7 Reasons to Love Your ATS

Thanks to recent advances, the long-maligned applicant tracking system may now be more help than headache.

By Dave Zielinski Oct 1, 2015
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For many years, corporate recruiters have loved to hate their applicant tracking systems. The promise of a sleek digital interface, robust analytics, automated responses and sophisticated search tools never really materialized, leaving companies and candidates frustrated and wishing for more. And the cost of upgrading an applicant tracking system (ATS) gave HR executives headaches as they attempted to convince their bosses that, this time, the money would be well-spent.

Yet a new day may be fast approaching. Applicant tracking systems have come a long way in recent years and, with the emergence of new technology vendors with competitive products and pricing, many old-line providers have stepped up their game. They are using cloud-based models with more-intuitive interfaces, for example, and tools that allow recruiters to cast a wider net for candidates.

To be sure, the latest wave of ATS technology isn’t perfect, but a rising number of recruiters say that, for the first time, they can rely on their ATS to help their hiring teams collaborate more efficiently and use easily customized recruiting workflows. Moreover, at long last, candidates are reporting that they can more easily apply to jobs from their desktop or mobile device, either directly or via social media, and receive real-time updates on their status.

“What once was an employer-driven applicant tracking market has gradually become more candidate-driven,” says Erin Wilson, a talent engineer with Yahoo who uses an ATS from vendor Greenhouse. “Traditional systems existed primarily as resume databases, but the modern version of the ATS is more of a well-rounded recruitment optimization tool.”

Indeed, today’s state-of-the-art systems offer a full-service recruiting platform that integrates individual applications such as skills assessments or employee referrals. Many also include candidate relationship management platforms, onboarding tools and other functions. Here are seven reasons to turn your ATS frown upside down:

 

“Today’s products are born of the Web rather than client-server environments, and, for systems native to the cloud, the user experience is probably one of the best new capabilities,” says Elaine Orler, CEO of Talent Function, a talent acquisition consulting firm in San Diego. “Largely gone are the days when users had to go through 17 steps to get the one thing they needed in an ATS.”

Many newer systems also reduce or eliminate the need to conduct special training on their use.

“We can’t be onsite to help if any of our HR admins need assistance … so it’s important that everyone feel comfortable with the interface,” says Patricia Burgess, senior manager of talent acquisition for Lehigh Hanson, a construction materials company in Irving, Texas. Her company uses IBM Kenexa’s BrassRing. “We also wanted a one-stop shop for our recruiters and HR professionals for candidate relationship management and onboarding tasks.”

Some newer players in the market, including Greenhouse and SmartRecruiters, also offer more-intuitive ATS interfaces that can be easily integrated with “add-on” recruiting technologies from other vendors, such as video interviewing, pre-hire assessment and the sourcing of passive candidates. “These systems have created extended partner ecosystems,” Orler says.

They are not, however, flawless. “Some lack a robust architecture to handle large company needs,” Orler says. “And there is still more feature functionality to be added to the new generation of systems.”

 

Many of the arrows slung at the ATS have been due to the difficulty candidates experience when uploading resumes or the dissatisfaction they feel when they have to fill out long forms. For that reason, application abandonment rates of 60 to 75 percent aren’t unusual, says Lisa Rowan, head of HR and talent management services research at consulting firm IDC.

Some ATS providers have responded by offering mobile options that enable job seekers to apply with social media profiles—since most don’t store resumes on smartphones.

Rowan cites job board company CareerBuilder as a leader in reducing application abandonment rates. Mary Delaney, president of CareerBuilder’s Recruitment Software Solutions group, says three changes to its ATS have helped cut drop-off rates in half: Candidates are no longer required to register before applying, the mobile application process was streamlined, and people were given a clear way to apply to a company vs. for a specific job.

“Mobile-apply”—as the mobile application process is called—has become critical for companies seeking top prospects, recruiting experts say. A full 50 percent of job seekers used a smartphone in 2014 to search and apply for at least one job, according to data from Appcast.io, which analyzed more than 250,000 applications and data from multiple applicant tracking systems.

