When Applicant Tracking Systems Attack

Applicant tracking systems are wonderful contraptions, aren’t they? Recruiters: what a great pleasure to behold to have a system where you can review, disposition, and index all of the extraordinary candidates who apply to our jobs. It sifts through resumes; it assesses the skills of candidates; it even allows us to interview and check the backgrounds of the rockstars who await that shiny new offer from our companies.

Let’s not forget that these systems are going mobile these days and have befriended our dear associate social media.

The possibilities are endless and surely we recruiters will persevere in our quest to hire the best candidate for every job. These ATS’s do it all! They can do what we were incapable of doing on our own for decades. Our work has decreased and been made easier as the ATS has advanced. All of our vacancies are filled in a timely manner. Retention of all hired employees since the implementation of the ATS has remained with our companies.

The C-suite has stopped questioning the value of HR because our analytics and reporting are unmatched. Payroll, Benefits, Compensation, and Learning Management are all playing nice with the ATS and speak to one another in the King’s English — crisp and clear. What on earth did we do before the ATS?

Who loves the ATS more than us?

Jobseekers, of course! Jobseekers love to enter seamless, intuitive career portals that allow endless possibilities for uploading and applying to positions. These fantastic ATS’s don’t stop. They churn out updates on the many jobs you apply to. You have direct, real-time knowledge of where your resume is going. If you’re lucky, you will be pre-screened, interviewed, hired, and onboarded via this system. In the end, you say what a wonderful experience this has been. It was quick, intuitive, and painless, and I got a job as a result. Why can’t everything in life be this easy? The problem is nothing in life is this easy and ATS’s are no departure from this.

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The truth is recruiters spend more time troubleshooting and working around the things that don’t work in the ATS than they do enjoying the inherent benefits of the system. The other truth is jobseekers spend more time concerned about whether their resume has been received and/or the status of their application to truly have what we call a “positive” end user experience. Now that we know the truth we realize that both sides are far too involved in managing the system and its outputs to experience it in all its glory.

Vendors will say the issue is poor implementation and customers will say the ATS on the whole just stinks. There is truth in both theories, so let’s explore ways to satisfy the masses and perhaps change the course of events going forward:

  1. If you are a company in the process of implementing a new ATS, realize that if you put garbage in you will get garbage out. Spend time and resources looking at your recruitment and onboarding processes for inefficiencies. Remember that the system should not drive your process the process should drive the system.
  2. ATS’s can do almost everything you can think of that pertains to the management of talent. Do not mistake its ability to do “almost everything” to doing “everything” your mind can conjure. There is a limit. It is not a procurement system. It is not likely to talk to any homegrown systems your savvy IT team has created. And it will not ask you how your day was. At best, it is a system that will facilitate your team’s efforts to attract, select, hire, develop, and retain your employees. That is all.
  3. ATS vendors: do spend time, money, and resources in research and development of your product. Be sure your test groups are comprised of recruiters and others likely to use the system. Sometimes it seems that you are asking the wrong people about the functionality of your system. Get the word from the streets!
  4. Users shouldn’t feel like they need a class in C++, Java, or a degree in computer programming to use an ATS. It should be smooth, intuitive, and easy to use. In addition, users shouldn’t have to go backwards in life by using old software because you fail to keep up-to-date with your support.
  5. While you are focused on user experience don’t forget the reason why you exist in the first place: the jobseekers. If jobseekers are so overwhelmed by the obstacles of the system that they fail to apply at all, we all lose.

The bottom line is applicant tracking systems are phenomenal inventions. However, when they are ill-conceived and/or poorly implemented they are headaches and a terrible waste of time. Conversely, when humans fail to evolve in accordance with the advances of HR technology, there is fear and lack of understanding which leads to panic, and in turn ends in misuse of a perfectly good tool.

photo from bigstock

Janine N. Truitt is a human resources professional as well as an HR blogger/founder of “The Aristocracy of HR” blog. Follow her blog "The Aristocracy of HR" at http://hr.toolbox.com/blogs/aristocracy-hr/ . Connect with her on LinkedIn and follow her tweets on Twitter @CzarinaofHR. The opinions shared in her articles are her own and are in no way a reflection of the views of her employer.


