How to Choose and Implement an ATS

It sometimes seems as if recruiters and technology are like oil and water ó almost impossible to mix. I am rarely at a client for very long before the “issue” of technology comes up. Usually, it’s in the form of a complaint. I hear things like, “Our ATS can’t do what?” or, “I wish I could get better metrics, but my ATS can’t create the reports I need,” or, “The recruiters here never bother to enter the right data or they don’t use the system at all.” When I talk with finance groups or engineering departments, technology is never an issue. They seem to live together in harmony, albeit with a few blips here and there. While a few people I know have said that they feel computers are just too impersonal for people-oriented recruiters to be comfortable with, I know many very warm and successful recruiters who are advocates and users of very sophisticated systems. There are several reasons why these systems are hard to sell, poorly utilized, and rarely praised. Poor Understanding of Current Processes No system can do what you want if you don’t know what you want to do. Many recruiters cannot tell me the entire process of getting a new employee hired. When I ask them to pretend they are a candidate or a job requisition and then take me through the various steps to get to a hire, they can only get through those steps they play a part in. Many pieces of the recruiting process are vague or ill-defined, even to those who do them. Often, many people do a small part of a process and no one really knows it all. Just as often, the processes themselves are not efficient. Employees in manufacturing environments have had process improvement goals for years. Consultants and academics have been hired to analyze and probe into every aspect of producing a product, until today we are able to produce products of all types with fewer people and greater quality and at lower cost than ever before in history. The spotlight is now being turned on to the “soft” processes, such as recruiting, and these processes will be examined and streamlined immensely over the next several years. Recommendation: Before even thinking about an applicant tracking system, you have to write down or draw a diagram of every process step the requisition, the hiring manager, the recruiter, and the candidate have to go through to complete a hire. You will ask why the step is necessary and what would happen if it were eliminated. You will simplify and make sure the step is adding value and producing quality. Then you will be able to compare what you need to get done with the capabilities of whatever ATS you are evaluating. This is the first and most important step in creating the RFP or of even talking to a vendor. You have to know exactly what you want and why. Undefined or Unclear Goals for Your System I find that recruiting departments rarely define what they expect the system to do for them. Do you expect it to reduce cost per hire? Maybe you expect it will speed up the time to offer? Or the time to hire? Perhaps candidate quality will improve? Maybe all of these? You also need to have a straightforward answer to the following questions: Why are you buying this system at all? Why can’t you just continue to do it the way you have done it in the past? Recommendation: Have a realistic and clear view of what you can expect. Know what is realistic to expect by asking other organizations what their experiences have been. The ATS vendors should be able to provide you with examples from other customers. Typically, users find that for the first year or so costs may not go down very much as there is a learning curve. You may need to maintain an old system while the new system is being implemented. That is why having a realistic picture is so important. If you have sold the idea of the applicant tracking system as a way to significantly reduce costs, your boss may be very unhappy when those savings don’t show up. Besides, saving money is a dumb reason to buy one of these. It just isn’t a good enough reason and rarely happens anyway. These systems should be purchased because they make you more productive and improve candidate quality or the candidate experience. A Lengthy and Bureaucratic Vendor Selection Process I am always amazed at the RFPs for applicant tracking systems I see from many very large and well-known organizations. They are pages in length and cover so much detail that that the forest is entirely missed for the trees. There are, in my experience, four critical things to know about the vendor and its product. Everything else is nice to know, but not critical. In theory your RFP could be one or two pages long. Here are the four major issues you need to address to devise an effective RFP:

  1. Does the system have at least 80% of the features that you think you will need? Can it produce the reports you need? Can it integrate with your HRIS system? Can the vendor give you examples, and will that cost be part of the quote? Obviously, you have to have completed my first recommendation above and know your processes and what you need very thoroughly. You also have to realize and accept that no system will be likely to do 100% of what you want without great expense and customization. Be realistic and work with the vendor you choose over time to evolve the missing elements.
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  3. Has the vendor installed the system in another organization of a similar size to yours? Can you call up some of those customers and talk to their recruiters? Has the implementation gone smoothly? Were there minimal hidden costs? If not, forget the vendor. If some of my clients had followed this advice, they would have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars on poor implementations by vendors who were often highly regarded in the press and had innovative concepts, but lacked the ability to execute. Features are of no values without execution.
  4. What is the vision and growth strategy of the vendor? Do they have the leadership and foresight to stay a market leader? You want to go with a vendor who has been around for a while and has weathered this economic downturn successfully. Do they listen to you and respond promptly to needs and problems? In my experience, customer support and follow up are the most frequently cited reasons for unhappiness with an ATS.
  5. Are you in control of the selection process? Partner with your internal IT group, but don’t let them lead. Internal IT groups are trying to juggle many priorities and you are just one of them. They are always going to be focused on the technical side, not on the functional side of the product. This is helpful and you need to understand the issues they have. However, they should not control the selection process. Increasingly, as the applicant tracking systems mature, the technical issues are disappearing. There may be concerns on the part of your IT group, but the vendor can often answer those easily.

