The ATS World: Coming Up Short

Screen Shot 2014-01-20 at 8.56.59 PMIn the early 2000s, I had just started working in recruiting and didn’t know anything about the industry or its tools. My first week on the job, the company was implementing a new applicant tracking system. Dave, the guy who was leading the implementation, didn’t show up my second day on the job. Soon the announcement was made that Dave had left the company and was moving.

I walked into the CEO’s office and boldly stated, “I don’t know what an ATS is, but if you’ll make me the admin on it, I’ll learn everything there is to know about it, finish the implementation, and have it running as smooth as butter.” For some reason, he believed me. I followed through with my declaration — finished the implementation and knew the system (and the business reasons) inside and out.

Over the next several years, I have implemented numerous ATS’s. I’ve also been a user on many other client systems.  I say all of this to let you know that my knowledge and expertise when it comes to an ATS is deep. I’m not just a casual observer of these systems. I know them.

What I have discovered over the years is that many of these tools shouldn’t even be available (an Excel spreadsheet would be more useful than what some offer), but there are some that get so close to hitting the mark …but then they leave out, forget, or ignore something so simple, so logical, that would make it far more useful and effective.

So here are a few of the things that should be included in every ATS …

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  • Give design and admin rights to a power user so we don’t have to come back to you and ask for every tweak that we need made to a workflow, a tab, a field, etc. You slow us down by putting us on your “to-do list.” It literally would take me less than a minute in most cases to change what I need changed and then I’m on with my day.
  • Combine CRM, onboarding, and payroll capabilities to integrate seamlessly with your ATS. Having one system that can handle a client and a candidate through the entire lifecycle would be stellar.
  • Give me the option to create (on my own) multiple workflows within the ATS. Recruiting for an entry-level, hourly employee is just different than recruiting for a VP or a COO. There are different stages of the recruitment process that each must go through. Your-one size-fits-all approach doesn’t fit all.
  • Multiple talent portals would also be great — even for a corporate recruitment team. You could have separate pools of talent for divisions, career levels, etc.
  • Weighted and scored pre-screen questions that can be attached to the application process. I can hear all of you salespeople now — “We have that! We have that!” Most of you don’t. You have the capability to create a generic list of pre-screen questions that all candidates answer regardless of what position they are applying to. That’s not what I need. I need the ability to create a unique set of pre-screen questions for each requisition within the ATS … and I don’t want them stored in a library somewhere eating up space, slowing down the system, and slowing me down as I have to go search through 480 sets of questions for an inside sales requisition to find the exact one that I created previously. I want them contained within the requisition. These also need to be downloadable so they can be sent to a hiring manager.
  • Give us the ability — within each unique requisition — to create screening questions so we can ask each candidate the same questions in the same order and evaluate each equally. The recruiter should be able to fill in answers to these questions as they are speaking with the candidate. These also need to be able to be downloaded and sent to a hiring manager.
  • Gain partnerships with personality and behavioral assessment companies so we can select the core competencies we want to measure and send a quick link to the candidate to complete online. Have their results brought back into the candidate’s profile and have the recruiter notified that this step is complete. The same can be done for background checks.
  • When we are ready to send a candidate to a hiring manager to be considered, provide us with a menu of things that we can include in this presentation (and it needs to be unique each time, not a one-time universal selection). Let us select a resume (without or without contact info included), pre-screen application questions and candidate responses, phone screen questions and responses, personality assessment results, etc. and place it all in a single PDF document and attached to the email. In the body of the email, provide a response section for the hiring manager — Yes, I’d like to interview/No, not interested for this reason ____.
  • Sourcing capabilities from within the ATS. Let us use our subscriptions to job boards, social media boards, and also do deep Internet sourcing on candidates and keywords and Boolean search strings. Have them system source from all of these places at one time, or let us select which of them we want to source from. When we find someone we are interested in, let us click a button and have that person added to the ATS and to a specific job, parsing their info into the appropriate fields. If that info can show up in real time, instead of having to wait for hours before they appear, that would be great as well.
  • Connect your ATS with a GPS tool so when we send interview instructions to a candidate (day, time, etc.), it will also generate a map for them or give them a link so they can get driving instructions on their smart phone from the candidate’s location.

This is not an exhaustive list. I’ve seen some of these in some tools, but I’ve never seen one that nails everything. When I ask my questions about these things, I don’t want a “work-around” solution because they always take more time than they should, and often don’t work the way they should. I’ve also learned that you may have many of these capabilities, but you have to pay extra to get them added to your base model. Make that clear upfront instead of showing us the Mercedes in the demo and then we find out we got the Kia when we started using the tool (and there is absolutely nothing wrong with Kia cars … I would drive one if someone gave me one).

