The Most Maligned Recruiting Technology

"ATS” has morphed into a four-letter word for countless TA professionals — but who's really to blame for software that continually disappoints so many?

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Mar 16, 2023
This article is part of a series called ERE Recruiting Conference Spring 2023.

Let’s face it: Talent acquisition professionals have a love-hate relationship with ATSs. It stems from good and not-so-good technology. Good and not-so-good use of technology. Good and not-so-good decision-making around choosing technology. Good and not-so-good product evolution.

At the ERE Recruiting Conference, May 22-24, in San Diego (and online), I’ll be on a panel titled, “The Future of the ATS: When Should You Repair, Replace, or Remove Recruiting’s Most Maligned Tech?” Fellow TA peers and I will explore practical ways to address all sorts of problems with your ATS. (I’ll also be giving a separate presentation, “Organizational Transformation Through Talent Acquisition Leadership.”)

In the meantime, given the common discontent with ATSs— and before placing too much blame on vendors— it’s only fair to reflect on when we TA pros (myself included) may be the culprits.

Process Mapping

Before drafting a request for proposal (RFP) for software vendors, it’s absolutely necessary to map your process. Most RFPs that I’ve seen focus on illustrations of boxes, arrows, and lines, but all that is inadequate. It hardly ever covers the minutiae that addresses roles and responsibilities, compliance requirements, or variations in process to specific hiring needs. You’ll need to go into far greater detail than charts can convey in order for solution providers to ultimately give you what you need.

Lowest Price vs. Best Value

Some of us are fortunate to have a generous budget. But that’s not most of us. We have significant limitations. And so what often happens is that a budget is benchmarked based on current or previous ATS expenditures, possibly adjusted through recent market research.

Regardless, when choosing an ATS, the question often comes down to, “How much does it cost?” Or, “Is it affordable?”

The absolute worst decision you can make is based solely on cost. Instead, a sound decision should be based on best value. That is, for the money being spent, will the functionality allow you to manage core processes? Does the functionality foster process improvements and efficiencies? Are you able to partner with candidates and managers in a more comprehensive manner? And in the end, does this make your company more competitive in the talent market?

Features, Bells, and Whistles

There’s a difference between functions and features when considering an ATS. Functions are what you expect out-of-the-box that rarely, if ever, require customization. Think auto sequencing of requisition ID numbers or the ability to post to a portal.

Features, on the other hand, require some configuration or adaptation to your process, like requisition approval sequence, auto responses, disposition reasons, email templates, and offer letters.

When you’ve had a bad ATS experience, it’s easy to say, “Anything is better than what we currently have.” As a result you end up accepting some off-the-shelf version, only to have a lackluster experience.

Alternatively, being intrigued by all of the bright new shiny things that a vendor offers, you say yes to a whole bunch of features, and then not incorporate them. Then you now find yourself reviewing money spent with little to no return on investment.

The Process

I often hear TA leaders say, “Our process is so complex.” But is it really complex? Or is it just inefficient?

It also feels like some TA leaders say with pride that they have a complex process. But what they are really talking about is organizational bureaucracy, which only systematizes inefficiencies. That’s not something to be proud of.

The more revealing question to ask is whether your process makes you more competitive? What you may end up discovering is that you have created a way to use good technology to support bad processes.

The Frankenstein Syndrome

Even well-thought-out selections and implementations can go awry. There are times when organizations initially have a great experience, with great feedback from TA, candidates, and managers. This then opens the floodgates for ideas for improvement.

Unfortunately, such suggestions aren’t always vetted for alignment with core processes and the overall TA strategy. Consequently, you can end up with over-engineered changes that feel disruptive rather than productive.

Similarly, company leaders sometimes ask for information in a format that differs from how your ATS captures it. For example, which industry are candidates coming from? That’s a noble and valid request. However, it’s not a data element that is parsed from the resume or noted by TA. So you find yourself scrambling to create a new field in your ATS, but who provides that information — the candidate or the recruiter? There may be no automated way to capture that data point.

Ultimately, it’s critical to benchmark against your peers when evaluating your ATS or a new one. TA leaders are always willing to share with each other. Information about best practices and pitfalls is plentiful. Common sense and good business decision-making are also essential. Creating a detailed process map and project management plan are necessary.

Also, do your research about ATS vendors you seek to do business with. A healthy dose of customer testimonials and independent industry assessments can help prepare you for initial and formal discussions with vendors.

Want to learn more from Kimberly Jones and other recruiting leaders about how to improve your ATS experience? Head over to to view Kim’s session, along with the rest of the agenda, and register for the event.

This article is part of a series called ERE Recruiting Conference Spring 2023.
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