Getting Your Recruiters To Use Your ATS

Imagine you are the director of recruiting for a Fortune 1000 company. You have just completed what appears to have been a very successful implementation of a leading applicant tracking system (ATS). It was a major investment: six figures at least, maybe even seven. But the project was on time and close to budget; you have received accolades all around; the vendor uses you as a reference account; and you have been asked to speak at some upcoming HR conferences to share your success story. About nine months later you get a call from the director of EEO/diversity. She tells you that there is a problem with the reports. There are an inordinate number of jobs that were filled with only one applicant. There are an excessive number of new hired employees that do not appear on the applicant flow reports from the new, expensive system. An auditor will be coming in within the next two weeks, and you will need to go back and correct this data ASAP. Sound like a terrible nightmare? Over the past 12 years I’ve been involved in over 100 ATS implementations. Many of the projects I’ve worked on have been post implementation, taking place months or even years after a system has been installed. From my experience, I can tell you that this turns out to be a very common story. The reason? Recruiters aren’t actually using the applicant tracking system. Even when I am assisting clients in the selection of a new system, one of the most important factors is always “ease of use.” Of course, this is because the recruiters would not use the last system, leading most organizations to assume that the last system was “difficult to use.” But no matter which system you choose, it’s clear that getting your recruiters to actually use it is an important part of the implementation process. So why is it so hard to get your recruiters to use an applicant tracking system? In a nutshell, it’s because recruiters are creatures who follow the path of least resistance. In today’s e-world, all a recruiter really needs to be effective is access to the Internet, an email account (preferably using Microsoft Outlook), and a telephone. So even if you put the latest, full-functioning ATS, complete with all the bells and whistles, in front of them, if it creates more friction than those basic tools, you are already fighting an uphill battle. What can you do to avoid this phenomenon and still get a return on your investment? If you just inherited a failed implementation or you’re about to implement a new one, here are a few pointers I have found effective in encouraging recruiters to use the system:

  1. Process alignment. I define this differently than a traditional process re-engineering. Sometimes companies will flip the applecart and reinvent their recruiting process completely, but still end up with lots of friction. The key here is to align your process, the roles of the people carrying out the process, and the technology so there is as little friction as possible. A good example here is when recruiters get blamed for not entering interview dates, even though the recruiter is not involved in scheduling or participating in the interview. If the interview scheduling is pushed out to the hiring manager and his or her admin, then so should the responsibility for updating the system. Recruiters are not data entry clerks, and they hate being treated that way. The goal is to align these components in such a way that the people involved in the process use the tools to get their job done ó and as a byproduct, the data you need is captured.
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  3. Building for utility, not compliance. Too often, organizations will be so concerned with compliance issues that decisions get made without considering the impact to the end user. It’s wiser, though, to configure the system to support usability first, and then look to see if you are in compliance. You may need to tweak it a little, but you have built the foundation on utility. One example of this is when an organization insists that a recruiter saves every set of search criteria and the list of matching candidates that came up while searching a database. The theory is that in some way, those candidates were considered for a vacancy, and the recruiter should document why they did not move them forward. Ironically, even though the purpose of these types of procedures is to help organizations get good data on compliance, the result is that the procedures create so much friction that recruiters stop using the search functions ó and the organization still doesn’t get the data.
  4. Project mode to operations mode. Just because the users are all trained and you’ve flipped the switch to go live, it doesn’t mean you’re done. The trap here is that projects, by definition, have a beginning and an end. But when the project ends, an operational plan needs to kick into gear. The problem starts once the project is over, and all the resources disperse back to their regular jobs. Life goes on, and change happens. Sometimes there are re-orgs, acquisitions, or maybe just normal turnover or new recruiters being hired. Over the period of nine months, there could be a significant number of people who are expected to use the system but who weren’t involved in the initial rollout. I have seen horror stories where new users receive all of about 20 minutes of training ó over the phone! This gets even worse now that many implementations involve hundreds or even thousands of hiring managers. If you want to get the return on your investment, you need to continue to invest in a sound operational plan that accounts for change over time. There must be a continuous effort to market and improve the utility of the tool set for it to become and remain the path of least resistance.
  5. Enforcement and accountability. Since you will never completely remove all of the friction (even with the slickest tools there is a learning curve), you are doomed if you don’t institute some degree of enforcement or accountability. But enforcement alone will not get you there. For example, if you say that all new hires must come from the ATS, you will get them that way ó but you will surely have only one applicant on many of the requisitions. Probably the most effective tool I have seen used to create an environment of accountability is to generate a series of activity reports from the system and make them public to the recruiting community. Things like number of interviews, average days open, offer/accept ratios, etc make excellent data for reports. The peer pressure alone will create some results. You can then take it a step further and start to tie incentive compensation to the numbers. The bottom line is even if you use a carrot to entice them to use the system, you better have a stick too.

While there are a myriad of other issues to consider, these four areas will address the key human factors that could make or break your implementation. The most important thing to remember is that it will never be easy. Creating the path of least resistance is hard work ó but if you build it, they will come.

Ed Newman, chief evangelist at Phenom People, is a well-known thought leader in the HR field. With more than 25 years of experience in the talent acquisition and management industry, Newman has worked with many Fortune 500 companies in the design, development, and implementation of highly effective talent strategies, processes, operating models and technology infrastructure. Newman previously founded The Newman Group, a consulting firm specializing in the delivery of talent management solutions.


1 Comment on “Getting Your Recruiters To Use Your ATS

  1. Good article Ed. You’ve hit on a number of points key to successful new system adoption and ongoing use. I’d add one more: executive sponsorship. Change works best in any organization when it is top down. Executives and upper management need to be involved not only in the system selection process, but also should continue right through into implementation, training and day-to-day use.

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