PepsiCo hires robots to interview job candidates

The food and drinks multinational is using artificial intelligence software, known as Robot Vera, to phone and interview candidates as it seeks to fill vacancies for factory, sales workers and drivers in Russia

PepsiCo, the food and drinks manufacturer with retail sales of more than $1bn a year, is using artificial intelligence (AI) software to find and interview candidates to fill vacancies in Russia.

The company is using technology known as Robot Vera, developed by a Russian startup, to conduct telephone interviews with job hunters, and answer their questions about advertised jobs.

The robot recruiter is capable of interviewing 1,500 job candidates in nine hours, a task that would take human recruiters nine weeks, said Natalya Sumbaeva, talent acquisition manager for Russia and the CIS.

Vera frees HR staff from routine, non-interesting work, she said. “They can spend their time to better support hiring managers, working with databases, do better assessments and provide more training.”

PepsiCo has programmed Robot Vera, which uses advanced speech recognition software, to make calls to potential candidates, freeing up its recruitment team for other work.

It is using Vera to screen candidates for blue-collar jobs, such, fork-lift truck drivers and factory workers, and for recruiting sales representatives.

The software can scan CVs automatically on job sites and phones candidates with the right qualifications, making up to 10,000 phone calls simultaneously. 

Candidates are greeted with the message: “Hello, I am Vera, I am a robot. I work with PepsiCo. Are you looking for a job now?”

The software, which can respond to yes or no answers, can check what vacancies exist for the position the candidate is interested in, and then asks follow-up questions to determine whether the candidate is suitable.

For example, Vera will ask people applying for work as delivery drivers whether they have the right type of driving licence and previous driving experience.

If they don’t have the right qualifications, Vera will politely end the conversation. The software can also forward transcripts of the interview to a human recruiter to make a final decision.

Vera can also send candidates details of the job they are interested in by email, and send text message reminders of the time and date of the interview, which may be with Vera or a human interviewer.

PepsiCo is also using Vera to answer calls from candidates enquiring about vacancies.

The company advertises vacancies in job boards and newspapers in Russia, which attracts calls from candidates seeking further information about the role and the salary. Each call can take between three and five minutes.

PepsiCo first used Vera in a project last year, which required the HR team to fill 250 job vacancies in two months, for a sales support centre in Voronezh, a city in western Russia, about 500km south of Moscow.

“We had limited resources and we started to analyse the market for technology to find out what kind of technology could help us,” said Sumbaeva.

The company tested Robot Vera in the winter of 2017 with a range of job candidates in different locations. After each test, recruiters called the candidate to ask whether they felt confident being interviewed by a robot.

“Some 95% of candidates told us it was interesting, inspiring, great, something new,” said Sumbaeva.

PepsiCo used Vera to phone 1,500 potential job candidates for the sales support centre, including support specialists, analytics experts and people with trade and promotional expertise.

More than 400 said they were interested, PesiCo approved 52 and hired 15. The company relied on recommendations and human recruiters for the rest of the staff.

Sumbaeva said the success rate from cold calls made by Vera matches the success rate by human recruiters, but Vera can complete the work in less than one-fifth of the time.

Inside the mind of Vera

Robot Vera, developed by Stafory, a 50-person startup in St Petersburg, uses speech recognition tools from Amazon, Google and Microsoft, and Russian technology company Yandex. 

Programmers have trained Vera, which uses self-learning software known as a neural network, with 13 billion words taken from Wikipedia, television series, and the text of 10,000 vacancies, plus interview questions.

The software can recognise, for example, that when a truck driver asks “what about the money?” and a sales rep asks “what is the remuneration system in your company?” that they are both asking questions about salary.

Recruiters can access Vera through web browsers, where they can see the contact details of candidates, and whether they are interested in pursuing an application for a vacancy further.

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PepsiCo plans to expand its use of Vera to screen candidates for entry-level positions in Russia, while the company’s divisions in other countries, particularly Eastern Europe, are also considering adopting the technology.

Initial results suggest the technology can halve the time it takes to fill vacancies compared with a human recruiter.

PepsiCo is also looking at the possibility of using Vera to conduct exit interviews with people leaving the company, next year. In some cases, it may be easier for people who may have negative feelings to speak to a robot rather than a human.

Another project under discussion will use Vera to contact job candidates who go through PepsiCo’s selection process, to ask them for feedback. Over time, this will help the company to improve its recruitment processes.

Vera also has the ability to conduct video interviews, which allow candidates to interact with an animated avatar of Vera. PepsiCo may use this option in future for interviewing sales reps.

“We could probably use video interviews for the short-listed sales representatives to see how they look, how they present themselves,” said Sumbaeva. “After the interview, recruiters could watch them and make a final list.”

Robots made staff nervous

When PepsiCo first introduced Vera, some recruiters felt nervous about using the new technology, said Sumbaeva in an interview at an industry conference for HR and IT professionals.

She arranged briefings for the HR team and recruitment supervisors to explain the technology’s capabilities, and gave recruiters the opportunity to play and program Vera.

“We needed time to change our perception,” said Sumbaeva in an interview at the Unleash conference in London. “It has taken six to nine months to reprogramme our people.”

Robot Vera’s developers are training the software in the laboratory to ask questions that go beyond a simple yes or no answer.

Stafory has supplied Vera to about 250 companies with operations in Russia, including Coca-Cola HBC, Raiffesen bank, Schlumberger and Rostelecom. It has also begun pilots in Dubai.

Alexey Kostarev, co-founder of Robot Vera, said recruiters spend some 33% of their working time searching for CVs or posting vacancies and 27% on “cold” calls and qualifying questions. Vera can automate both processes, freeing up to 60% of their time.

To date, Vera has identified one million relevant CVs from CV databases, made 440,000 calls and conducted 2,300 interviews.

“Our big goal is to move closer to a live dialogue of a human with a robot,” said Kostarev. “It is a big deal and nobody in the world has solved this task.”

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