Why your ATS may be killing your recruiting efforts

Applicant tracking systems get a bad rap for a reason -- many are clunky, hard to use and difficult to calibrate. But that doesn't mean you should ditch them entirely. Here’s how to improve your ATS.

it resume makeover
Credit: Thinkstock

Applicant tracking systems (ATS) get a bad rap for a good reason. From a candidate's perspective, they're often difficult to use, clunky and there's no way to tell if your qualifications are ever actually reviewed by a human being. For companies, however, the ATS can be a lifesaver; streamlining the application process and making screening candidates much more efficient. And therein lies the rub, as the saying goes: how to walk the line between delivering what candidates need in the sourcing and screening process and easing the administrative hassles on the hiring company's side?

"In our own client research, we see 75 percent of them using an ATS of some kind, and of those, 94 percent say it improves their hiring process. That's a 180-degree difference from what candidates see -- they tell us the hiring process is frustrating, fraught with bugs and glitches, they have to manually enter information in duplicate, and then -- poof! They're never sure if it even is reviewed by a human," says J.P. Medved, a recruiting software specialist with Capterra, a software research and comparison service that helps businesses find the best software solution for their needs.

That disconnect is crucially important as companies face increased competition for talent, and sites like Glassdoor offer an open, anonymous forum for candidates, job seekers and the currently employed to share their experiences from recruitment to hire, Medved says.

[ Related stories: How to beat applicant tracking systems ]

The human element

Many next-generation ATS solutions are focused on improving the candidate experience by making it easier and more accessible to apply to hiring companies. It's an approach Aberdeen Research refers to as Hiring Success Management. In a nutshell, it's an updated, innovative ATS-type solution that uses data and analytics to continually update candidate profiles and gauge the success of specific hiring sources and more efficiently leverages technology so that HR departments are making the right talent connections at the right time, according to the Aberdeen report, Hiring Success Management: Moving Beyond the ATS.

Leveraging newer and innovative technology allows companies to hire faster and with higher quality results while putting greater emphasis on the human element to better connect with candidates for open roles, and to build up a pipeline of potential future candidates.

"Finding talent and recruiting is one of the most human of endeavors, but so often the human element is left out of the equation. Recruiting should take a page from marketing's playbook to focus on finding and connecting with people the same way marketing does -- only your candidates are your consumers," says Leela Srinivasan, CMO for ATS and recruiting software solutions company Lever.

If you're replacing an aging ATS or if you're a startup looking for an initial solution, your research should focus on the candidate experience and the application interface. The best technology today allows for extensive user interaction without a lot of commitment -- like requiring a login and a password, says Srinivasan. That makes it more likely that a candidate will interact with software without feeling forced to do so.

"Legacy systems make applying for a position a really terrible process. It's very off-putting to candidates who want a much lighter touch, especially if they're using it on their mobile device or a tablet. I would caution anyone against a system that makes candidates create a login and then go through the process of filling out a million forms or duplicating information, especially since so much of that is available through LinkedIn and other professional social networks," Srinivasan says.

Newer systems can facilitate better interactions with potential candidates over time, even if they're passive. In the past, it's been difficult for companies to keep track of potential candidates, and many are lost because of bad timing. The new generation of ATS solutions were designed with this in mind; timing is a critical element of today's recruiting landscape and being in touch with the right candidate at the right time can be a major competitive advantage, she says.

"So many companies are finding that a continuing conversation with a potential candidate can help unearth what their motivations are, why and when they would make a move. Say I'm a candidate, happy at my current job, but I get an email from a company I would love to work for. That's great -- but I have a bonus coming up in a couple months, or maybe I'm reaching a vesting milestone. Now isn't the right time, but maybe later -- at Lever we call that 'snoozing' a candidate, and we can flag in our system when to go back and resume a conversation with that person," Srinivasan says.

Companies spend an inordinate amount of time and energy on finding, attracting and getting people to apply for open positions, but with traditional ATS, those candidates who aren't hired to fill a role are shelved. With legacy systems, it's surprisingly difficult to search for candidates within these systems, so unless a candidate applies for another role, or there happens to be a recruiter or hiring manager who remembers seeing their resume, you may have missed out, she says.

"Say you have an Android developer role open, and you get a bunch of candidates, interview a couple, and you find a great one and hire them. What happens to the ones who don't get hired? Maybe they'd be great in another part of the company. Or maybe you'll have a similar role open up eight months down the road -- you have to be able to easily go back and say, 'Let's not reinvent the wheel and start an entirely new search if we don't have to! Here are those other Android engineers we also interviewed but weren't quite a fit, maybe we can talk to them again,'" Srinivasan says.

[ Related stories: How to win the war for IT talent ]

Testing and tweaking

What if you're stuck with a traditional, or legacy ATS? There are steps you can take to make the system work more effectively and efficiently, and to smooth the process for candidates, says Capterra's Medved. It all starts with seeing things from the candidate's perspective, identifying hiccups, bugs and frustrations, and working to eliminate those.

Start by ensuring applicants understand upfront what the application process is like, what steps they need to take, how long they'll need to enter information and how quickly they'll get a response, he says. This can be a short paragraph within the job description or on your careers site -- optimized for mobile, of course. If you have the option to add a hotline for problems or questions that will connect applicants to a live person, so much the better, or even a live chat feature that can help if they run into problems with the process or with the software, he says.

"Now, understand that this type of service is going to get some pushback from leadership - after all, one of the business cases for an ATS is that it will automate the application process and alleviate pressure on HR to answer phones or emails about open positions. But you want to remember that, if your candidates are your 'customers,' that level of 'customer satisfaction' may be key to keeping them engaged in the process," Medved says.

[ Related stories: Anonymous employee feedback only tells part of the story ]

Put yourself in the candidate's shoes

You also should have current employees approach the system from the candidate side by filling out an application and going through the process as if they were applying for a job, he says. This can easily highlight flaws in the process, software bugs or annoyances that could deter people from applying. Test for all sorts of variables: different browsers, different hardware, mobile devices, etc., he says. Another place to look is with an ATS's keyword filtering settings, Medved says. Grab the resumes of a few of your top performers and run them through the system -- you might be surprised by how many are rejected.

"You have to find where in the process your ATS may be hindering you. Does it make it overly long? Are you asking people to fill out personal and professional data twice? When they 'click to submit', does the system just erase everything? Is it rejecting ideal candidates for spurious reasons, like formatting? You might be losing ideal, wonderful candidates for reasons that are irrelevant to whether or not they can perform well in a role, and this is not acceptable in the current talent war," Medved says.

Once you've tested, then you can start tweaking your system to ensure you're filtering candidates correctly, fixing bugs and working on customization, according to Medved.

ATS solutions do get a bad rap, and for some companies, that's deservedly so. But there's a reason recruiters and hiring managers use them -- they do work. They can make the application process easier and more efficient if you just make sure that your ATS solution is working for you and not against you.

Related Video

This story, "Why your ATS may be killing your recruiting efforts" was originally published by CIO.