Applicant tracking systems often rely on humans to fine-tune their processes. Is your organization doing enough?

When employers encounter issues with their ATS, it might be because recruiters and HR departments aren’t communicating clearly enough.
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photo: Getty Images

· 5 min read

For a recruiter facing a tornado of applications for each open job, an applicant tracking system (ATS) might seem like the Wizard of Oz—an all-knowing oracle who only grants interviews to the most qualified Dorothys, scarecrows, tin men, and cowardly lions. But, as we’ve previously reported, ATS processes are not perfect and can sometimes cause strong candidates to slip through the cracks. A report last year from researchers at Harvard Business School found that of 2,275 senior leaders surveyed across Germany, the UK and the US, 88% said that “high-skills candidates are vetted out of the process because they do not match the exact criteria established by the job description.”

In reality, ATS might be more like Oscar Diggs—the fallible huckster hiding behind the curtain—than a powerful wizard. But two HR tech experts who spoke with HR Brew said there are ways for employers to root out the inefficiencies in their ATS processes, and it starts with clear communication between recruiters, HR, and management teams.

A necessary evil. “I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘We love our ATS.’ That could happen…but they’re a necessary evil. Without them, you’d be really in trouble,” Charles Handler, president of the assessment platform Sova Assessment, explained to HR Brew.’s State of Applicant Tracking Systems 2020 report found that of 285 HR and recruitment professionals queried, only “46% of respondents say their ATS is good or very good at automatically matching candidates to the right job postings and only 47% say [it is] good or very good at gathering and integrating employee referrals."

Some third-party companies promise audits that will refine any quirks with an ATS, and in a 2021 research paper, University of North Carolina School of Law professor Ifeoma Ajunwa argued that when it comes to all automated hiring practices, it isn’t just “that the law allows for the audits, but that the spirit of antidiscrimination law requires it.”

Indeed, the Department of Justice and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently issued guidance for companies using AI-enabled hiring tools, warning that some of the tools could be discriminatory and potentially violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Linda Brenner, co-founder and managing partner of management consulting firm Talent Growth Advisors, warned in an email to HR Brew that it can be problematic when the process of refining an ATS is left entirely up to the client company: “Clients just use the screening technology and provide their own content—they have to create their own questions, answers, scoring. Therein lies the problem—bad questions, poor answer choices [which are] not valid or predictive or useful and can be discriminatory. Just like with ATS’s with interviewing tool capability—it’s just a blank slate."

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Sunny K. Joshi, a talent transformation partner at IBM, explained how an improper use of ATS on the client side can result in a dearth of quality applicants. Outsourcing recruiting, he said, can sometimes lead to a “lack of quality candidates, because sometimes third-party recruiters will then just go out and start copying and pasting different job descriptions based on whatever title that HR manager might have given them.”

This can happen when positions are vacated abruptly and HR departments need to get people hired on a quick timeline, he added. When someone quits unexpectedly, a company is “going to quickly need to get that backfill, and they’re going to just…use an old job description. Unless the ATS has specific roles or automated descriptions that it provides, managers are going to have to manually enter in that job description, skills, and all of that.”

Work backward. To avoid that extra work, communication between hiring managers, HR, and recruiters is paramount, because these conversations can form the basis for an ATS to make its decisions, explained Joshi. It’s possible that “messaging gets lost in translation between the recruiter and the HR manager, and even the ATS. The system is only going to be as good as the data that you provide it.”

To help an ATS system surface more qualified candidates, Handler said recruiters need to ask direct questions to hiring managers, such as “‘is this working for you? Are you getting qualified candidates? Are you getting a lot of noise?’” Depending on the answer, Handler said ATS users can then “work backward and see where are those candidates coming from? How are those candidates getting in front of them? Where are they entering the system? How are they tagged in the system?...It takes a concerted research effort to figure it out.”—SB

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SammBlum on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Sam for his number on Signal.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.