The most important thing to a recruiter is speed and ease of use. Count how many clicks it takes to do what you want to do, then find a way to cut that number of clicks in half. That extra click may not seem like a big deal if you only have to do that process one time. But for recruiters, we do the same things over and over and over. That one click turns into 30-40 clicks by the end of the day, and if you add that time up, I could have screened another candidate in that amount of time while I was clicking and waiting for the page to load.

When selecting a new ATS, know your process first, then find the ATS that can execute that process. Don’t get suckered into thinking, “This one is well known and well respected so I’ll get that one.” The best known and the best respected may not match your needs at all.

Doug Douglas is the president of DX2 Consulting in Austin, Texas. He partners with companies to optimize their recruitment efforts with the end result being reduced turnover, reduced recruitment costs, and improved efficiency.


38 Comments on “The ATS World: Coming Up Short

  1. I am not a fan of ATS’s but they have their purpose as one of many tools I use. I have found that Jobvite is the most intuitive system I have implemented and managed. It is by no means a perfect solution and probably does not meet all the requirements perfectly on your list but its that best I have dealt with.

  2. I appreciate your comment Gareth. Jobvite is a good example of a tool that makes those lists of top ATS’s, but does not fit specific company needs. I have implemented and used Jobvite within the past year. It is solely for corporate recruiting, an agency would go insane trying to use it. I have a long list of things that I do not like about it as I felt like they had far too many holes in it. The most appealing part of Jobvite is it’s pricing, but beyond that, I’m not a fan.

  3. Interesting article. I have implemented cBiz 3 times and find it very flexible, cost effective and easily embraced by most recruiters. Some of the larger ATS’s are more rigid and difficult to use.

  4. I’ve used Akken as well. Not a fan, but as the article states, it depends on your process. I can tell you that they would be lacking on many, if not all, of the 10 suggestions I made above.

  5. Patty – true comment on the larger ATS’s. Much more difficult to get product enhancements with them too. I have not used cBiz and will need to make it a point to review it. Thanks for the comment.

  6. One of our criteria is a CRM pre-job order opportunity tracking and forecasting from sales to recruiting (SalesForce type of opportunity tracking). We have looked at the options that require SalesForce as the CRM with integration to the ATS. I realize the process comes into play, but do you have recommendations on tools to look at outside of Salesforce options? If not, is there a place I can go to get a subjective recommendation? Thanks, Doug.

  7. Hi Doug,
    Great article – you’ve articulated many of the issues that i have trouble keeping track of.
    I’m curious how you feel about iCIMS. We currently switched form a home-grown tool to the iCIMS Recruit&Onboard modules, and we are only halfway through configurations after 6 months.
    We chose this tool after an exhaustive search, but frankly we’ve had some doubts. How would you say it stacks up?

  8. Jennifer – I’ll get with you offline. I do not want to get into a position of recommending anything publicly and without knowing more regarding your overall needs.

    Laura – Ah yes, the LONG implementation. Aren’t those fun? I have used iCIMS and for the specific things that I needed it to do, it did – however, those needs are unique to each company and they did not include my list of 10 things in this article.

    Michael – I have done a demo on it but it was 2-3 years ago. I’ve heard good things, but I hear good things about all of them until I can get under the hood and see what it really does and does not do. If you work for them, maybe you can get me set-up with that?

  9. Well written Doug. The ATS world does leave a lot to desire and there is no one 100% solution. In my career, I too have administered, reviewed and implemented more than I care to count.

    For me, ease of configuration and adaptability to business processes is paramount-besides the obvious of having it work!

  10. Doug Right on with the comments. Yes I use it for corporate and it is decent for that purpose. The main reason we chose Jobvite was for its referral capabilities. Even then it is not perfect and there are a few start ups pushing some interesting referral products but we needed a system that had referrals built into the system’s DNA. We generate a large amount of referrals and did not want a system that stapled a new feature to an existing product and then claim referral and social media capability.

    I believe that there are too many such products out there that claim glowing social media integration when in fact they missed the boat and have resorted to acquiring, rebuilding and attaching new options on an outdated concept.

    Also implemented Taleo way back when and Maxhire (now bullhorn acquired). Used Bullhorn and CBIZ, Mindscope Cura and Akken. Don’t want to encounter any of them again other than CBIZ. If I were to go back to the staffing industry, I would not mind CBIZ. Very simple design and intuitive but worked really well.

