Why Applicant Tracking Systems Need a Human Touch

Suzanne Lucas

Founder, Evil HR Lady

"Thank you for submitting your application. If your qualifications meet our needs, we'll contact you. Otherwise, we'll keep your resume on file for 12 months."

If your company has an online application system, every applicant receives an email like the above. Likewise, when someone applies to a specific job you're sourcing, you get a notice. In theory, online application systems are great — the candidate is notified when her resume is received and your human resources team doesn't have to engage with the candidate unless you want to conduct an actual interview. Applicant tracking systems allow HR professionals to keep on top of numerous requisitions, sort through stacks of resumes without touching a single sheet of paper and run reports to understand the level of interest in any job posting.

But if these systems make the entire hiring process easier, why do job candidates hate them so much? Because they take the "human" out of the process.

The Danger of Asking Questions Without Context

The questions on a standard application form are often intrusive and provide no room for context: Have you applied for a job lately? Have you applied for another job at your company? What was your salary at your last job? The system demands a number, and gives no opportunity for a candidate to explain if a role was part-time at 30 hours a week. As a result, if the recruiter runs a query on salary, some worthy candidates may not show up at all.

Many online applications also require candidates to list references in order to continue. While gathering this information saves time for the recruiter later on, the question can also make applicants nervous, wondering "Are you going to call my reference before an interview?" or "If I mark off 'Please don't contact' next to my current employer, does that take me out of the running?" Applicants don't want to bug their references for a job they have no shot at getting, and they certainly don't want unexpected calls to their current boss.

Here's the problem: As recruiters, hiring managers and HR generalists, we want to know as much as possible about candidates before offering an interview. But in return, we provide candidates with as little information as possible. We communicate when we need to know something, but not when they need to know something. We'll contact a candidate to set up an interview, but we'll rarely contact a candidate to say, "We're not interested."

How to Look Beyond the Checkbox

Since the online application system masks the actual humans behind the process, we easily reduce job seekers to checkboxes. Instead of thinking, "The person who submitted this resume is really interested in this job and holding out hope that we'll give her an interview," we think, "Only three years of experience, a degree in business and no statistical skills. Reject!"

Don't get me wrong, it's critical to consider skills and qualifications. It's important to know when a candidate isn't a good fit. We want to use everyone's time – our time, the hiring manager's time, the candidate's time – strategically. But when we reduce people to checkboxes and keyword searches, we often skip over people who can do the job, but may not have every checkbox filled in.

Consider the value of a college degree. Degrees are awesome. I have a BA and an MA. I love education. But someone with 20 years of experience and no degree isn't necessarily less qualified than someone with two years of experience and a degree. It's important to question why you are looking for someone with a degree in the first place — it's probably not because they need a piece of paper to hang on the wall. It's because having a degree shows you can stick through something difficult and perform. Five years of work experience shows the same thing.

Additionally, when we rely on computers to screen our applicants, we may accidentally reject qualified people just because the keywords are so specific. For example, I recently received an email from a woman who applied for a job as an "undergraduate advisor." The job posting required 3 years of experience. She had 5 years of experience as a "graduate student advisor." She was certainly qualified, but the recruiter didn't pull up her resume because she was looking for something specific. When the candidate reached out to the hiring manager and shared her qualifications in person, the manager quickly pulled her resume out of the system, interviewed her and hired her. But the computer? The computer rejected her.

Applicant tracking systems are efficient, but they can also cause you to miss out on the unique experiences that define a great applicant. It's important to remember to keep the "human" in human resources – use the ATS as a tool, not as the final decision-maker.

Photo: Shutterstock

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