How Your ATS Impacts Applicant Experience

Okay, okay. We realize that it’s the opposite of what we promised in the title, but we’re going to talk about the importance of applicant experience upfront. Why? Because it is an unbelievably important part of the recruitment process. In a recent study, Gartner found that a best-in-class applicant experience not only improved a company’s talent pool (with 95% of applicants saying that they would reapply, and 97% saying that they would refer friends and coworkers), it even improved customer loyalty, with more than 80% of respondents saying that they would purchase more from the company as a result of their positive applicant experience. 


Case in point, a few years ago AT&T, who at that point had been struggling to offer a positive applicant experience, endeavored to improve their online application process (cutting its length by more than half, among other steps). The result was a staggering increase in application rates, leading to 300,000 more candidates, an estimated $1 million saved in recruiting cost, and a huge net increase in top quality hires over low quality hires. Yet, in spite of success stories like this one, most Fortune 500 companies aren’t even offering their applicants the chance to fill out application on their mobile phones.  


Why is there such a significant disconnect between the importance of applicant experience and the average company’s ability to make it a priority? There are a variety of factors at work, but to some extent, it often has to do with the design of the average applicant tracking system (ATS).


62.8 Questions

A recent Indeed study found that the online application at an average Fortune 500 company included 62.8 questions. Think about that for a second—that’s more questions than the math section of the SAT. Unfortunately, we’re likely to keep seeing applications of this length for as long as recruiters let the structure of their ATS dictate the structure of their application. Of course, recruiters benefit from being able to centralize candidate data in a way that includes critical hiring data, and of course there is a lot of information that recruiters would like to have when making decisions about who to weed out and who to interview. But because ATS platforms are designed explicitly with the needs of recruiters in mind, they rarely encourage users to consider the candidate’s perspective or the value of their time.


As a result, when recruiters link their online applications to their ATS, they often prioritize their needs (and the needs of the ATS’s database) over their applicants’, asking them to enter redundant information on lengthy, frequently mobile-unfriendly forms. What’s worse, these systems often don’t allow users to save an application and return to it later, meaning that their choices are to spend often upwards of an hour filling out information that’s already on their resume or to drop out of the application process altogether. Unsurprisingly, many candidates choose the latter.  


The “Black Hole” Effect

For the applicants that do manage to make it through a company’s online application, the next step can be the most frustrating: waiting for a reply. Often, this frustration is made more acute by the fact that in many cases the waiting doesn’t ever really end—no confirmation of receipt, no information about next steps, no timeline for hearing a decision ever arrives in most cases. For the few applicants who eventually do receive e-mails about scheduling an interview, this may only be a minor annoyance, but for the vast majority of candidates who are facing implicit rejection, the lack of communication can dissuade them from ever applying to a position at that company again.


At this point, you may be asking, “is this really a problem specific to ATS solutions?” Yes and no. On the one hand, nothing about your ATS should prevent you from contacting each applicant individually at every step in the process, or even from developing polite auto-replies that send each time your online application gets filled out. On the other hand, most ATS software doesn’t encourage this kind of behavior, in part because they’re designed for finding candidates quickly via keyword searches. This functionality can lead to recruiters only ever seeing and responding to the applications that fit their search criteria. As a result, applicants sometimes feel like their applications have been sucked into a black hole, never to be seen again.  



So far in this post, we’ve examined a number of the ways in which ATS solutions create a disconnect between recruiters and candidates, resulting in applicant experiences that feel impersonal, cumbersome, or disrespectful of candidates’ time and effort. In this last section, however, it’s not the candidates who are being directly impacted, but the recruiters’ coworkers and partners in the hiring process. Specifically, we’ll be calling attention to the fact that ATS software can, under many circumstances, create recruitment silos, cutting off marketers and hiring managers from mission-critical applicant tracking information.


Imagine for a moment that you’re a hiring manager. Whatever system you’re utilizing for taking candidates through the interview process isn’t integrated with the ATS used by your recruiters. As a result, you may be missing information about the candidates that reach your desk. Even if you have all of a candidate's relevant info, you may not know why this candidate was brought into the interview stages over any other job seekers who may have applied. What kind of impact will this have on your ability to provide a personalized, high-quality candidate experience? Most likely, it will make it more difficult for you to offer an experience that delights your potential recruit and demonstrates the value being offered by your company.  


Fortunately, things don’t have to be this way. Just because most applicant tracking systems aren’t integrated with processes further up and down the recruitment funnel, doesn’t mean that they can’t be integrated. In fact, when your ATS is used to help inform processes like recruitment marketing and even marketing automation, it can actually create more synergy between teams and lead to more effective recruitment overall. To reach that point, however, companies have to choose to make the applicant experience a top priority and leverage their technology towards that goal. As we saw at the start of this post, efforts like those can have huge payoffs in terms of recruitment ROI.