How Big Is Your Black Hole?

One of the most intriguing and mysterious phenomena of the cosmos is the “black hole.” The study of black holes, or what happens when a star dies, has occupied the minds of scientists for centuries. Regardless of the various theories, the definition in a physics dictionary goes something like this: A black hole is a region of space-time that has so much mass concentrated in it that there is no way for any matter or energy to escape its gravitational pull, even light itself (as a physicists daughter, I paraphrased as best I could). Is it any surprise that, since the 1980s, the “black hole” has been used as a popular analogy in recruiting to describe what happens to the average resume submitted to a company… painting a bleak picture of hope for its retrieval? Coincidentally, this term seemed to become popular exactly when automated resume processing and early applicant tracking systems became commercially available. “I sent in my resume and it just went into a black hole!” Black holes can have very damaging effects on both the job seeker and the recruiter functions. The funny thing is, as new generations of recruiters and job seekers come and go, this is not a term one has to learn, like “job agent,” “behavioral interviewing,” or “flipping web sites”. It requires no explanation. The average employee applying to a job, the attendee at a career fair, the recruiter searching for last months’ lead, and the HR manager all use the term without ever conferring. Each one may interpret its meaning a little differently, but still feels the effect of the black hole in the recruiting process. The Bigger, the Better? Black holes can refer to traditional paper-based processes where resumes are literally sitting in file cabinets. But, with the information age, the term is generally associated with electronic resumes. With the advent of resume or applicant tracking systems, black holes became quantifiable, i.e. you could know exactly how big your potential black hole was…100,000, 200,000, or 500,000 resumes strong. In the earlier days of staffing automation, large resume databases were touted as a badge of honor. Quantity was good. The attitude was, “whoever has the largest database wins.” Remember when announced it had reached one million resumes? That may have sounded impressive, but this milestone is not just for large public job boards. Today, corporations and agencies are proud owners of similar mega-resume warehouses. I just talked with a company recently that has an applicant tracking system with a limit on the number of resumes permitted in their database (a black-hole meter if you will) set to 250,000. This gentleman shared with me that he is ready to move from that system because they want to be able to store more resumes. Is your organization suffering from “black hole” syndrome? So does having a lot of resumes in your database imply that you have a black hole in your recruiting process? Not necessarily. Let’s look at some symptoms of this syndrome:

  1. Significant and consistent complaints from internal and/or external candidates stating that they submit a resume or on-line application and never hear from the company again.
  2. When the same candidates phone up the company to follow up, it’s difficult or impossible for anyone to verify that their information actually made it into the system and when.
  3. When conducting a phone screen or interview on a fresh candidate received a few days ago, it is revealed that they submitted their resume months ago.
  4. Job seekers receive acknowledgements weeks or months after submitting their information.
  5. In general, there is an attitude that you “can’t trust the system.”
  6. Recruiters rarely recycle leads from the existing resume database.
  7. If the recruiters are actually searching the database, they only search for resumes that are 7, 14, or 30 days old.
  8. Resume processing metrics show high duplication rates (such as over 30%).
  9. Candidates who had been sitting in the company database all along are hired from agencies.
  10. The CEOs nephew writes a strong letter to his uncle because nothing ever happened with his resume.

Defying Gravity Let’s get metaphysical: what makes a black hole, not a black hole? If you are not suffering from any of the above symptoms, your recruiting organization is probably practicing some of these black-hole prevention techniques:

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  • Get off the Resume. Using skills-based or profiling systems with perpetual auto-matching technology can help overcome millions of resume keyword bytes with more usable and relevant data to keep applicant interactions fresher.
  • Space Exploration. Through some clever ad hoc reporting, examine what percent of your current database is being used. Run a report on candidates with no activity since a certain term, like 6 months, 1 year, etc. If there is a significant number such as 95%, then there could be black hole issues.
  • Treasure Hunting. With some incentives, challenge recruiters to use the internal database for candidates AND leads. Reward those who are able to turn “cold searches” into hot prospects and hires.
  • Purging and Archiving. Develop a purging and/or archiving policy, such as candidates will remain in database for “one year,” and then communicate this policy to all applicants and stick to it through electronic purging or archiving of the database. This way, if recruiters aren’t prone to treasure hunting, they know they have only one year of candidates in the database at any time and may perceive the database as more of a fresh resource (check for legal guidelines first, though).
  • Communication Automation. With automated features, let the system itself make up for some black hole communication issues such as 1) auto acknowledgements 2) job agents that communicate w/ job seekers about new matching jobs 3) mass-email correspondence of items such as open houses, job fairs and/or other marketing information.
  • The Great Dust Off. Have recruiters shake the dust off some old resumes by putting in older dates in search criteria. It may have been years since someone first applied, and maybe they’re ready to circle back to your company again. This takes time and the resume may not have accurate contact info, but good leads and candidates can be generated from older resume information. If older resumes are not valuable over time, go to the purging/archiving plan.
  • Refresher Training. Most databases have their own unique “best practice” search techniques. Conduct a mini-training session for recruiters just on searching the database with your tool. Have recruiters bring current reqs into the session and challenge them to turn findings into hires, even if it’s just using resumes as a source for key company names.

Ironically, recruiting organizations spend small fortunes on job board database subscriptions when potential treasure troves of applicants are sitting right under their nose. Every company I’ve worked with could use its internal database more effectively to reduce black hole syndrome. So no matter how big or small your database, making it the first and number one stop on the sourcing trail will reap many rewards.

Gretchen Sturm ( is Knowledge Manager of Services with Recruitsoft, the leading provider of Internet-based recruiting solutions for major corporations. She manages the implementation, eLearning and product knowledge transfer for Recruitsoft's consulting services and global client base. Her career has focused on integrating technology into the full hiring cycle and establishing effective Internet recruiting strategies. Previously, Sturm managed the recruitment technology and online recruiting areas of the Unisys worldwide recruiting team and oversaw recruiting technology and sourcing for CIGNA Corporation's US-based operations.