific suggestions to help you assure you're being assessed fairly:
If you have a medical condition that you think might qualify as an ADA disability and that could negatively affect the results of an evaluation performed by algorithmic decision-making tools, you may want to begin by asking for details about the employer’s use of such tools to determine if it might pose any problems related to your disability. If so, you may want to ask for a reasonable accommodation that allows you to compete on equal footing with other applicants or employees.
For example, if an employer’s hiring process includes a test, you may wish to ask for an accessible format or an alternative test that measures your ability to do the job in a way that is not affected by your disability. To request a reasonable accommodation, you need to notify an employer representative or official (for example, someone in Human Resources) or, if the employer is contracting with a software vendor, the vendor’s representative or the employer, that you have a medical condition, and that you need something changed because of the medical condition to ensure that your abilities are evaluated accurately.
Note that if your disability and need for accommodation are not obvious or already known, you may be asked to submit some medical documentation in support of your request for accommodation. To find out more about asking for reasonable accommodations, see Enforcement Guidance on Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship under the ADA, available at https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/enforcement-guidance-reasonable-accommodation-and-undue-hardship-under-ada.
If you only discover that an algorithmic decision-making tool poses a problem due to your disability after the evaluation process is underway, you should notify the employer or software vendor as soon as you are aware of the problem and ask to be evaluated in a way that accurately reflects your ability to do the job, with a reasonable accommodation if one is legally required.
If you have already received a poor rating generated by an employer’s use of an algorithmic decision-making tool, you should think about whether your health condition might have prevented you from achieving a higher rating. For example, might a disability have negatively affected the results of an assessment, or made it impossible for you to complete an assessment? If so, you could contact the employer or software vendor immediately, explain the disability-related problem, and ask to be reassessed using a different format or test, or to explain how you could perform at a high level despite your performance on the test.
If you have a disability and are getting rejected by computers, or if you are being assessed by means that include computer algorithms, then you might consider contacting an employee-side employment attorney to find out about your rights.