    The one-stop-shops like Akken are weak in too many areas.

    Good article Doug thanks for sharing.

  11. Thanks Michael…I appreciate it.

    Gareth – I concur with your avoid list.

    If your company is in the process of selecting an ATS, or at least investigating it, let me know. I consult with companies to help them through the selection and implementation process.

  12. @Laura,

    For what it’s worth, I too chose iCIMS for my previous ATS system. I’m at a different company now, but I was satisfied with the product and their responsiveness to change requests. Our implementation only took a couple months though. It was a standalone system, nothing needed in terms of integration or anything.

  13. Noelle – I have reviewed Newton, and it has a strong reputation. I believe it’s on the expensive end of the spectrum. I have not been a user however. Again, the ATS is only good if your strategies and processes can be accommodated by it.

  14. Thanks Doug. Very useful article. I think most of the problems with ATS are due to the fact that most of the time, those who buy them don’t use them and those who use them don’t buy them.

    Whatever you use, it should be recruiter-friendly. If Tiffany or Jason the Temp can figure it out and use it effectively with about 30 minutes of training (the “Tiffany Test”), then it’s probably good for your staff, too. On the other hand, if it takes half a day or more of detailed training, it’s too darned hard!

    Once again, ask your recruiters. Your technology shouldn’t be purchased without detailed feedback from the people who actually will use it.

    As far as what ATS I’ve used that don’t induce vomiting on my part, I used iCIMS 6-7 years ago for a company with 2-3000 employees, and right now I’m using COMPAS with a company with a few hundred employees. (Your results may vary. Void where prohibited.)


  15. Hi Doug,

    Like your article and agree on the items that you highlight. My experience as the product manager for an ATS is that the biggest challenge lies in the translation of customers day-to-day experiences and best practices into usable software that is applicable to all users. What some say is the most logical solution to their problem, is the exact opposite for others.

    Certainly for us as we have a SAAS solution that’s practically the same for all – although modular – so the best way to make it fit to the customers needs is to build in configuration options without making it to complex. Anyway, in addition to what we have very much like to workflow part and the first bullet about the freedom of creating your own fields and values. We’ll take that as an improvement, and if you might have some comments on our ATS, please let me know.

  16. Hi Doug,

    Great list of criteria! My issue has almost always been reporting capabilities. Why is this always an after-thought for the people who decide on what system to implement?

    @Keith, I agree with you that the front line recruiters need to be involved in the decision making process. All the points you made on this were spot on. The other thing I would add is from a change management perspective. They are more likely to embrace the new system with positivity if they are involved in the process. When they are not – it impedes their ability to be efficient, creates negativity, and just another thing for them to constantly whine about. I don’t blame them though. The recruiting job is a constant juggle and the ATS should be a tool to organize, keep compliant and enable a more efficient process.

  17. Keith and Crystal – thanks for the kind words! I agreed that the users of the system need to be involved in the evaluation, selection, and implementation of that system. That’s how I got into all of this stuff to begin with…I was a user that displayed an interest in it and was given a chance to be involved in all technology related issues moving forward. Very valid points.

    Martijn – You make solid points as well. Just because one person, or one company, or even a couple of customers may request certain functionality, it may not be something that benefits the majority of your clients. The modular approach seems to work best as you can use or not use what the tool offers – however, it is maddening to be a user and know that the tool has the capability to do something but we can’t have access to it without additional implementation or monthly use fees. Sell us the tool and then let us use the portions we want without any other roadblocks.

  18. Thanks, Crystal and Doug.
    Doug, since you’ve been involved a lot in this: what IS the typical process of getting a new ATS? IS there a *typical process of getting a new ATS?



    *I said that it seems recruiters/end users are only minimally involved, but that’s mainly because it hasn’t happened where my friends and I have worked or discussed by our colleagues as happening where THEY work. Maybe it happens all the time and we just don’t hear about it….

  19. Keith – The very first step to selecting an ATS is to hire me as a consultant – I’M KIDDING (kind of) 🙂

    Seriously though, the first step is to define your strategy and your process, and evaluate how effective they are going to be over the next few years. You don’t want to invest in a system and then realize that what you are doing isn’t effective.

    Once the strategies and processes are well defined, then you want to put together a requirements list (at least this is the way that I do it). This would be a very long list of features that the ATS will need to be able to accomplish in order to support your processes (pre-screen questions that are weighted and scored, online calendar sharing and scheduling, multiple talent portals, etc.). A spreadsheet is usually a good place to make this list so you can eventually have columns beside the requirements for the various ATS’s that you are considering and leave notes around if they support each specific requirement.

