The computer is going through your CV now

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WHEN an employer asks for applications to be type-written or word-processed, do not assume that it is just to allow a personnel officer to read the forms quicker. There is a strong chance it will be a computer system that sorts through the forms, and draws up the shortlist for interview.

Alan Whitford is managing director of Resumix, which produces advanced software to automate much of the selection process. He says candidates should not fear this development, which is, he argues, as much to the benefit of the applicant as it is to the employer. Candidates can be assured that automated shortlisting will chose people on merit and without unfair discrimination, relying on overt criteria, he adds.

"Our software uses rules to identify the skills of the individual," says Mr Whitford. "It draws out both the technical skills, such as computing or engineering, and social competencies, like management and leadership- type skills. It uses 150,000 knowledge rules, which analyse how the English language is utilised. It uses the rules that you or I would use when reading CVs to highlight words or phrases - as we would do with a highlight pen - to point out that a candidate was president of the chess club, or led an exhibition down the Zambezi, suggesting leadership skills.

"The system is not looking just at individual rules, but at the context in which they are used," adds Mr Whitford. So if it is seeking a proven manager it differentiates between a CV indicating a person has managerial experience, from one which states an ambition to become a manager.

Mr Whitford told a recent conference of the Institute of Personnel and Development how his system worked, hoping to persuade more of the country's top human resource directors to become customers. But the software is not a new product. It has been used for the last 10 years in the United States, and in Britain for five years. Customers include leading computer companies EDS and ICL, as well as some top recruitment agencies and universities.

One of the benefits of the software is that generalist personnel managers can shortlist on behalf of specialist departments, using the software to vet for particular technical skills.

For example, a computer department may require an operator with Unisys experience, but it may not be apparent from an application form whether previous operational work used Unisys equipment. The software will analyse the experience to conclude whether a person has worked with Unisys or not. Employers and recruitment agencies use Resumix not just for immediate vacancies, but also to build up a database of potential recruits (this has been cleared as permitted under data protection legislation). Although an applicant might not be considered as qualified for the job they applied for, their details will be held on record and automatically re-considered for new vacancies.

"All CVs that come in will be matched against all vacant jobs," explains Mr Whitford. "In the normal course of recruitment that would never happen except by accident around the coffee machine or in the gym. It does enable applicants to go for jobs they did not even know existed, and creates an opportunity to hold a bank of skills for other jobs that come up. For most of us, our filing cabinet is in our brains - not the best place for it."

It can also speed up the process of shortlisting. Instead of waiting for a group of managers to all have a few hours to spare to go through piles of forms, a personnel officer can just leave the computer to sort through the applications and produce a suggested list for interview. If the shortlist is too long or short, the manager will refine the criteria until the right number of potential interviewees is produced.

The risk is that changing the criteria could put an employer in breach of equal opportunities legislation, so managers must be clear that the final criteria used in shortlisting is consistent with the essential and desirable qualifications spelt out in the advertisement. Provided that there is no fiddling with the criteria in order to exclude people on grounds of race, sex or disability, the system will also give an employer a stronger defence where discrimination is alleged by an unsuccessful applicant.

Applicants who lie will stand a better chance to be shortlisted, but, as with any system, should not be appointed if recruitment managers do their job properly.

Resumix will only work if an application is submitted in type-written or computer processed form, because the software uses character recognition software that will not work with handwriting. This means that employers wanting to do a character assessment using psychometric testing cannot use the same forms for both purposes.