35 Comments on “When Applicant Tracking Systems Attack

  1. The very term ATS contains seeds of user discontent because “spplicants” are end-stage recruiting products. You can track applicants with recruiting software, but good luck recruiting with applicant tracking software…..

  2. Hi Martin,

    ATS is very much synonymous with user discontent namely because of all the bad experiences people can draw from. I’m sympathetic to both sides as I don’t think either is ill-intended. Implemention and development of this technology needs to be better and moreover people need to see it as a facilitator to their recruitment not the end all be all.

    Thanks for reading and your comment.

    Best Regards,


  3. Hi Phil,

    You’re preaching today! You are absolutely correct. These systems cost tens of thousands of dollars and for them not to do what they are intended to do is utterly ridiculous in my opinion. Someone is messing up.

    Thanks for your comment and reading!

    Best Regards,


  4. ATS absolutely kills our applicant conversion performance. Post jobs which direct applicants to an ATS process immediately discourages 25% or more of our job seeker to proceed further. “Been there / done that all too often ” is their attitude.
    My tip to encourage diverse talent to apply is to include an email address for their use. A blind email address such as “jobs@companyname.XXX” or “jobtitlehere”@companyname.XXX” bets posting an ATS URL since it hints at the possibility a real person might view their submission. My .02 cents.

  5. I wish the T in ATS stood for source tracking.

    It’s amazing how many ATSes do NOT offer source tracking.

    Seems so obvious this would be a standard feature, but it’s not on many ATSes.

  6. How many ATS get picked due to the feedback of the recruiters who’d be using it? Not many, I bet. The people who decide to buy ’em, don’t have to use ’em….


  7. ATS systems were primarily built to manage the applicants on the back-end at a time where job postings were the whole sourcing strategy.

    With the rise of social networks, the spread of platforms, and the changing candidate behavior, it would be unrealistic to post the same old job and expect a software to find, follow, engage, convince, and convert prospective candidates.

    In a nutshell, the ATS can only be one component of a full suite of communication tools, technologies, and human exchanges. Therefore, they are not – and will not be able to become – phenomenal inventions unless they are supported by strategists, social experts, copywriters, designers, analysts, etc… but they wouldn’t be software applications anymore and wouldn’t cost tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands of dollars.

  8. @ Jay Silver – Amen!!! Or when they do offer “source tracking” it’s the always accurate job seeker selected drop down box. Now those produce top notch analytics to base purchase and/or renewal decisions on.

  9. @ Adam Luckeroth, “job seeker selected drop down box” is not source tracking. It’s just a waste of everyone’s time.

    This is source tracking: https://garmin.taleo.net/careersection/4/jobdetail.ftl?lang=en&job=69940&src=JB-12345 <— src=JB-12345 is a specific code for a specific website. No candidate interference.

    @ ERE, please integrate Disqus so we don't have to type @ to each other and your comments are organized. It's 2012, c'mon guys. It takes less that 1 hour.

  10. What can I say after building ATS systems or recruiting for my entire career. Great short to the point article on the reality and usability of Applicant Tracking Systems.

  11. Wow, as the Staffing Director for my company I had the task of sourcing and implementing our first ATS last year. We ultimately chose our product based on user friendliness and cost. It has been a lifesaver for me. My complaint is never with the system, but with the people using it. We have generalists do the bulk of our recruiting and they sometimes struggle with keeping up and ensuring accuracy.

    I also made sure that the applicant process would take 10 minutes or less, and would NOT entail repeating a lot of employment information already found in the resume. We have had a lot of positive feedback from our applicants.

    I have to say my ATS has made my job much easier and the metrics and analytics I can report are amazing.

  12. We chose Peoplefluent (formally Peopleclick). Implementation was easy and my program manager was awesome. It was a lot of work but we came in on time, on budget, etc. I’m also the System Administrator and I find most of that fairly easy to do as well.