    Next is the really time consuming piece of the process – researching and contacting various ATS providers. You can share your requirements list with them if you’d like, or you can narrow it down to the top 10 things you are looking for that are absolute must haves, run through those with them and if they match those top 10 things, you can schedule a demo. Just understand that most sales reps that I’ve spoken with will find some way of saying “yes” to just about everything on your list, but it will be a work around or some very cumbersome way to partially do what you need it to do, or they have a partner company that you can pay additionally in order to make it happen, etc. You need to ask hard questions and very specific questions to find out the details before wasting time with a demo.

    Initial demos should be done within a set time parameter, otherwise they will go on and on. You can schedule a deep demo discussion with other more technical people from the vendor later that goes into each of your requirements. Make them show you how their ATS accomplishes everything on your list. Count clicks and see how cumbersome the processes are. This is where it really is helpful if you have someone in the room who has been through this process before and through the implementation process because their questions will vary greatly from those that a first-timer will ask.

    Develop a short list of 3 that you want to consider and then bring in other users to look at them, get under the hood, mess with it and try to see what it actually does. Get their buy-in, but make sure they are placing the most value on the operation of the tool and not how slick the user interface is. Most ATS vendors will give you a mock account and let you go explore on your own for a brief period of time.

    The rest is negotiation on terms, pricing, implementation, timeframe, response times, speed, etc. When you committed to a specific ATS and the implementation is about to take place, make sure you have someone who is the dedicated spokesperson to go back and forth with the ATS vendor. They do not need multiple voices telling them varying priorities or description – a single voice is extremely helpful. I always insisted on being a part of the build out of the ATS and not letting the ATS implementation person take their perception of my description and they go run with it and it come back differently than what was intended. It slows down everything to have to redo things.

    Once built – test, test, test, and then test some more before rolling it out to everyone else. The worst thing is for the first impression of the new tool to be that it doesn’t work. Make sure there are NO SURPRISES! Delay launch if you need to, but make sure your first impression and your training are top notch.

    That’s an abbreviated explanation Keith. Obviously there is much more involved, but those are the highlights.

  20. Very much appreciated, Doug. This is thorough and comprehensive. What is the usual level/title of the person(s) in the company (not the ATS vendor) you/the ATS vendor are working with, and do they typically participate at most/all the phases you mention, or is it normally transferred to someone(s) different as the process continues?


  21. In the phase where strategies and processes are define, then senior leadership are certainly involved. In the middle stages of exploring various tools, it’s usually a single person (me) or a small group of others that joined me. Then the short list, senior leadership and a wider audience is involved. Then a recommendation by the person or small group to the executive team on what tool should be purchased.

  22. Kudos to Jobvite senior leadership for speaking with me today to get thoughts on their ATS. It speaks volumes that you are interested in hearing the opinions of others who have used your product, as well as your competitor’s. Good luck on your product roadmap!

  23. Doug this all speaks volumes to the fact that you know what you are talking about and that ATS developers have a massive opportunity to improve the life of a recruiter.

    It’s also really cool to see that the company we chose to partner with are making the hard yards to research new improvements to their products – awesome.

  24. Sorry, Doug – I may have missed your photo if you sent it with the article. I chose a photo of the Kia, something mentioned in the article. I can always change it – you can re-email the photo.

  25. Thank you – as an an ATS vendor I was all set to dispute this article based on the headline. I assumed it was another one of the “death” predictions – like those who have been predicting the death of job boards for the last 10 yrs.

    Instead, this is an excellent overview of what to look for in a leading edge solution (like SmartSearch! shameless plug that my software has all of the above). I also appreciate the emphasis on analyzing the user requirements and not simply gravitating to the latest “shiny object” on the market.

    And it’s spot on regarding the need for built-in sourcing & assessment tools that are critical for building a viable database and not a black hole where resumes go to die.

    I am surprised the list didn’t include mobile optimization – that’s clearly where the market (and job seekers) are going.

    The only other things I would add on the list of what to look for in ATS is not functional: CUSTOMER SERVICE, DATA SECURITY and a proven COMMITMENT continuous product improvement.

    Choose a vendor that wants to “future proof” its software with a short development cycle that’s responsive to changes in technology and the recruitment landscape.

