Small business: Is your applicant tracking system working against you?

I remember when we all hired from resumes. Really, it wasn’t long ago, but it was a very slow and sometimes painful process.

That’s why I was thrilled when the first ATS (applicant tracking system) hit the market. Because they make short work of screening candidates so the cream rises to the top, these solutions were quickly adopted by big businesses looking to fast-track quality hiring.

Small businesses, however, were frequently left behind in this process: an applicant tracking system was expensive, standalone software. Although reading only a handful or resumes for an occasional available position was doable, requiring paper resumes was not only a waste of some occasional spare time, it was limiting the applicant pool. Fortunately that’s changed, since now small businesses can affordably access applicant tracking software, too.

My question now for small business isn’t “when are you going to adopt the technology,” it’s “are you using your ATS right so you get the best candidates?”

How to use an Applicant Tracking System

Back when we read resumes and used our own wits to assess which applicants moved to the screening round, it was pretty rare that a really amazing candidate got past anyone. But it was even rarer that key roles were filled in a timely manner, which put those amazing candidates at risk of finding another job in the mean time.

Problems arise, however, when you either have your ATS do too much or too little. Like all HR technology, your applicant tracking software needs support from experts. Companies that sell you access to an applicant tracking system but don’t provide guidance on how to get the right candidates could saddle your hiring efforts with the following problems:

Thesaurus unwanted — so is creativity. When you set up a job in an applicant tracking system, you’ll include keywords that you want the ATS to find in the application. Candidates are graded on the usage of these keywords/terms, and scored based on the number of times specific keywords appear (“keyword density”). Our ATS is no exception. For some roles, however, we caution against relying on keywords too much: really great candidates may also be very creative causing them to steer clear of repetitive descriptions for jobs. They may also use terminology that was unique to a former employer. You can tell your applicant tracking system to look for synonyms, but I’d also suggest consulting an HR pro and taking a quick glance at any application that doesn’t quite make the cut but seems awfully close. That way you’re not eliminating truly creative minds.

The slacker who found the right article. Have you ever Googled “Applicant tracking system?” It’s why I wrote this article — because of the plethora of articles for job applicants that look at how to talk to the ATS, not to the prospective employer. Each of these articles centers around one thing: maximizing an ATS score without increasing experience. While I could never fault a candidate who speaks the language of their audience, if your small business is only inviting the top 10 applicants from the applicant tracking system to an in-person interview, you want to fill the interview slots with the best applicants. Period. Your ATS scores should single out the top candidates … but it’s still advisable to review anyone who scores a “close second” to ensure you’re getting candidates with the greatest potential to excel at the job, not the application process.

Experience is all wrong … but not really. You need your applicant tracking system to send you people with the most relevant experience. Be sure, however, you consider the following:

  • Limiting experience to 2-8 years could rule out great candidates with 12 years of experience. Not everyone is concerned about upward mobility in a company — sometimes candidates just want to be experts at the one thing they love to do.
  • Rigid job titles and levels might eliminate applicants who held relevant positions in companies that used different titles and hierarchies. “Manager” seems like a pretty straightforward title, but at some companies, every frontline employee is deemed a manager; at other companies, senior managers are labeled as “group leads” or “strategists.” You just never know.
  • Screening for MBAs-only could cause candidates with three undergraduate degrees, a JD or an MFA to score lower, even with relevant experience that far exceed the MBA candidate.
  • Ignoring a candidate with a recent work history gap could mean you might miss a strong contributor who took a few years off to raise a child, write a book, care for a parent, start a business, travel, or finish an advanced degree. Imagine what that background could do for your business.

HR technology is one of the best ways to make employee management easier for companies of all sizes. But if your small business relies solely on technology without expert guidance to back it up, you may be missing the mark in everything from compliance to recruiting and hiring.

Today’s applicant tracking systems are pretty incredible, but it’s still a good idea to consult with an HR professional when you start using one and to ensure your team is trained in more than just how to use the system. Ask the provider of your HR tools if they offer training on how to write effective job descriptions and how to conduct screenings and interviews, too (if they don’t, it’s time to move elsewhere — training and accessible expertise are essential for small teams). While you no longer have to buy a big-business, big-expense applicant tracking system to tap into the productivity advantages that enterprise-level counterparts have, you do have to stay competitive by finding the right candidates for your small-but-growing team. Just be sure technology is working for you, not against you.

applicant tracking system

How to ensure you’re getting the most from your applicant tracking system.
Image credits

the real cost of employee turnover

Vacancies can add up to big costs for businesses (see infographic above); when you’re staring down a stack of 90 applications for a single opening, your applicant tracking system is a lifesaver.

Are you ready to start using an applicant tracking system? Contact your Stratus.hr rep today! If you aren’t currently a Stratus.hr client, please fill out the information below and we’ll be in touch with you shortly.









Cariann Lieske

Author Cariann Lieske

While Cariann used to run an office, she is now focusing her career on Human Resources. When she’s not helping others resolve their employment issues, Cariann can be found wedging her way through an obstacle race or chauffeuring her husband for another 50-miler.

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