Question

I’ve successfully searched for work for over 20 years. I always lead with what I can do for an employer and with my ability to learn quickly, and I get hired. But it’s getting harder to find a manager to explain that to! Now it’s ATS this and ATS that. Applicant Tracking Systems don’t ask what you can do or what you can learn. They just want you to dump your data into the bit bucket so they can sort you out. But data about your experience is not useful information until a qualified person reviews it, and the ATS is designed to keep qualified judges away from you as long as possible! No wonder it takes thousands of applicants to fill a job. You’ve written a lot about ATSes. Please give me your low-down.

Nick’s Reply

Pre-historic Applicant Tracking SystemMy good buddy Paul Solman at PBS NewsHour shared with me the most concise description of Applicant Tracking Systems that I’ve seen, an article by Wahyd Vannoni, What are Applicant Tracking Systems? How Do They Rank Potential Candidates? It’s nice and brief and although it wasn’t Vannoni’s intent, it highlights everything that’s wrong with ATSes and how they are used. (It also includes a list of ATS vendors. Bet you didn’t know there are so many!)

I think you put your finger on the fatal problem: Relying on an ATS to select and hire workers isolates the job applicant from the person best qualified to judge them – the hiring manager. That’s how employers miss some of the best candidates and why they frequently interview and hire the wrong ones. It’s why you’re frustrated.

It’s virtually impossible to apply for a job today without encountering an ATS, so it’s worth taking a close look at what we subject ourselves to when we let an ATS process our data. Let’s look at Vannoni’s key points about what ATSes are and how they, uh, work.

Lie #1: An ATS manages the entire hiring process.

“An Applicant Tracking System (ATS) is a software tool that streamlines the recruitment process for companies. It is designed to manage the entire hiring process, from posting job openings to screening candidates to scheduling interviews and hiring.”

If the promise of the ATS were fulfilled, who would need an HR department? That’s what the text implies. We know it’s not true.

Companies take their most important competitive edge — the ability to hire the best people — and turn it over to be managed by an ATS, which can be generously called a bag of algorithms that don’t work well, if at all.

Investigative journalist Hilke Schellmann has laid this out compellingly in her book, The Algorithm. (See The A.I. Job Interview: You need to know why it’s crap.) These systems are biased, indefensibly reductionist, and about as smart as a cocker spaniel pup that pees exactly where it peed last time because the spot smells like pee. In today’s competitive hiring market, ATSes can’t deliver as promised. If they did, we wouldn’t need HR.

Lie #2: An ATS is a database of candidate information that makes job matches.

“At its core, an ATS is a database that collects and stores candidate information. When a job opening is posted, the ATS will scan resumes and cover letters for relevant keywords and phrases, and then rank the candidates based on how closely their skills and experience match the job requirements.”

A database does not store information. It stores data. (“Data on its own has no meaning. It only takes on meaning and becomes information when it is interpreted.” -University of Cambridge) More accurately, data collected by an ATS is strings of ASCII symbols that have no inherent meaning like words do. It is a very simple pattern-matching system made to look “smart” because the computers behind it can process staggering numbers of patterns faster than we can conceive.

Matches are made based on how closely one pattern matches another. There is no information, there are no skills, there is no experience, and other than a list of ASCII characters masquerading as semantic entities we call words — and there is no “job requirement.” This is precisely why ATSes can process millions of candidate database records per second. They need millions of those records in order to demonstrate that pattern-matching can sometimes work.

Try an experiment: Give the ATS just 5 records that describe 5 people accurately but include none of the magic ASCII strings and the ATS fails. Try it with a million people and it will perform like a boiler room of monkeys tapping on old Royal typewriters.

Wharton researcher Peter Cappelli tells the story of a corporate executive who asked why, after 14,000 engineers applied to fill a couple of routine engineering jobs, his HR department’s ATS deemed none of them worth interviewing. I’ll bet any engineering manager could screen 20 of those applications, interview three and recommend a good one to hire that would perform well.

Lie #3: An ATS removes bias from hiring and ensures fairness.

“In addition to streamlining the recruitment process, an ATS can also help companies stay compliant with Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws by ensuring that each candidate is evaluated fairly and consistently. It can also help to reduce bias in the hiring process by removing personal information such as name, address, and age from the initial screening process.”

