Your ATS is like a Stick in the Eye!

stick in the eye2

This blog is built on the premise that HR, in its relentless pursuit to be more strategic, has over-engineered itself to the detriment of its clients. While this certainly isn’t true in all cases, there are some that deserve a flogging. Generally, the HR community has done a pretty good job of adopting technology into its delivery over the years. It’s given us more power in providing meaningful analytics and  intelligence to the business. And that helps us stay at the table.  There is one technology, however, that I have to hammer on for a minute: Recruitment Management and Applicant Tracking Systems (RMS & ATS).  I understand these systems, I’ve used them, I’ve led teams that rely on them, and I have in fact selected, configured, and implemented them.  I realize they have a place in the recruitment workflow and that they can in fact improve the caliber of hire.  But let me tell you something, dear recruiters: from the candidate’s perspective, these systems suck dirty dish towels.

When I implemented Taleo back in 2004, the number one complaint from my recruiters was that “the candidates are going to hate this; they won’t have the patience to get through the process.” I am astonished to discover that many organizations today still get this wrong. The amount of effort it takes to submit a profile/application/resume to your systems is criminally disrespectful.  To enter your personal contact information again and again, to log in separate fields each and every position held and educational institution attended, to essentially recreate your resume to fit (supposedly) the recruiter’s needs only to lose your work after some technology glitch…it’s silly and stupid and a waste of everyone’s time.  I can hear the proponents already…and here’s what I have to say to them:

  • POINT: By asking the candidate to go through that process, we filter out those who aren’t really interested. COUNTER-POINT: Maybe.  But you’ll also filter out those who may be extremely well positioned for the role, have value on the street, have other options, and don’t have the patience for your process.
  • POINT: Those individual data fields allow us to better filter and search the candidate database. COUNTER-POINT: Get a reliable parsing technology to pull (successfully) that data automatically from an uploaded resume and then search and filter all you want.
  • POINT: We can’t afford said parsing technology. COUNTER-POINT: Then you really can’t afford your ATS.
  • POINT: Once we get a profile, they are in our database for life and we can contact them down the road.  COUNTER-POINT: Nice idea, but it never happens.  You know you rely on “recency” as one of the most important criteria for your sourcing effort.  Profiles go stale, you have others that are front of mind.
  • POINT: The screening questions allow us to filter out unqualified candidates. COUNTER-POINT: Bull-sh%$!  Any one can answer those questions the way you want the ideal candidate to answer them.  You’ll still have to screen their qualifications.
  • POINT: The system helps us track and remain compliant with our EEO requirements. COUNTER-POINT: True.  But you could also have the system do it without having them fill out a complete profile and most of the job boards will do the same thing for you if you choose to use their functionality.
  • POINT: If they don’t like it, they can go look for a job somewhere else. COUNTER-POINT: Exactly…they can and will.

There are of course good arguments for using an ATS, but I’m struggling with whether those arguments outweigh the pain and suffering inflicted on your prospective employees (and your employment brand).  I would argue that a good recruiter (or team) with a good job board and thoughtful sourcing strategies can do everything your ATS can do only better. Try it, your candidates will love it.

Photo Credit: Foundshit

25 Responses to Your ATS is like a Stick in the Eye!
  1. Krista Francis
    June 1, 2010 | 4:07 pm

    Thanks for your post and good reminder to continually work toward a better candidate experience. I’m not giving up my ATS because I think it helps me deliver better customer service, but after reading your post, I went back and tried to make it more doubly clear in more places that people don’t need to fill out information duplicated on their resume.
    Krista Francis´s last blog ..Help! I Dropped an F-Bomb in my Interview! My ComLuv Profile

  2. Charlie
    June 1, 2010 | 6:18 pm

    @krista – so awesome that you went back through the candidate interface with a different set of lenses! we should all do that more often. and even that small effort will make a difference, i’m sure. appreciate your perspective!

  3. John
    June 1, 2010 | 9:53 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly. ATS’ are only as good as the recruiters who truly know how to use them completely.

    Just once I’d like to see a Talent Acquisition Department check their egos at the door and think about the human side of the job search.

    Hubris both personal and organizational, is hard to hide and candidates always see it. No matter how hard you try to hide/stifle/contain it.
    John´s last blog ..CigarSPHR: Work. Its what I do (@ FIU – CBC Building) My ComLuv Profile

  4. Charlie
    June 2, 2010 | 9:13 am

    @John – right on! and this coming from a world-class recruiter! love it! If you don’t mind, i’m adding “Hubris, both personal and organizational, is hard to hide and candidates always see it” to “Fishbowl Logic”.