“If there isn’t a mobile-friendly apply option for candidates, our data show the drop-off rate is 70 percent,” Delaney says.

More companies are getting the message. According to the latest Corporate Mobile Readiness Report from mobile research and recruiting platform provider iMomentous, the number of Fortune 500 companies with a mobile-apply process rose 80 percent in the third quarter of 2014 from same-year first-quarter numbers, although the total number of companies offering this functionality is still relatively small at 87. And those with a mobile-optimized careers site rose 52 percent in the same period.

Application form length has long been a source of angst in the recruiting industry. The good news is that recruiters can control this aspect of the ATS experience themselves. The Appcast.io study found that the completion rate dropped from 12.5 percent to 3.6 percent if an application took more than 15 minutes to finish. That’s why the recruiting team at CareerBuilder reduced the amount of information it requires from candidates on first contact.

“We want to gather the smallest amount of information from the candidate so they’ll start to engage with us,” Delaney says. “There’s no need to deliver full applications upfront. Ask for enough information to begin a relationship, then gather more of the critical information later.”

Of the 300 HR professionals CareerBuilder interviewed in 2014, however, 53 percent still believed longer applications were better, Delaney says. “HR pros in the survey also said their job application took an average of 20 or more minutes to complete,” she says. “Yet 62 percent of candidates surveyed said they wouldn’t apply if the process took over 20 minutes.”

Another potential problem with the job seeker experience lies further downstream: communicating with candidates after they apply. In the past, systems with automated tools for acknowledging applications or answering candidates have been rare. Often, there was no easy way to keep applicants apprised of their status.

Fortunately, this, too, is evolving. In the Greenhouse ATS, for example, when candidates are rejected, recruiters are presented with a pop-up e-mail form. “You can use the e-mail template or customize it, but we want recruiters to communicate with candidates at this stage,” says Daniel Chait, CEO of the New York City-based vendor. A “thank you for applying” template can also be used to acknowledge receipt of an application.

“The ability to automatically update candidates as their resume or application moves from one stage to another sets you apart on the candidate experience,” says Kyle Lagunas, principal analyst of talent acquisition at Lighthouse Research & Advisory in Austin, Texas. “Can the system prompt a recruiter, as part of a workflow, to update candidates if it’s been two weeks since they were in touch with them?” It’s a good question to ask potential vendors.

 

“We’re getting more savvy on social,” Lagunas says. “For a long time, social integration just meant it was easier for recruiters to push jobs out to social networks. … Now systems are doing things similar to content marketing on social and measuring how social drives engagement with a candidate community.”

Built-in personality and cognitive assessments are another hot ATS trend. In fact, the vendor PeopleMatter views those tools as so vital to its ATS strategy that it has acquired an assessment company called PeopleClues. Recruiters can give applicants a variety of short assessments that gauge relevant skills and tendencies, with the goal of helping them prioritize resumes.

“In high-volume hiring scenarios, being able to spend time on applications that are more likely to convert is gold,” Lagunas says. “Most assessment providers charge per assessment, so recruiters typically just put their finalists through them. But that only gives you data at the end of the hiring process.”

 

Many ATS providers now routinely develop relationships with job boards. Brandon Curry, director of global talent management for Federal-Mogul, a manufacturing industry supplier in Southfield, Mich., uses an ATS from vendor Cornerstone OnDemand to cultivate such partnerships.

“We use job aggregators to post many of our requisitions to global markets,” Curry says. “We’re able to go to our ATS supplier and say, ‘We need you to develop a relationship with a job board in a certain country because that’s where our biggest hiring needs are.’ ” In 2014, about 90 percent of Federal-Mogul’s job applicants came through social networks and job boards, according to Curry.

But the relationship between job boards and ATS providers can be uneasy, says John Bell, a veteran of the job board industry who is president and CEO of reThinkData, a company created by software-as-a-service leaders in the recruitment industry.

“Many applicant systems don’t recognize candidates when they land there after clicking from a job board—only after they’ve registered or created a profile,” Bell says. “So once the candidate leaves the job board, you don’t always know what happened to them.”

