ACLU asks FTC to probe Aon AI employment assessment tools for bias

Dive Brief:

  • AI-based tools that are used millions of times a year by organizations worldwide to screen job candidates have a built-in bias against people with autism and other disabilities and also discriminate by race, the American Civil Liberties Union says in a complaint filed May 30 with the Federal Trade Commission.
  • “Aon falsely claims that its assessments are bias-free, and yet its assessments carry an unacceptably high risk of screening people out based on who they are and not whether they can do the job, particularly on the basis of race or disabilities,” says Olga Akselrod, an ACLU senior attorney.
  • In an emailed statement to Legal Dive, an Aon spokesperson said the tools are intended to be fair to everyone. “The design and implementation of our assessment solutions — which clients use in addition to other screenings and reviews — follow industry best practices as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, legal and professional guidelines,” the statement said.

Dive Insight:

The ACLU is asking the FTC to look into whether the tools violate Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair and deceptive trade practices. A similar complaint is pending with the EEOC.  

The tools are unfair because people with autism or other mental health disabilities are structurally prone to perform poorly on them, the organization says.  

One tool, called ADEPT-15, is a personality test that identifies characteristics that are close proxies of people with mental health disabilities, the complaint says. A video interview tool, vidAssessAI, uses AI to highlight applicants’ personality traits, based on the ADEPT-15 test. And a third tool, gridChallenge, uses games to assess cognitive function and favors people – mostly those who are white – who do well on numerical and deductive reasoning tests that are structured a certain way.    

There’s also deception going on, the ACLU says, because Aon touts the tests as a way for employers to help ensure their practices don’t discriminate. 

“Aon’s websites, blog posts, and promotional fact sheets repeatedly market its assessments as having no adverse impact, as being bias-free or reducing bias, as improving diversity, as developed to be culturally responsive, and as suitable for evaluating people with disabilities,” the complaint says.  

But the opposite is the case, the ACLU says. 

ADEPT-15 asks questions that track closely with assessments that health professionals use to diagnose autism and other mental health disabilities. It asks, for example, how much an applicant agrees with a statement about reading people’s emotions, such as “I have difficulty determining how someone feels by looking at their face.” 

Having a hard time reading people’s faces is closely associated with autism, so people who agree with statements like that are more likely to be screened out of the application process. 

“The inherent overlap between ADEPT-15 personality constructs and characteristics that are closely related to diagnostic criteria for autism and [other] mental health disabilities … means that people with such disabilities are likely to be disadvantaged on tests using these measures,” the complaint says. 

The video interview platform doubles down on the bias by using AI to identify remarks by applicants that track the ADEPT-15 assessment, the complaint says. 

And the gridChallenge tool, which measures cognitive ability, is biased based on Aon’s own research, the complaint says. A test the company conducted shows disparities in average scores based on race. 

“Aon reported that assessment-takers who were Asian, Black, Hispanic or Latino, or of two or more ethnicities, all scored lower than white assessment-takers on average,” the complaint says. “The largest difference in average scores compared to white assessment-takers was for Black assessment-takers.”

In addition to asking the FTC to investigate the tests for discrimination, the ACLU wants the agency to enjoin Aon from making deceptive claims in its marketing and to pause the sale of the tests until it makes changes that end the discrimination.