  5. Brian W.
    June 2, 2010 | 1:37 pm

    Love this post. When I see a system that wants me to fill out pages of information for an application, it gives me the impression that this whole process is automated, that my resume and cover letter are nothing more than keywords. It leaves me a little downtrodden.

  6. John Jorgensen
    June 2, 2010 | 1:39 pm

    Excellent point Charlie. Especially that first point. I have causally looked at some jobs in the past and hit one of those complicated ATS’s and said the hell with it. You select out those very qualified candidates who are not “actively” searching by making the process a pain in the butt.

  7. Sheri
    June 2, 2010 | 1:45 pm

    THANK YOU! I’m not in HR, so not your target blog audience, but boy oh boy, have I been on the receiving end of what you describe!

    I can’t even articulate the frustration I felt spending 45 min, 60 min or more crafting a customized, intelligent application and cover letter targeted to the exact role offered…only to hit “apply” and see it all disappear from the screen. Like an idiot, I tried again and again. Then to add insult to injury, I – as the user – am blamed each time in the error messages – of course, it’s ME who did something wrong! (It’s right out of a Dilbert cartoon.)

    I greatly respect the value of other people’s time – and it annoys me when companies show such an obvious disregard for mine. This probably sounds arrogant…and I’m really not. I’m a nice person – but you’re right, I have a list of those companies with the worst systems and will NEVER apply there again. And P.S. they DID lose an excellent candidate!

    Thanks for letting me vent…

  8. tinderbox
    June 2, 2010 | 1:48 pm

    Great, great column. Might I add another suggestion? Given the variations in ATS processes from company to company, how’s about giving the user/candidate information a roadmap of the process before they begin? This introductory page could include:

    1. The date of the position posting. (And if you’re really gutsy, how about the status of the search, such as reviewing candidates, pending hire.)

    2. An outline of the steps required to complete the ATS application. If you’re going to make people re-enter text, manage their expectations up front, so they know if this is a task that they can fit in before breakfast or if it will require an entire evening.)

    3. Details about the resume/cover letter upload process. (It’s irritating to get to screen 3 only to learn that the ATS doesn’t accept a Word doc, or a PDF doc, or that there’s not a separate field for cover letter entry.)

  9. Chris
    June 2, 2010 | 1:49 pm

    I think the key to an ATS is that you measure the value on both sides of the fence. On the company side of things, having the technology and all that comes with it has become a mandatory part of recruiting. Not to mention that most ATS systems today allow you to integrate several systems and probably make your process more efficient and timely reducing your overall process time allowing for a candidate’s experience to actually be shorter, more concise and much more of a positive experience.

    On the candidate’s side of things, I feel they have probably come to understand that the ATS is part of the equation for applying and getting a job. I would even venture to say that most candidates would actually discount those companies without the technology as being not very up to date or accessible. With the online application and ATS systems, our recruitment doors are open 24/7. But I strongly agree that if you don’t give them a tool that is easy to use and quick, they could run away and hide.

    The reality is that we can’t live without an ATS anymore. But we can stay focused on the candidate experience and make sure we use a tool that works for everyone.

  10. linda
    June 2, 2010 | 1:57 pm

    the point-counter points are right on! If you are searching from a job board and have a completed resume, that answers the very same questions, an hour’s worth of duplication is NOT worth the effort. Anyone using Taleo or the various other programs are not making it user friendly. I’d rather take a pass that get stuck in some endless loop and have it go nowhere. The companies that use these generally never acknowledge receipt of a resume or application anyway so that further frustrates.

    While the strong thought is there that it weeds out the truly uninterested, it also sends a serious message to any potential recruit….. if you are like this in the recruiting process, what kind of place will it be to work for???? More of the same cookie cutter get lost in the shuffle “bs” …..

    I’ve been unemployed with the exception of temp jobs for almost 3yrs, but when I see one of these ATS things pop up, I hit exit as quickly as I can, they are a waste of time.

  11. Kristi Enigl
    June 2, 2010 | 2:11 pm

    Thank you for telling the truth! I am x-HR, hiring manager, and recruiter, so I know ATS. Now I am a career coach, and I work with the job seekers that are forced to humiliate themselves by filling in High School info after 20 years of working and six-figure salaries.
    I recently visited a few company’s sites and tried to fill out their online applications – just to get a feel of what my clients are going through – and geeze…..I was so insulted by one ATS that I am now boycotting the restaurant because their online app was very intrusive and personal – they actually wanted my SSN???!!! Outrageous, I say.
    In my humble opinion, those companies don’t deserve the top talent they seek.
    Kristi Enigl, Career Consultant

  12. Charlie
    June 2, 2010 | 3:00 pm

    @Brian – “downtrodden” is right on point!