Bell believes it would be valuable if a resume or profile followed a candidate throughout the hiring process, enabling an ATS to deliver performance data—such as completed applications or offer acceptances—back to job boards. “All of that information is valuable to the originating job board as well as to the employer,” he says.

 

A best-in-class ATS not only tracks time-to-fill data and the volume of applications received with “single view” dashboards, it also includes metrics such as the efficiency of your interviewing process.

“Recruiting leaders should expect a lot deeper recruiting KPIs [key performance indicators] from today’s systems,” says Joel Passen, co-founder and head of marketing for Newton Software, a technology company that designs applicant tracking software. “It’s not just about how long it takes to fill jobs or where you get candidates from anymore,” he says. Now, companies also want to know how long it takes candidates to move through interview stages, how that influences drop-out rates and where recruiters spend the most time.

Predictive analytics tools are also in demand. “Our customers are interested in predicting outcomes and making sense of complex data, not just in recruitment technology but in systems like performance management or an HRIS [human resource information system],” says Dyke Debrie, director of talent acquisition and learning for IBM Smarter Workforce who oversees Kenexa’s recruitment technology. “How do you get all the data in a central location and use tools to see correlations in data you may not otherwise have seen?”

 

Talent acquisition suites include a core ATS backbone along with the functionality to do recruitment marketing, sourcing and onboarding, all under the same vendor roof. Suppliers include iCIMS, SuccessFactors, Taleo and others. They can also integrate disparate products but don’t guarantee best-of-breed capability in each individual system.

“Some question whether we need talent suites, but they can add important new functionality and modules that weren’t part of the original ATS stack,” Lagunas says. “One area that comes to mind is recruitment marketing. Most people handle it on the point-solution side, but, to do it effectively, I think it has to be more integrated.” Recruitment marketing involves using e-mail campaigns and the employer’s brand to attract candidates to job postings or careers webpages.

Many managers of HR information systems may be understandably reluctant to move to a single-vendor integrated suite if they recently invested in separate systems. IBM Corp.’s Open HR platform is targeted to those who fall in that category.

“The initiative will allow companies to take advantage of solutions they have today but not forgo adding best-of-breed systems from other vendors by unifying those disparate systems on a single platform,” Debrie says. It provides third-party vendors with application programming interfaces that allow them to add separate applications and Web content to the Kenexa interface.

Many applicant tracking systems are becoming full-service tools in and of themselves, with added candidate relationship management functions to help HR professionals build their networks. In the past, “there hasn’t been the ability to keep track of and communicate with people who are interested but not yet candidates—those pools of future prospects,” Rowan says. “But that’s changed in many systems.”

 

Next-generation systems can also be set up to send e-mail alerts to hiring teams. The messages can apprise them of tasks to be completed, such as scheduling interviews, filling out candidate scorecards or approving job offers.

ATS providers distinguish themselves with such automation, particularly on the candidate experience front, and many of today’s systems can be tailored to support unique recruiting workflows or changes in hiring processes.

That flexibility comes in handy for companies such as Bridgestone, the tire and rubber manufacturer, which has diverse business units for manufacturing, distribution and retail.

“The way a retail store manages the hiring process is vastly different from how a corporate office or manufacturing plant does it,” says Matt Metzelaars, manager of talent strategy for Nashville, Tenn.-based Bridgestone America, which uses an ATS from vendor iCIMS. “Being able to configure different recruiting workflows on the back end of the system has allowed us to adapt the system to our way of doing things and become more efficient.”

Wilson of Yahoo wanted a configurable system that would allow him to update interviewing processes, move candidates from one position to another and modify candidate scorecards—capabilities he found in Greenhouse.

Candidates and recruiters may not be feeling love for applicant tracking systems just yet, but these platforms are clearly moving in the right direction. They are evolving into more user-friendly, versatile tools capable of supporting advanced components of talent acquisition. So while a black cloud may still hover, beams of sunlight are shining through.

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business journalist in Minneapolis.

HR Magazine October 2015

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