  26. Great article and discussion. I think the most important thing to look at first is that some ATS’s are for corporate and some are for agency. From what I’ve been told of many of the corporate products, companies like Taleo and Workday are not user friendly and a “jack of all trades, master of none”. The problem is that it’s hard to be a mater of all things recruiting. Any vendor worth a damn should give a 30 day trial so your recruiters can get their hands on the product in real world situations.

    @Jennifer: I’m a boutique firm and looks at Akken Cloud and found it to be too expensive for my needs. I subsequently did a trial of Cbizsoft, whose product is called Exelare. It is very intuitive and easy to customize for your own needs. In the areas I wasn’t able to make changes to, I just sent an email with 5-10 items I needed changed and support got these things done within 24 hours. It’s very much geared for staffing, which I have never done, but found it easy to change what I didn’t like and ignore things I didn’t need.

  27. Carol – you are correct. There are various ATS’s that have been designed a niche tool – corporate vs agency. But even broader than that, they have ATS’s that are specifically for agencies who only do contractors, and not designed for direct hire. Thanks for bringing up that point.

  28. Thanks again, Doug. From what you’ve said is the typical review process, most of the time it IS those who buy them don’t use them and those who use them don’t buy them. These are often the same people who’d spend tens of thousands of dollars for a Recruiting Thought Leader’s consulting but wouldn’t buy a round or two of drinks for his/her staff to ask them what they need to improve their own work…



  29. Wow, lots of opinions here. I’ve been recruiting for more that 20 years. What I find missing in most recruiting systems is a solid CRM (candidate relationship management) platform. Moving applicants through a process is only a portion of what a recruiter should be doing. Unfortunately, most systems make the users work for the application rather than the application working for the users. Jobscience is a solution built on the world’s number one CRM ( A flexible platform, easy to use, and millions invested in r&d every year.

  30. Yes, Jackie. CRM functionality is important, but usually sold in pieces or modules. From an agency standpoint, tracking sales activities into having a new client and then opening up new requisitions should be a seamless process. Unfortunately though, most haven’t set it up that way. But it goes beyond that. It should flow from CRM to ATS to Onboarding to Accounting/Payroll to EMS (Employee Management System). Lots of elements that would be helpful if someone would build stellar systems into the same tool.

  31. Doug – I really enjoyed your article. Not only did I find it helpful and practical but often times I read articles like this and have to take a big gulp if the systems (assessments and ATS) we recommend don’t match up. Most of our clients are small business, many under 100 employees. One of the best features I found was the ability to weight and score questions. I’ve been using a feature like this for 10 years. When the system started to falter, I worked with the current ATS provider to include this feature. They balked at first but we insisted. The ability to set up pre-screening questions for each job and assign weights to each response has been invaluable. Sorting through a bunch of yes/no and true/false questions one-by-one is just crazy…and ineffective. The downside however is that many companies don’t really understand how to weight the responses. More specifically they don’t know what requirements are necessary vs nice-to-have. For example, someone comes up with the idea that a 4 year degree is required. When weighting the questions, any applicant with less than a 4 year degree is disqualified. Managers then go sorting through disqualified applicants and make exceptions. In effect, qualified applicants are rejected for arbitrary reasons. But I digress a bit because inefficiencies like this aren’t the result of a bad ATS but bad management and practices. Even if an ATS includes all the recommended features and more, it doesn’t make up for bad practices. It’s like any other technology – garbage in, garbage out. I’m quite confident that many companies thrive on average or even inadequate ATS while the best ATS won’t help a company hoping that technology can overcome recruiting and screening incompetence. Thanks again for the thought provoking article.

  32. @Doug,

    One place I’ve noticed where all ATS systems I’ve used have come up short, but which is critical for ANY recruiting, is helping to automate the follow up process. I would kill for feature that would allow me to put people into a queue so I could get reminders to call them at particular intervals. You can do this with Outlook or any number of tools, but it requires separate data entry. An automated feature in the ATS that added a candidate to a queue once they were in a particular status, say Submitted to Client, which would then put them on a call list to remind you to call/follow up once every couple of days would be a very useful tool. The volume of candidates many of us deal with means some are inevitably going to slip our minds.

  33. Excellent article. However there are questions you should ask before writing something like this. For starters you should ask how much would an ATS cost to build if it had all the bells and whistles you mentioned above. How much would it cost to maintain it and most importantly how much am I willing to pay to use it? What you’re talking about is a system that could easily cost somewhere between $200 – $300K just to build when you’d only probably be willing to pay a maximum of $100 – $200 a month to use the system. Therefore, many companies that develop these types of systems understand that and make decisions based on economic value. Sure I could build the system, but is it worth it?

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