Your ATS Will Never Help You Hire

Let’s start with the obvious: no one likes their ATS. Like airlines, wireless service, or cable companies, there are no good choices, only a least horrible choice. This necessary evil was once the best way to manage and track a candidate through the interview process, but in the last 15 years, everyone’s ATS has grown arms, reaching into so many aspects of how we attempt to attract and engage talented prospects.

Sadly, none of these new functions are any good, but because we’ve invested in the expensive core ATS, we assume we need to use all the functions (the fallacy of sunk costs strikes again). This means that every candidate is forced to wade through a system designed specifically for HR professionals. Just because your ATS has a web-enabled front-end doesn’t mean candidates will enjoy using it. If you don’t believe me, ask them.

Your investment in an ATS has forced you to spend the last decade bending all your processes toward how your ATS wants you to do things. Way back when people would mail you resumes in order to apply for a job, they never saw your internal tools. They never saw how you made the sausage. They only knew the relationship they built with the recruiter and hiring manager — human relationships focused on establishing fit. Has putting the ATS in charge of those relationships made them weaker, or stronger? I would bet real money that the ATS is not supporting that relationship in any meaningful way, with a second bet that it makes things worse.

If you were to start with a clean sheet of paper and re-think your talent attraction and engagement processes from scratch, would you ever let your prize prospect, one you’ve spent time, effort, and money on, anywhere near an ATS? Of course not. That would be relationship poison.

What would you do instead? Well, let’s start at the top of the funnel. What would get them interested in your company or opportunities? Yet another poorly crafted, say-nothing, HR-double-speak-based job description? Or a story about how people in a given role tend to get promoted to leadership positions? A series of bullet point-driven job qualification or a personal story about someone whose life was positively changed because they work for you? A logo or a video? An EOE statement or a haiku?

You’d start with content, telling authentic and engaging stories about what it’s really like to work at your company, what the value proposition is in human terms, what differentiates you as an employer.

By now, the power of content over job descriptions as a means of attracting and engaging people should be obvious. But usually when we talk about how great it is to start with content, we gloss over the process of creating that content. Should you be asking recruiters to become writers? Or should you ask your subject matter experts to write articles and white papers?

Either answer is unfair. What you need is a tool that supports the speedy creation of content that can be categorized based on who will want to read it (your sales prospects aren’t likely to click on stories outlining the latest in open source coding solutions, and few developers will want to read case studies on how to overcome sales objections: content needs to be tailored and delivered to the right audiences).

You’ll also need to build processes that enable everyone to create content easily. This means asking five people from the customer service team to tell their favorite customer story from the past year so you can collect them into a single story that shows your devotion to customer satisfaction. This means asking sales teams to take pictures (or short videos — they have those things in their pocket already) of their clients, asking them what makes your company different.

We all know that content creation and delivery is how you can differentiate your company amongst the millions (not hyperbole) of other brands offering similar jobs. So if that’s true, why do so few companies embrace this truth? Because the ATS doesn’t make it easy. The ATS doesn’t care about content because it was never meant to.

And once your content gets shared around the Internet (remember: make your employees ambassadors and ask them to like and share those stories to their own networks), you will find yourself with people interested in what you have to say. What then? Demand they spend the next hour retyping their resume into your ATS? Ha! It doesn’t matter how well-written that call-to-action is, that’s too big a request for great talent. They will go talk to someone who isn’t asking for a wedding ring on the first date.

Instead, learn some lessons from your sales team: collect those people as leads and keep them warm. Your goal isn’t to convert them in a hurry, but to identify who they are, what they care about, and send them content that they’d actually (truly, honestly, no-bs) like to read (not just what you’d like to send them) on a semi-regular basis.

Your ATS is never going to think that way, let alone provide the insights about your candidates want to learn about (based on content consumption) and what motivates them to move forward. But there is software that does exactly that, putting the candidate first and delivering persuasive information about your company and roles based on who they are and what motivates them.

Stop focusing on trying to feed the ATS beast. Your real goal is to stay top of mind without demanding loyalty or allegiance. Establishing a solid brand perception is how you get more people to engage when they troll the job boards or get a warm InMail from a recruiter. (Spoiler: if you want to increase your InMail response rates, spend less time polishing your subject line and more time getting people to fall in love without before you reach out.)

Once that connection is made, why should the candidate ever see the guts of your ATS? Your recruiter would have a conversation, and identify how likely that person would be as a fit within the role and company. They’d deliver the prospect to the hiring manager, setting up deeper conversations with a larger set of stakeholders. The recruiter could focus on doing something no tool can do: building and cultivating relationships with great talent.

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And when that prospect says yes, the recruiter can dump or parse the resume into the ATS so that onboarding paperwork can get started (which is what the ATS is best at). The candidate, the one you’ve worked so hard to woo, can start their new role with the most positive candidate experience unsullied by the brutal realities of your ATS.

This change puts the ATS back in its place: tracking applicants, not trying to establish feeble relationships with them. Let the ATS be an ATS. Stop trying to make it do things it will never be good at.

That’s the future of recruitment marketing. It’s not science fiction, on one you should be leaning into, looking beyond the limitations of the ATS and embracing what your candidates really want.

Adapted from “A World Without ATSs,” episode 60 of The Talent Cast.

I’ve embedded the longer podcast here. You can also hear me at the ERE Recruiting Conference in April on Seeing 360 Degrees of Your Employer Brand. Don’t miss it!