Building a Better ATS, Part 3: Supporting Effective Recruiting

With this article I begin a series on improving applicant tracking technology. My previous two articles provided an overview of the bigger issues that (in my opinion) currently prevent applicant tracking systems from being effective solutions for recruiting. First, to determine what makes for an effective recruiting solution requires that we consider the recruiting process in its entirety ó not just what we see in an ATS. What we see in most applicant tracking systems is a focus on efficiency, drawing on concepts from supply-chain management and process automation. Most applicant tracking systems exist to support workflow, starting with the intake of candidates and ending with the hiring decision. But this myopic approach ignores the bigger picture: that is, all that comes before and after. Sourcing Concerns For starters, effective recruiting requires effective sourcing. An ATS is much like a car without any gas. Without the right gas, it makes little difference if the car is a Lexus or a Chevy ó it’s not going anywhere. Sourcing provides the fuel that makes the hiring engine move. The emphasis that ATS vendors place on processing is placed on the wrong thing. Processing is akin to miles per gallon ó very different from the price of gasoline. If you can’t get enough of the right gas, who cares what kind of mileage you get? So sourcing needs to be better supported, but how? Currently, the only support for sourcing in an ATS is to connect with job boards. This would be fine, but unfortunately job boards provide only a minority of hires for most corporations, and a small minority at that. Job boards once held the promise of being the chicken ranch of recruiting. As it turned out, they are more like strip clubs ó lots to be seen, not much to be had, and expensive at that. A recent article in The Economist (March 25, “A Monster Success”) makes the point well:

Not every job can be filled online… Though the online job market works well for workers and employers who know what they want, it works badly for the vague or tentative. If your resume says clearly that you want to be a pool cleaner or an aerospace technician, the filters will ensure that it reaches the right human resource departments. If it is unclear, they will confine you to electronic darkness. The old saying among human resources folk was that “you kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince,” says Mr. Taylor [Jeff Taylor of Monster]. On the Internet, you kiss fewer, but only those frogs who really know what they want will find themselves on the end of their princess’s puckered lips.

Building True Relationships A majority of professional jobs are still filled the old-fashioned way ó by networking (61% according to A few vendors have made feeble attempts to tap this source by providing technology that supports the creation of online communities. While a sound idea, the effectiveness of such an approach is limited, since it depends on transferring the goodwill of participants in the communities into interest in employment with the sponsor. A better approach might be to provide better support for building relationships with candidates. Most vendors claim to do so already, the usual approach being that candidates can store a profile and search criteria for jobs they are interested in. When a job opens up that matches a candidate’s profile or interests, she is contacted, most likely by email, and then asked to apply. The idea that this constitutes a relationship is ludicrous. A true relationship requires give and take, and mutual disclosure. As currently supported by most applicant tracking systems, it’s a one-way street. The employer effectively controls everything ó including the information that’s released and the information that’s required from a candidate. Why not, for example, provide candidates with an assessment of their capabilities relative to the jobs they are interested in? If this is too expensive or impractical, why not provide candidates that make it to the final stages in hiring with feedback on why they fell short? That would tell them their likelihood of success if another job was to open up, or what they could do in the meantime to improve themselves. Similarly, in the spirit of give and take, why not allow a candidate to query an employer, instead of assuming that candidates will (or should) ferret out what information they need to know about a company? Knowledge management tools already exist that can support this. Incorporating a limited version of the technology should not be difficult and is more likely to create a relationship with candidates than anything available in an ATS today. If that idea sounds far-fetched, then consider this: Britain already has a law that requires job applicants to be provided full access to selection-related information if it involves an automated process (Employment Practices Data Protection Code, 2002). Since applicant tracking systems were created in response to EEO laws, do we need to wait for a law before they get around to providing such functionality? Of course, a relationship is only going to work if both parties are willing and interested. Let’s be blunt: most employers are only interested in “relationships” with candidates when there’s a shortage. As any number of candidates found out when the job market went south, employer attitudes towards them went south with it. But these things all come in cycles, and the more enlightened employers recognize that there is a need to have a true relationship with candidates that outlasts them. The need for the functionality to support these kinds of relationships is clearly there. Recruitment Advertising More low-hanging fruit that ATS vendors could easily grab includes better support for advertising jobs in newspapers, since plenty of jobs are still advertised in print. Currently, the most any ATS provides is data transfer to an ad agency or other service for placement of an ad. This is no more than what email provides. Most major newspapers have published standards for accepting in-column ads, along with pricing criteria. Ad agencies routinely provide online services that allow a user to create and price an ad without any manual intervention from the agency. The same functionality could easily be added to an ATS. This also brings up the role of ad agencies in sourcing. Currently, sourcing is a disjointed process. Ad agencies provide branding and are frequently a conduit for the placement of ads and other recruitment services. The technology provided by most ATSs excludes the role of an ad agency. This frequently results in incomplete or inadequate source tracking, thereby reducing the amount of data available for the fine-tuning of sourcing strategies. Providing an integrated approach to placement of ads, or better yet, offering a portal through which an ad agency could manage client requests for advertising, would definitely improve the overall effectiveness of sourcing. In summary, improving ATS functionality requires an understanding of everything that goes into making recruiting effective. Vendors need to take a more holistic approach that looks beyond the core hiring process, instead of forcing their clients to live within the narrow confines of the functionality they provide in this one limited, albeit critical, area of recruiting.

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Raghav Singh, director of analytics at Korn Ferry Futurestep, has developed and launched multiple software products and held leadership positions at several major recruiting technology vendors. His career has included work as a consultant on enterprise HR systems and as a recruiting and HRIT leader at several Fortune 500 companies. Opinions expressed here are his own.