Here’s where naivete and ignorance about the ATS industry shine forth. I’ll direct you again to Schellmann’s book, and I can show you 10 more links like this: Amazon scraps secret AI recruiting tool that showed bias against women.

ATS and AI vendors market the hell out of “Eliminates bias!” We now know that algorithms can actually introduce more biases.

Lie #4: An ATS saves time and money and results in better hires.

“Overall, an ATS is a powerful tool that can save companies time and money by automating many of the time-consuming tasks associated with recruiting. By using an ATS, companies can more easily identify and attract top talent, ultimately leading to better hires and a stronger workforce.”

First, saving time and money and automating tasks tells us nothing about the single most important metric in a business endeavor like hiring: accuracy. ATSes sacrifice accuracy for volume. But more is not better.

You can build a machine to crush 10 tons of stone per hour, but how much will you pay for one of these if the output you want is wheat flour? ATSes do not produce hires; they produce matches of ASCII strings. No reading between the lines is possible until all of those 14,000 engineer applicants have already been rejected.

Lie #5: If we keep saying it, ATSes will actually work!

Vannoni did a nice job in his brief survey article about ATSes. He clearly gauged it for readers who want the basics. That’s why there’s not a word about the impacts on the job applicants who are subjected to the wonders of ATSes that save companies money and time.

But I do have a beef with Vannoni because he should know better. He’s a communications consultant and marketing professor. Having an MBA, it’s frankly stunning that he doesn’t apply the test all MBA programs teach their students: Where’s the outcomes analysis?

What does it matter how clever the ATS appears if we’re not going to discuss whether it works and how well? But we forget how good marketers are at selling benefits. That is, it’s all about what you can get a market to swallow.

  • It manages the whole hiring process!
  • It matches jobs with the right candidates!
  • It eliminates bias and ensures legal compliance!
  • It saves money and delivers better hires!

While I was writing for NewsHour, I interviewed CareerBuilder, one of the leading job boards. I asked about outcomes. What’s the job-filling and job-finding success rate? 57% of all jobs are filled by CareerBuilder, they said. Can I see the data? Well, we don’t release that. 57%. I’m still laughing.

My low-down is that I’ve had a standing challenge to ATS and job board companies: Where is your outcomes analysis? Show us the data about results. None have done it.

What lies have you been told about ATSes and how they’re going to help employers hire you? Do you have examples of how ATSes work or don’t work?

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16 Comments
  1. I’ve been recently told by multiple resume writers on Linkedin that if I pay for an”ATS” resume it will guarantee me a job, well that’s a lot of bullcrap! I created an “ATS” resume using an “ATS” resume template and have tried it on a handful of job postings that use ATS systems and I am not receiving any special treatment, I am still being rejected through an automated message. An ATS system is doing the job of lazy recruiters who do not want to spend more than 10 minutes perusing a candidate’s resume. When I was employed as a Human Capital Business Partner,I only used the ATS systems to gather the candidate’s data, i.e resume, and the rest of the recruiting process was done by reviewing the paper resume and discussing the qualifications with the hiring manager. How can one bypass an ATS?

    • @Jo: No snark intended – you bypass the ATS by not submitting a resume or application to it. Please check David’s excellent suggestion below. ATSes are not to be trifled with. They’re the high-tech Droid suit HR dons to avoid having to “touch” other human beings. They can pulverize you with rejection. Go find some humans to talk to!

      • That’s easier said than done! Trying to get someone on the phone for services you pay for is non-existent, so just think trying to speak to a HUMAN who doesn’t know you, is like I don’t exist Everyone is busy hiding behind their email, text, and voicemails if you can get a number for them. I’ve connected with HR groups that allege to engage in monthly networking activities and so far that is also a bust. I read David’s posting and that sounds great, but I can assure you it is not a NY-based story.

        • @Jo Ann: There is nothing easy about this, and the bad habits we form (using ATSes, relying on job postings and resumes, etc.) are very hard to break.

          If your HR meetings are about job hunting, you’re not likely to get much out of them. If they’re serious work-related gatherings, it’s important to move slowly. Real networking takes time. I know you don’t want it to be that way, but it’s how things really work.

          Some how-to suggestions:
          https://www.asktheheadhunter.com/11709/good-networking

          I’m sorry you’re having a hard time. I know it’s not easy. But it’s not worth continuing on the same approach.

        • @Jo Ann Bullard “I read David’s posting and that sounds great, but I can assure you it is not a NY-based story.”

