There are several schemes being advertised through the Internet, including classes and workshops, to encourage and guide jobseekers to find a work-around to the Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS). I have several concerns about this approach for jobseekers.

Not all ideas are good ones - some are just lemons

First, these programs lead jobseekers to believe that if they can just "work around" the Applicant Tracking Systems, then their problems will be over. These promises bring a false hope that they can avoid the system altogether—which will pave the way for them to easily land a job. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Most of these programs focus on getting straight through to the hiring manager. From the jobseeker’s view point, that sounds like a good deal! But maybe not.

Getting Directly to the Hiring Manager

Hiring processes have changed dramatically. Hiring managers today are most often on overload, just like everyone else. They have work to do and rely on their Human Resource or recruiting professionals to weed out candidates that won’t fit the culture. Receiving uninvited résumés adds more work to their already overfull schedules.

Further, businesses implement hiring processes that serve very specific purposes. A hiring manager that side-steps those processes doesn’t win points with HR. Recruiters call it “Back Door Hiring.” That means the company hired someone and didn’t notify the recruiter. So the recruiter continued to work on finding “just the right person” and they are not going to get paid for that effort.

Again, this is an affront to the hiring community. It most often comes across as a slap-in-the-face. It can permanently close the door to any position with that company and any position that a recruiter is trying to fill in other companies as well.

Applicant Tracking Systems—The Third Generation!
ATS —The first generation: By 2010, at the height of unemployment in the U.S., hiring professionals had sought out technological solutions to help them get through résumé reviews. Some companies outsourced the process to try to find the best candidates. Jobseekers were exasperated with the challenges of accurately entering information in the Applicant Tracking Systems that would land an interview.

ATS —The second generation: A new set of systems came through with better search capabilities and addressed some of the user experience (UX) concerns for both jobseeker and hiring professionals. This was an improvement, but still challenging for the jobseeker and the hiring communities were not happy with the results.

ATS —The third generation: Approximately back in March 2014, a significant upgrade came through the Applicant Tracking Systems. The new systems have greater capability to meet the needs of the hiring communities. This includes tracking information to manage the reporting requirements for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as well as managing compliance with the Affirmative Action Plan (AAP).

EEOC and AAP: It’s compliance management and it’s a mandate.

Bad idea. Smashed lightbulb isolated

Both EEOC and AAP deal with government compliance management. To bring inaccurate information in the reporting puts the company at risk. Do you think that working around the ATS, and avoiding their compliance management process is really a good idea? Do you think it will give you extra points to show HR that you know how to sidestep their processes?

This weekend, I spoke to a senior HR executive from a global manufacturing company that also works in government contracts. She brought up an additional point,

“Affirmative Action and EEO are based on the demographics and the demographics are changing. The influx of Asian, Hispanic, and other demographic groups are changing our hiring practices. The government keeps a watchful eye on all of it and we have to be vigilant.”

This third wave of Applicant Tracking Systems shows real progress in other ways as well. It has the capability to manage candidate information with greater context and awareness to grammatical syntax. This addresses the concerns about finding the best candidates.

Who decides who gets the job?
It may seem that if you can get to the hiring manager, you’ve got it made. The hiring manager makes the decision —right? Not necessarily.

As I mentioned earlier, the hiring process has specific purposes: HR professionals check prospective employees out with regard to fit and the suitability of the position to their career status, their goals, motivations, and potential. In addition, they are also considering the long-term needs of the company with regard to succession planning and juggling the mandates about “head-count” with regard to pay-roll allocations.

Thinking Long-Term
Right now succession planning is critical, especially in the U.S. where 10,000 people turn 65 every day and have since 2008. While the stock market was low, these people couldn’t retire because their homes wouldn’t sell.

Now that the stock market has risen, there is an exodus of senior employees. One of the top concerns (and the current buzz-word) for HR is “employee engagement.” Succession planning is a critical component of the hiring process and HR is where it happens.

Different Audiences and Different Needs
Human Resource professionals are highly skilled to know how to gauge whether a person will like their job and feel comfortable in the company culture. These are critical factors in ensuring success for the employee as well as the company.


Hiring managers, on the other hand, have a very different concern. They want to know if future employees can actually do the job, how much hand-holding will be needed and how long will it take to ramp-up and contribute to their deliverables.

Recruiters are always looking for outstanding candidates. They have inside information and are aware of numerous opportunities that may not be posted externally or otherwise. Learning to work with them is key and in today’s job market, I strongly suggest developing a long-term relationship with two or three recruiters as part of your career management strategy. Click here for an article on How and Why to Play Nice with Recruiters.

Are there advantages to working around the ATS?
Not directly. Networking within a company, learning more about it, following their news page, finding key people through LinkedIn…all good stuff. I strongly suggest this in addition to and not in lieu of applying through the ATS.

I regularly work with an internal recruiter and when I send her a résumé, she immediately responds with, “Have they applied online?” She has made it clear to me just how important it is that they apply online. And she knows that I don’t send her a résumé unless the person has applied online. But from her perspective, she continues to ask and document via email that she is managing job placement legally and ethically.

Short-sighted Strategy
In my opinion, it’s important to realize that once a candidate gets around or through the Applicant Tracking System there are at least eight or more steps to climb (see the list below). So I find that the promises of these “work-around programs” fall short of the bigger picture and bring false hope to jobseekers who really don’t need any more disappointment in their lives.

These systems are not going away. They are getting better and they are the wave of the future. I spend several hours every week making sure I understand how they work, and the process behind these systems. I engage with the hiring communities to understand changes in the hiring process. I believe that every person who want to be employed should carefully watch the near and distant hiring market in their industry. These are key to career management and a sustained employment security through to retirement.

My final concerns:
All of the programs I’ve seen that “manage the system” rely heavily on key words and a few other components such as the use of tables, bullets, and etc. Although this approach is somewhat accurate; it is only about 20% of the Applicant Tracking System filters. There are four, five, and even six filters that will confront the jobseeker and the black-hole looms at each juncture. Remember that the ATS is only 5% of the job search.

The basic key-components of a job search have not changed a lot since the invasion of technology into the process. These components continue to be:

  1. Knowing what kind of a position is an excellent fit.
  2. Understanding the industry and the hiring schedule.
  3. A spotless, customizable cover letter and résumé that clearly edemonstrates your value.
  4. Getting your information through the ATS.

    (This includes the EEOC, AAP, succession planning and head count considerations.)
  5. Getting through the 8-second HR review (pass 1).
  6. Handling an HR screening call.
  7. Making the final HR cut (pass 2 – final 10).
  8. Handling the HR interview (phone or Skype) to be one of the final three or four.
  9. Demonstrating you can do the job to the hiring manager.
  10. Negotiating the contract.
  11. Passing the final approver’s scrutiny that you have been carefully vetted out.

I believe there are outstanding career counselors and they are worth every dollar they charge. I believe this profession has grown with the challenges brought about by the economic disaster and the excruciatingly slow recovery. I believe a good career counselor or employment program can significantly reduce your time to employment.

Background with lit lightbulb

Lastly, it is forecast that the labor force will change jobs every three to four years. So keeping in touch with an established career or employment counselor, a few recruiters with whom you have a solid relationship, based on trust, should, in my opinion, be a part of your career management strategy.

If you read this entire article—thank you. What are your experiences with the ATS and job search? I’d love to hear your stories and answer any questions you may have.




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