  13. Hi Bill,

    I here you with regard to diversity recruitment. The truth of the matter is diversity recruitment is a separate entity on its own. I don’t think it is something that anyone ATS vendor has focused in on with the exception of PeopleFluent who has an affirmative action plan integration for their recruitment solution. Alternate strategies are needed to ensure successful recruitment of diverse candidates.

    Thanks for reading and your comment.

    Best Regards,


  14. Hello Chafic,

    Thank you for your comment. I understand your point about the expectations of ATS. However, all of the ATS vendors sell you on how these systems can attract, engage, hire and facilitate retention of candidates and hires. This is the whole allure of using these systems. That said, while us customers take these claims with a grain of salt we expect that these systems will live up to the hype.

    I don’t think that is unreasonable.

    I appreciate you reading.

    Best Regards,


  15. Hi Kim,

    Thanks for your comment.I agree that often times people destroy the allure of a system by either not utilizing the system to its fullest potential or just using it incorrectly altogether.

    I am currently in the process of assisting my company with the selection of a new ATS as well. Could we connect offline? I would love to hear a little more about your experience with PeopleFluent. I would appreciate any feedback you can provide.

    Thanks for reading.

    Best Regards,


  16. Having had the experience of working with an ATS vendor and also being a user and applicant, I can say that they are far form perfect and all three audiences have different perceptions of what actually works.
    From the vendor perspective, sometimes too little time is spend focussing on the user experience, which can sometimes be decided by developers and not recruiters.
    As a recruiter while there are a lot of features which I would like, the most important thing for me is that it can work as fast as I can. There is nothing more frustrating than features not doing what they should do or being too slow.

  17. Hi Stephen,

    You are absolutely correct. The user experience above all is missing adequate attention which is why there is some much discontent overall with ATS.

    As you pointed out, recruiters just want to do their work. After implementation there is no time to be figuring out how to use basic functions.

    Thanks for reading and your comment.

    Best Regards,


  18. Bill made a very valid point, except his figures were way short of what really happens. Unless your ATS is anything other than a fully automated system, that uploads the CV posted to you directly from the job board or candidate, then you are asking the applicant to do something that will potentially put them off applying. Even if its as simple as “upload CV here”

    The average amount of drop off at stage 1 in the ATS process (when they land on your applicant tracking system) is closer to 60%

    Guess what – Its going be the best 60% of applicants too

    Why? because semi passive candidates trawling the web for potentially new opportunities, because they are having a bad day at the office, wont jump through hoops. Not any hoops. They just cant be bothered to start filling in forms and uploading CV’s.

    Biggest problem is with gauging the ATS customer experience is generally that the “customer” has already left your site without leaving anyway of getting back to them.

    We recently managed a campaign for a client using an ATS that had nearly 300 applications from the job boards alone, but just 7 people applied on their ATS for the job.

  19. Through my search regarding the ATS approach towards the candidate selection process, I have a few questions for those who wish to respond. I have been unemployed for three years mainly because I have been providing care to my ailing parents. This has been done with (zero) income I might add. Within the past few months, I have been engaging the job seeker process via careerbuilder.com, monster.com, usajobs.gov, and hundreds of other job boards, especially those that are military friendly. I have had NO interviews or calls. My background is mostly management, i.e., Project Manager, Operations Manager, Construction Manager, etc. I have spent roughly $1500 on having two different CPRW’s assist in this process because I wanted to see if they could penetrate this ATS approach, as I was not having luck in doing so. So I ask the question, how does the ATS look at candidates that have 3 years of unemployment? I have included (caregiver) with a brief description of duties and/or achievements to stay in alignment, and still no calls. I have also excluded this information just to see the results. Still zero. Is there possibly a site where I can visit so that I can learn what it is that I need to do in order to become recognized by a software? I have been in charge of managing millions of dollars of revenue, but I can’t overcome this ATS, which seems a bit discriminating. Thank you for any input you may have.

