Choosing an Applicant Tracking System

At work, our Communications Director is fond of saying that you have to repeat your message 12 times before people hear it. Well, I must be above-average, because I only had to be told four times (and work 13 years in Human Resources) before I understood what it meant to think of job applicants as customers. This is the story of my remedial path to grasping the obvious.

The first time: February

I read an entertaining rant entitled Computerized HR Departments and had a brief exchange with its author, “noahvail,” about online application systems. At the time, my organization’s online application was a source of daily concern and I knew we would have to replace it soon. Since his rant’s primary complaints were far from our rudimentary problems (Keyword matching? If only!), I didn’t pay too much attention to it. I was sorry that Noah had had negative, irritating experiences as an applicant, but deep down I was disappointed that he and the people commenting on his post didn’t understand the scope of HR’s responsibilities in hiring. They assumed the root cause of an online application and screening program was laziness. “It only takes a few seconds to read a resume!” they said. Yes, fine, I thought, but that’s not the point at all.

The second time: June

Our replacement project approved, I was hip-deep in Applicant Tracking System (ATS) information and feeling overwhelmed. Late in the day one Friday, I threw out a plea to my Twitter followers: HR, do you love or hate your Applicant Tracking System? In spite of being connected to many, many fine HR people, the only responses I received were solicitations from three ATS salespeople and, from @noahvail, “I refer you to our conversation four months ago.” This sparked another brief exchange wherein I attempted to justify my professional choices in 140-character chunks and Noah graciously let me off the hook. Again, I shrugged and returned to work.

The third time: July

My coworkers and I were much better informed about our ATS options, but still adrift. After too many product demos we felt that any of the systems would be an improvement over our current one and it seemed they all basically did the same things. We started a large chart comparing product features, but abandoned it when it only reinforced the products’ similarities. We had spoken with other HR professionals about their systems and read ATS discussions on HR message boards. One system was very popular in the public sector and came highly recommended by colleagues I admired. Another system dominated the overall market (public or private) and was praised by HR professionals online. While prices varied, all but two were within our budget and those two had indicated a willingness to negotiate. I didn’t want to default to the cheapest or the one that “everyone used,” but I didn’t know how to choose.

Desperate and internet-dependent, I started Googling product names. When one of the hits was, “I hate (product),” I Googled that phrase for each ATS. Trying it for the market-leading ATS produced 4 pages of search results. I found at least two blogs dedicated to hating this product. I clicked, read, and realized the haters were all job-seekers. Applicants hated the product HR people loved most. (Pause now to picture, not a light bulb over my head, but an anvil sinking me Wile E. Coyote-style into the earth.) With this realization, I immediately went to the website of an organization I knew had recently installed the popular public-sector ATS and applied for a job. It was a frustrating, cumbersome, unintuitive process. We had been seriously considering this product. I was horrified.

The fourth time: Still July

I looked up companies that used the products we were considering and applied for jobs on their sites. I hadn’t applied for a job since 2004; the experience was eye-opening. My previously-absent light bulb blinked on: Noah. I quickly contacted him to ask if there were specific company job sites that had prompted his February rant. He provided two and, sure enough, both were powered by products we were considering. That’s when it finally occurred to me that I had been focused on the wrong end of the ATS. On the back end the systems were all so similar, and my organization’s needs so basic, that it seemed impossible to distinguish one product from another. But on the front end, the applicant-interface end, the products were very different. It was this end that would represent my organization to our customers.

At home that evening I spent three hours applying for jobs. The next day I asked my coworkers to spend some time applying too. They were not thrilled by this request, but it succeeded in changing our team’s focus. We were quickly able to narrow our product list from eight to three: the three that had provided the smoothest applicant experiences. The two market leaders, the ones all the HR folks we had talked to loved, were out the window. I felt simultaneously enlightened and moronic: I had made the right shift, but why had it been needed? Why hadn’t I tested the applicant’s perspective from the beginning?

In all our initial product demos I had asked the salesperson to show me the applicant side, but that had been a guided demonstration on a fake site. Applying on my own on real company job sites had been an entirely different experience.

As I write this, in late August, we have signed a contract with our chosen Applicant Tracking System and are just beginning product implementation. At work today I had an interesting exchange with a coworker as we worked to determine “required” fields on an ATS form that hiring managers (who are also HR’s customers) will complete to request a job posting. I favored fewer required fields and more optional ones because I thought that would be easier and faster for the manager. My coworker favored making all fields required, with “n/a” as a choice the manager could select for fields that did not apply, because that would ensure the information was complete.

After a moment’s thought my coworker said, “You’re just going to have to keep telling me to get over it.”

“What?” I asked.

“I’m going to want to make everything required. I want every box checked so that I know the person looked at every part and the information we need is there – but that favors us, not them. I have to re-think it. So as we go through this process, just keep telling me to get over it.”

I gawked at her. She’d been thinking it over. She understood my goal – our goal – in trying to make a necessary evil as painless as possible for people. She and I both are just beginning to understand how difficult that will be. We have to re-think it, every day.

About the Author

Holly Via Gorski

Holly is an HR Director in Washington State with 13 years of public- and private-sector human resource experience. She earned her SPHR certification in 2010 and is a local and national member of SHRM and the Public Employer Labor Relations Association. Away from work she and her husband raise three boys and take turns pursuing and neglecting a myriad of interests. You can connect with Holly on Twitter as @HollyMVG.



Excellent article. I too went undercover and found out how terrible the process was for job seekers and many ATS providers won’t get it until they have to look for a job themselves.

Fortunately, I’ve built a better ATS and I would like to invite you guys over to try it out. It’s not your average ATS… It’s better, and now it’s social!

Recruiters Map – The Social Applicant Tracking System

gary garceau


This is freaking awesome advice! We are going into the “evaluate an ATS phase” now.

Thank you for writing this piece. It hit home big time. Already changing evaluation strategy. You are absolutely right on point.



Hallelujiah! I am so glad to hear that you are thinking from the perspective of the applicant. When I was out of work a couple of years ago after being steadily employed for 17 years, I was appalled by the online applicant systems and how cumbersome the majority were. I gave up on applying to several jobs that appeared to be a perfect fit for my experience. The information requested by the organization was too invasive and I did not trust them to hold it secure. The systems didn’t work well at saving the information to allow finishing it later, (red flag when it takes more than 30 minutes to complete an application even though all the requested info is at my fingertips) It is so obvious that many organizations have no idea what their job applicant’s experience is like. Or they just don’t care. Thank you for this post, for caring enough to view from the applicant perspective, and for adjusting your system to meet an applicant’s needs. Again, hallelujiah! Someone “gets” it.


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