    @John J – if you’re saying “to hell with it,” someone is missing out on a fantastic candidate!

    @Sheri – venting feels good, doesn’t it. pretty much all i do these days…thanks for sharing yours, though, and i apologize on behalf of all those thoughtless recruiters out there for your frustrations.

    @Tinderbox – love your recommendations; all of them would add tremendous value to the candidate experience. seems so simple, doesn’t it?

    @Chris – thanks for highlighting the other side of this story as well. i think you summed it all up, though, with: “if you don’t give them a tool that is easy to use and quick, they could run away and hide.”

    @linda – no question that an employer’s employment brand is heavily influenced by one’s interactions with that employer from day 1. and this whole ATS thing could certainly cause you to think twice. well said!

    @kristi – thanks for validating this with real-life experiences. i hadn’t thought of it as being “humiliating” but i can totally see that. thanks for keeping your good people focused on landing where they belong!

  13. Kathleen Smith- ClearedJobsNet
    June 2, 2010 | 3:32 pm

    Thanks for this! As we move from branding to the employment brand companies are going to have to think about how they start the conversation with candidates and if the first door way is an ATS system – with super small font, unclear directions, numerous duplicate questions – the company has already demonstrated their employment brand to the candidate and they will high tail it somewhere else.

  14. Joel A White, MPA, SPHR
    June 3, 2010 | 7:41 am

    Recruitment management and Applicant Tracking systems are the bane of Human Resources…..they support lazy, unskilled and poorly trained recruitment department staff members; and as you alluded, probably exist more to collect EEOC data than to actually recruit candidates.

    Great article.


  15. Charlie
    June 3, 2010 | 9:09 am

    @Kathleen – really like this notion of how companies “start the conversation with candidates”. The ATS is kind of a non-starter, isn’t it! Thanks!

    @Joel – love it…”the bane of Human Resources.” the trick is who sits behind the system and as you noted, too often it’s someone who doesn’t really give a rat’s…Thanks!

  16. jordan
    June 3, 2010 | 10:06 am

    Curious. How long is the period of time before a ATS resume goes stale?

  17. Jeff
    June 7, 2010 | 1:27 pm

    So where can we find a reasonably affordable ATS that fits this category?

  18. Nick Leigh-Morgan
    June 8, 2010 | 4:04 pm


    Enjoyed this article and couldn’t agree more that’s why I thought you might be interested to have a look at a free ATS that we’ve just launched which is built on the principle that if we need to show someone how to use it, then it’s too complicated.

    Oh, and did I mention that it’s completely free? All feedback welcome.


  19. Kirk Baumann
    June 9, 2010 | 2:29 pm

    Thank you for posting this!! It’s what we’re all thinking at one point or another. I applied at a company once that had required me to enter my information into their ATS – it took 3 HOURS! If I didn’t really want the job, I wouldn’t have completed it. I think I may have taken a short nap in the middle….

    Great post, excellent points, and very up-front about everything. That’s what I like about you, man!

    PS. Next time I’m in STL, we’ll have to connect. Would love to meet you!
    Kirk Baumann´s last blog ..Finding True Career Happiness – Culture Counts!My ComLuv Profile

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  21. John Hunter
    July 3, 2010 | 7:24 am

    I agree. I admit I don’t really know what should be done to improve the hiring process. But I am pretty confident that the process, as practiced now, is very inefficient (for both hiring organizations and applicants) and has tons of room for improvement. The “improvement” of the sort of make things difficult for applicants to make it easier for organizations is not what I call improvement. It just shifts burdens. And as you point out – you will scare away not just unqualified people but also people that may be your best future employees.
    John Hunter´s last blog ..USA Economy Lost 125-000 Jobs and Unemployment Rate Decreased to 95My ComLuv Profile

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  25. Alexis Perrier
    October 7, 2010 | 5:00 am

    Thank you for pointing this out. As a candidate I’ve spent so much time fighting the poorly designed and clumsy career web sites of some of the most important Fortune 500 companies.
    I’ve written a blog post on that at The candidate and your ATS.
    I’m also creating a new ATS system with that particular problem in mind. How to ease up the candidate application process and stop asting his or her time.
    Alexis Perrier´s last blog ..The candidate and your ATSMy ComLuv Profile

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