  20. Dan, it’s not the system – unless there are specific knockout questions provided when you apply, it would still be all reliant on the recruiter looking over the resumes. All resumes submitted in our ATS are reviewed by the recruiter working that requisition and the hiring managers. Since I don’t know what level positons you have been applying for, I can’t really comment too specifically on anything, but your tenure outside the workforce may put you in a position where you may need to apply for lower level jobs than what you were used to just to get a foot in the door. You may have already been doing that, but unfortunately, that’s the reality – technology and processes evolved quickly these days and employers may perceive that gap in employment in a gap in being acquainted with the latest and greatest.

  21. Thank you Kim. I have to somewhat disagree with you. The (system) is part of the problem. Not all mind you, but part. Actually, there are several factors that contribute to being part of the problem. For starters, (High unemployment; Employers are taking advantage of the selection process, i.e., screening, because there are so many; They are also taking advantage of lower salaries for those youth who just got out of college who do not have a family to feed, nor do they have the experience as most would; Also the “system” demands you utilize it, but the system needs to understand this is a two way street. The system, if that is going to be the new modern practice to use (which I have read in several forums that it should go away), needs to share with the general public its tactics and strategies so that the job seeker knows exactly what to do in order to become recognized. It’s almost boiled down to plagiarism. You “have” to use the keywords it demands, as you take the job description and use its verbiage in a molded fashion. You just can’t describe your experience and be creative anymore it seems, as WE USED TO BE. Then there is the zip code search the recruiter employs. What if the job is in Alaska that I am applying to, and the recruiter has filtered the ATS to search within a 50 mile radius? I live in Florida, so how does the ATS know that I am more than willing to relocate? The gap in employment is due to caring for my ailing parents, so I guess the system has no heart, respectfully. They cared for me until I was 18, so three years to give back is not that much. I had no choice in the matter to provide this to them. Have I forgotten how to manage during this time? Of course not. I provided direct management to over 900 employees, so it is hard to forget those things, or the technology as you mentioned. To be quite honest, I have NEVER had a problem in obtaining or keeping employment, until now. The market is saturated with cross media marketing to hire the Veterans, but this veteran isn’t accepted obviously. I know…poor little Marine Veteran. I am not intentionally trying to be sarcastic, but if you have witnessed the very intensive research I have done in the recruiting process, and have followed every bit of professional advice from “several” reputable sources, I find that not all advice is consistent, and extremely misleading. Knowing that hiring companies are not all the same doesn’t matter. It’s the (system) that needs to talk back to us so we can learn it. For me to step back to a lower wage is insulting. My last salary was $140,000 annually, and I made the company 30 times that or more in additional revenue within 2 years. Have I considered a lower salary? You bet I have. When I have zero income in my household, and kids to feed, I am doing ALL I can to stay afloat, including selling everything in sight if that is what it takes. I can give you a very lengthy list of all my findings on this systematic approach in screening applicants that are not all that positive. I have to add as a response to your comment, that my resume has been through the mill to get it as perfect as possible, so as to please the system, as well as the human eyes. I take each job advertisement and mold it in my resume. I use preptel.com and wordle,com amongst other sites that help guide you the right direction (supposedly). For the average job, it might take me 20-30 minutes, or more, depending on the requirements, to revise the resume and cover letter. I apply to about 20-30 jobs per day. Do the math, it is a full time job. No longer can you just waltz in the front door of a company, and introduce yourself while handing them a resume. They won’t allow it in most I have visited. It has to go through their website first of course. I have been through roughly 5 weeks of intensive resume coaching through the Veterans Administration. This was for Federal as well as the civilian sector. I have utilized the service of the local Veteran’s Representative employed by the One Stop Career Center, with no results. I just can’t sleep anymore, because I don’t have the answer to WHY. If you or any of your colleagues have ideas on how to help me get employed, I am all ears. I will happily share my resume with you. Sorry for the long wind, but I am hanging from a very small branch, or better yet, twig. Thank you.

  22. Dan,

    I am sorry that you are having such a hard time. However, I have to agree to some extent with Kim. The ATS is not some evil war lord conspiring to keep opportunities out of your reach. All things considered, if you meet the minimum qualifications and if your resume includes details that would let the person reading it know that you are indeed qualified; you should be getting calls.

