The Ugly Truth about Online Job Applications – Part 1

Woman typing and looking at a computer display.At last, you are ready to roll, and now it’s time to apply for that big job.  You diligently search all the online job sites and position postings at the companies in your field.  Although those online applications can take longer to complete than a millionaire’s IRS 1040 tax form, you carefully fill out each one, making sure every required field has just the right entry.  Finally, you attach your resume and cover letter, and click the Submit button.  Done at last!  Then you wait… and wait… and wait yet some more.  Days, then weeks pass.  Nothing.  Not even an automated and insincere “thanks, but no thanks” response.  It’s like your online application and attachments simply went into a cyber black hole.  What happened?

Congratulations!  You just experienced the frustration felt by many, if not most, job applicants today who are forced to apply for positions using an online Applicant Tracking System (ATS).  An ATS is designed to electronically sift through all the job applicants for a position and identify only those few who the software believes is the best fit based on parameters established by the recruiter.  Although your resume and cover letter may have been written with the quality worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, it doesn’t matter; odds are, human eyes never even saw your application materials.

Say what?  Don’t people in human resources (HR) departments even read applications anymore?  What is going on?

  • Ever since the arrival of the Internet and online job postings, the number of applications received by employers for any single position has multiplied tremendously. It is not uncommon for any one job listing, even for a lower-level position, to receive hundreds of applications.  Back in the days when job postings were placed mostly in newspapers, the number of applicants was smaller and largely came from the geographical readership area of the publication; today, readership of any particular posting is nationwide or even worldwide in scope.  Hence, more applicants than ever before.
  • When the economy is in a slump and unemployment is higher than normal, more people may apply for jobs – any posted job – even if they do not meet the minimum requirements. Sometimes this may be out of desperation, but it also may result from the fact that actively applying for jobs is usually a requirement in order to continue receiving unemployment benefits.  Again, this translates into hundreds, if not thousands, of additional applications which HR departments must somehow process and review.
  • Human resource departments, like most work areas, have been subjected to budget cuts and downsizing over the years, and are likely to be understaffed relative to the volume of work they need to perform. The end result: there are probably fewer people working in the HR department but they need to screen a significantly larger number of applications.

ATS software to the rescue!  On the surface, the solution seems very simple and logical; just have each online applicant answer questions about their education, experience, and other job requirements, and submit their resume, cover letter, etc. for the ATS database.  The ATS software then automatically reviews the applicants’ responses and documents, looking for the presence and/or frequency of certain specified keywords and phrases.  Cover letter and resume files are electronically filed away, and a living, breathing HR person can open and review them later, when or if the documents are needed.  Once everything has been reviewed by the ATS, the resulting data is stored in a database.  After the posting for the position has closed, the database can then be queried by HR to display the names and information of only those candidates who “scored” well by meeting the specified criteria.  Although each ATS works a bit differently, the end goal is the same: automate the initial review of job applications to the greatest extent possible.

Given that – at least in theory – these systems are efficient (allow the processing of more applications) and cost-effective (organizations can hire fewer HR staff), it would appear the use of ATS software is probably here to stay.  Since an ATS is supposed to ensure the best candidates are efficiently identified in a cost-effective manner, one would think life should be good for both HR departments and the hiring managers they serve, right?  Well, not necessarily…

  • Many professionals feel that overall, in addition to being hard to use, the ATS software developed to date does a less-than-optimal job of identifying the best candidates, frequently screening out perfectly acceptable individuals for a number of different technical reasons.  Back in 2015, Liz Ryan, an HR professional, author, and contributor to Forbes commented “Little by little, HR leaders and their IT comrades are realizing that an ATS application is a crusty, 1980’s-style solution in search of a problem.”
  • Unfortunately, people do sometimes lie on their employment applications, trying to “game” or “trick” the system so they get selected for an interview. As a result, unqualified individuals may clog up the list of “acceptable” applicants, even squeezing out candidates who really are qualified, and thereby end up wasting everyone’s time.  Don’t worry; in the end, their lies will be discovered and they won’t get hired, but they can delay the process for honest and legitimate applicants.
  • Not every applicant may interpret online application questions or requirements in exactly the same way; therefore, the responses received may not meet the intent of the question. This can result in unintentionally classifying unqualified individuals as qualified and bypassing those who are in fact very well qualified.
  • The questions asked in the online application may themselves be inadvertently worded in a vague or unclear manner, again resulting in the receipt of answers which may not provide the information actually sought by the HR recruiter, causing candidates to be classified incorrectly.

Obviously, the above factors cause headaches and frustration not only for HR professionals and managers desperately looking to fill positions, but also for you the job applicant.  In reality, you are faced with a recruitment obstacle course which was designed to screen out people and limit the number of applicants who will be selected for an interview.  How can a job applicant hope to successfully navigate this course and win out against such an automated, faceless, and heartless adversary?

Sun Tzu, the 5th century BC Chinese author of The Art of War, wrote the famous words: “Know Thy Enemy.”  In Part 2 of this series, we will discuss in more depth how this electronic “enemy” of job applicants works and what you can do to enhance your chances of success.


Featured image courtesy of Howard Russell – flickr

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