          I don’t know what location has to do with it, but I am in the New York City area and so are my experiences. I attend industry workshops and presentations in Manhattan often, and I make contact with others there who sit at my table and those doing the presentations. Everyone is wearing a name tag and it contains their company name. Many are bored going to these things or looking at it as another way to get paid and get out of the office while their meals and snacks are taken care of. They are away from the office so you can make casual conversations with them. But you are forming a relationship, don’t come across like you are are job hunting or trying to sell them life insurance. Find a reason to stay in touch, even if it is to email them to tell them about another event that might be good.

  2. I’m an IT professional with decades of experience. As you might have noticed, many companies use the same template for job descriptions and don’t change the requirements even though they are for different jobs. The job descriptions don’t even detail what is most important to the hiring manager. So peppering your resume with keywords from the job description isn’t a guarantee of success, since you don’t know really what they are looking for.

    I know exactly how to defeat ATS or any software application like it. But most are far too lazy to do it. Furthermore, you don’t have to be technical to accomplish this.

    Good companies pay referral bonuses to employees who refer an applicant who they hire. The bonus is paid after a few months to the referring employee. This means that the company values referrals from their employees so much they are willing to pay thousands for this in many companies.

    So this is what a job seeker should do. Identify these good companies which pay referral bonuses and network with people who work there. You do this by going to industry events, workshops, training sessions, user group meetings, meetups, etc. You make contact with their employees and get them to give you feedback on your resume and ask if they would refer you to the active job posting, and send it directly to the hiring manager and talk with them on your behalf, and get the inside scoop on what the hiring manager is really looking for. I know someone who did this recently and this turned into an interview.

    If you do the above, then the employee who referred you can track the process and bring you to the attention of the hiring manager. They have $$$ to be paid in doing this, so they can be your advocate. This is a way to bypass ATS like software, because even if the referred applicants does make the ATS cut, there is still the hiring manager who contacts HR and makes a request to put the referred applicant on the interview list.

    Don’t spin your wheels trying to be clever to trick ATS like software in giving your resume a much more weighted score.

    • @David: We have a winner! Leveraging employee referral programs is a great spin on my “go hang out with people that do the work you want to do.” This is a great example of talking shop to get in the door — and the people you make friends with can even get paid!

  3. If I recall correctly, that same executive Cappelli mentions in his book decided to test the system by submitting his OWN resume through the ATS just to see what would happen.

    He got rejected as well…

    • @John: Peter tells about two executives, one that went ballistic when the ATS rejected all 14,000 engineers, another whose own resume got rejected by his own HR department. These may be apocryphal but they’re believable and very salient stories!

  4. As a recruiter, I worked on a role after a detailed conversation with the manager about the position and the right person to fill it. Found an ideal candidate in a few days, and, playing by the company’s rules, submitted him by email to the manager and talent person, plus uploaded to their ATS portal. A few hours later, the talent person emailed me an ATS report about why my candidate wouldn’t be considered.

    I told the talent person to just talk to the manager, who’d seen the resume and my writeup directly from me. If the manager talked to the candidate and the candidate was wrong, I would never push the talent person in that way again.

    Manager loved the candidate, brought him in for an interview, and hired him. The hire has been promoted twice and been at the company more than a decade. Meanwhile, ATS – and the people who rely heavily on them – hasn’t advanced one bit.

    • @Dave: Good for you for pushing through that deal. Not only are the ATSes impeding hiring; the ATSes have a cavalry of HR foot soldiers defending the ATSes “territory.” Let’s call it what it is: The ATSes are the biggest obstacle to hiring today.

  5. @Nick, I know this is nitpicky, but the standard for byte representation went from ASCII to Unicode.

    • @Lucille: Guilty as charged! I was never a good coder and today I’m so far from the standards (and from coding!) that I need some fact checking on the technology. Not nitpicky at all. Thanks for taking up the slack!

  6. Instead of ATS, these applications should be called SRS – Supplicant Rejection System.

    How glad I am that I’m retired.

  7. Well, obviously they don’t want to release the data because they are making money off of it. Many of these large job boards have global subsidiaries, so you can imagine how much data they are really gathering about people and certain industries through their ATS. My biggest wonder is how much influence this data has over salaries and budgets for roles, and whether they use that to drive market trends or lower salary requirements.

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