    I don’t know enough about the jobs you are applying for, the companies, or your background to say whether the problem lies with your resume or my fellow recruiters out there.

    The market is over-saturated and one of the things that could contribute to you not getting through is data management techniques. This is where a recruiter gets say 200 applications for a particular opening and they figure they will count off by threes and whoever the third person is of those sets gets reviewed. My numbers are arbitrary but there are many ways this is done. It is not uncommon for recruiters to use this technique when there are high volumes of applicants. Legally, there is nothing wrong with it as long as it is consistently practiced and they can justify the business need to use this method.

    My point is there are many of us and I include myself in this that will review every application that comes in through the ATS and then there are some that don’t. Many candidates think they qualify for positions that they really don’t qualify for. Sometimes it is the thought that I “could” do this given my background and a potential for training. Unfortunately, employers have moved away from the “coulds” to the “cans” and they want to know from the point of the resume “do you have the knowledge, skills and abilities to do the job.

    Please know that I am genuinely sorry for your situation and to that point I am a huge advocate for veterans. I personally don’t think we do enough for you all, but that is a separate conversation for a different post.

    Thanks for reading and I wish you the best in your continued journey to finding a job.

    All the best,


  23. Does anyone know if there are ATS systems out there that are fully mobile optimized — meaning that a candidate can use his/her smartphone to easily complete an ATS application process?

  24. Recruiters – what ATS System do feel is the best for recruiting within the Staffing Industry?
    Is anybody currently using Job Diva? My company utilized Job Diva years ago then switched to Bullhorn.
    Personally, I loved recruiting with Bullhorn. Unfortunately, Bullhorn has become a great disappointment and is not living up to its previous standards.
    Researching the newest ATS Systems can be mind-boggling and ONLY A RECRUITER LIKE OURSELVES know what makes our life a bit easier.
    I appreciate any Suggestions.
    Irene @ RIGHTECH

  25. As a follow up, are there any sources on this planet that might list search parameters utilized on these ATS systems by the majority of recruiters? Knowing that all ATS packages are more than likely indifferent to one another, perhaps there is a “common” pattern of search parameters utilized by recruiters? I ask this because I am (still) unemployed. My last post here was in December 2012. I have been unemployed since November of 2009!!!

    As an unemployed Veteran, I am just asking for honesty here. Out of the HUNDREDS of resume submissions I have made, and not to receive one interview in this time frame is just pure sickening. I have tried the front door approach, and that doesn’t work. I have been networking with as many as possible, all with no results thus far.

    Let’s say that I follow all the golden rules of the resume submission process. My cover letter has been (molded) to fit that of the job description. My resume, the same. I extract from the job description all important and relevant keywords, which are then (molded) into my resume. I ensure that I meet all requirements, and I point those out clearly. The font used is normally Arial, size of font is 11. When utilizing an ASCII format, I ensure my character width is no more than 60. I leave out all fancy graphics, etc. I make sure that my past job titles are first, company name second, dates of employment third, and location of employment last. Normally the location ends up on second line. Job titles are all capitalized. I am sure I am missing out on a hundred other rules of the ATS requirements, (As they are not widely publicized for some reason), but I REALLY need to know why I am not being looked at to fill even the lowest wage positions, “that I have actually applied to”.

    I have paid out roughly $4,000 to professional resume writers, both CPRW and the Master Resume Writer. I have utilized the free services of the VA Career Coaching, which helped produce a Federal formatted resume. I have expended hundreds of hours in fine tuning my resume over these YEARS. I have researched Recruiting forums and several other articles pointing to today’s recruiting practices, and I still do not have the answer to WHY I am being looked over. Perhaps age discrimination? Say it isn’t so! I see this daily, but not one company will admit to it. I am 48 if it brings an honest response to my inquiry.

    My past positions have been Project Manager, Operations Manager, Logistics Manager, Division Manager, and more. All of which have been successful (without) a degree or specific certification. In today’s environment, the ATS is programmed, filtered, or whatever, to seek out ONLY those who have these. Years ago a High School Janitor filled out an application and was hired. Today the job title is Sanitation Engineer and that applicant better have a degree that relates.