Having No Change Management Process Implementing a technology solution in a people-oriented culture is going to create some serious change issues. Recruiters will have to learn new skills. Hiring managers will have to be made aware of new requirements and may even have to learn to use some part of the system. Candidates will be going through new steps, especially if you are also using the Internet more effectively as part of your new process. An applicant tracking system cannot simply be dropped into place without extensive internal marketing and communication to everyone who will be touched by the system, even if only slightly. The HRIS people, the hiring managers, obviously the recruiters, and even the candidates may need some kind of explanation, training, or help in adapting to the system. It is also important to remove, perhaps over a period of time, all the OTHER ways of doing recruiting. Human nature is such that when given the opportunity, most of us will avoid changing and continue to do it the old way. Remember that no technology can solve political or other problems within your organization. Technology only facilitates process.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at


2 Comments on “How to Choose and Implement an ATS

  1. Hooray Kevin !! This is one of those ‘wish I had written that’ articles and I’m going to make it required reading for prospective customers.

    You would be amazed (well maybe not) at how many times I get an ATS shopper on the phone with a ‘wish list’ but no clearly defined goals or process. This is the kiss-of-death for me because as a sales ‘consultant’ I have no clue as to whether or not or how effectively my product may or may not fit the requirements. There’s a huge difference between the ‘wish list’ and the requirements!

    I laughed out loud when I read your advice about RFPs – the importance of keeping it simple and not letting IT lead the process. My company has declined participating in RFPs when it’s clear to us the reams of pages have strayed into the realm of ‘forest for the trees’ which you so aptly described. One such RFP actually listed a requirement as ‘ease of doing business’ and we threw that one out because it was not reciprocated in the ‘lengthy and bureaucratic’ RFP process they expected us to go through!

    Kevin you’ve long been one of my heroes – and if you were here I’d kiss you for writing this excellent article.

  2. As usual, a great piece from Kevin Wheeler.

    I would add that when in the process of choosing an ATS stop using the term Applicant Tracking System. Think of what you are about to buy and or upgrade to as a means to manage relationships with prospect and candidate talent. Think Candidate Relationshp Management System (CRMS) instead

    I have said this in other venues here on ERE: You TRACK animals and you have RELATIONSHIPS with talented candidates.

    Think about it, when you look up the word TRACK(ing) in the dictionary here is what you will likely find:
    1. to follow the track of 2. to trace by means of evidence, etc. 3. A mark or succession of marks left by something that has passed.

    Shhhh…be vewy vewy qwuiet…I’m hunting whabbits!

    If you want to move your recruiting function into a best in class mode you have to get relational in your approach. Your CRMS can be the best means to do this. If you build it right then you will be able to manage relationships which in turn leads to more talent in your talent pool, more competitive intelligence on your competition (something your marketing group should love about you), more offers being accepted, more referrals, a better name on the street for your company etc.

    The system ought to have a way to generate follow up reports for your talent pipeline in a specific category, it should generate competitive intelligence data on talent from your competition for more targeted sourcing plans, it should house notes from your recruiters on everything about a specific candidate (family, hobbies, birthdays, salary requirements, reasons to make a move, geography, commute time etc…see Howard Adamsky’s article from 3.24.05 for more on this), it should give your recruiters competitive advantage by having a means to find the talent they have already been talking to by competency, job category, skill set, competitor company…you name it.

    Notice definition 3 of tracking above taken from ‘A mark or succession of marks left by something that has passed.’ If all you are doing is TRACKING candidates then by the time you pick up the trail of marks left behind in your ATS by your talented candidates they will have already passed and your competition who is using a CRMS (Candidate Relationship Management System) will have already hired them because they were managing the relationship all along. They didn’t just call when they had a need or because they needed referrals. Rather they were talking to the candidate in a regular call pattern, sending them birthday cards, holiday cards, their press clippings, gathering intelligence and information from them etc.

    Say it with me now…CRM(s), CRM(s), CRM(s)…

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