    Listen, I know I come across as angry or what have you, but in reality I am a very nice person, and love to shake hands with the perfect stranger. But if the author of this article has a (bible) to offer, as for providing the (applicant) the needed ammunition to apply and be SEEN, I will gladly pay for this.

    Me and my family are in crisis mode right now, and as of yesterday I began to initiate the Homeless program consulting call through the VA, and have no idea what to expect. Scared? Sure I am. Worried? Yep. Do I need help in finding work? YES!!

    As for filters or selection process in these ATS packages, the author pointed out that some use the (3’s) method, and some look at all applicants. What about zip code filters? What about all the other filters utilized? Is there anywhere on the Internet where someone like myself can go to so I can arm myself appropriately?? I have seen video presentations on how some of these filters are there for the recruiter to use or not to use. I can pull up hundreds of articles that tell the reader how to format the resume, or how to write a winning cover letter, but not one of these articles is consistent, and they never relate to the needs or requirements of the ATS that is being used.

    All I am trying to do, is to level the playground to make it EASIER to land a job. Thank you.

    One last comment. One of the posters here, Ms. Irene Pate, posted her inquiry, which included

    “Researching the newest ATS Systems can be mind-boggling and ONLY A RECRUITER LIKE OURSELVES know what makes our life a bit easier.”

    Knowing what makes your life a bit “easier” is insulting to those who are working probably harder to FIND work! Sorry, but that comment is just pure wrong. By the way, when the ATS was being marketed very heavily when our economy was about to collapse, that was their sales pitch; “This will make your work easier”.

    I would respect that comment more if the Recruiters and/or ATS packages would include algorithms/filters that enabled better interpretation of an applicant that is highly skilled and has many years experience, and does not discriminate on those who have been unemployed FAR TOO LONG! Instead, the ATS will kick an applicant out if he/she has been unemployed for over 6 months. What a shame.

    I would like for the recruiter to be in my shoes for a moment. You have now entered 3.5 years of unemployment, you have a family of 3 you need to feed and your retirement savings are now depleted, and you have worked VERY HARD 7 days a week to find work, but the “EASY” jobs of the recruiter are not coming through for you. Now how does that make you and your children feel? On the flip side, the recruiter should be working harder to find someone such as myself. I guarantee you that I will run circles around the recent college graduate with even a 6 year degree. I started off making $50 a week working on a Georgia farm in my youth. Kids today have no idea what work really is. I offer my apology to the author, as I know I have written a book here. So I promise I will not (vent) again on your site. Thanks.

  26. Good morning Dan: Please email your resume to ipate@RIGHTECH.NET.
    Obviously, I need to see your resume in order to do my best placing you in the job market once again.

    A Recruiter knows that they do not need to have an active job opening in order to place candidates. If they really know their clients – your resume can be forwarded to clients who utilizes a candidates skills plus (in your case) – I would also seek out Clients whom are also Veterans & know the value of hiring a Veteran. Obviously, location plays a big part in the Recruiting process.
    I will contact you after I recieve your resume.
    Wish you the best,

  27. Dan,

    My company makes resume processing software (since 1996…) and I would like to rework your resume for you to optimize it for maximum uptake by most systems. I can run it through our software and see exactly what is happening and then tune it for you.

    As a father of two veterans, I am very attuned to the problems that you have been facing. Please email me your resume at rruff (at) sovren.com and I will review, revise, and respond. No charge….

    –R Ruff

  28. Fantastic info! I agree 100%, a great Applicant Tracking System is always worth looking into. Loosing 1 amazing employee because of the hiring process can and will hurt. Make sure you have a simply to use resume, less pictures, graphs, etc.. great ideas!

  29. Great article, quite informative. I also found another really great website called http://www.jobscan.co that will help you get your resume noticed and get you past the ATS plus it only takes a few seconds. Worked for me and I got many more interviews because of jobscan. I definitely recommend the website to anyone who is looking for a job or preparing their resume. Good luck on the job hunt and the resume!

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