Modifying applicant tracking system can enhance candidate experience

Tweaking a company's applicant tracking system to issue automatic email can boost transparency in the application process, experts say.

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Pressed suits, well-written resumes and firm handshakes are all tactics job seekers use to edge out challengers. But in today's competitive market for quality talent, HR managers are shifting their focus to the perspective from the other side of the table. What are companies doing to make themselves more attractive to candidates? What's the business equivalent of a firm handshake?

While HR departments can't realistically be expected to respond personally to every resume, experts say making a few adjustments to an organization's applicant tracking system (ATS) can go a long way in creating a better experience for both the recruiters and the recruited.

"Two levels of screening are going on," said Katherine Jones, director and principal analyst for HCM technology at Oakland, Calif.-based consultancy Bersin & Associates. "How to make it the most positive for both sides is what the goal is."

Why the candidate experience is important

Improving the candidate experience has become a top concern in recent years for a few reasons, experts say.

Consider the scenario of submitting an application to a national shoe retailer -- and never hearing back. Will the brand be as appealing the next time new sneakers are in order?

"Big-name consumer brands have a huge incentive to make job hunter interactions a more positive thing," said John Sumser, principal analyst at HRxAnalysts, based in Bodega Bay, Calif. "The overlap between customers and users is highest in these companies, from fashion to hospitality."

Chris Brablc, marketing manager at Smashfly Technologies, a recruitment marketing firm headquartered in Stow, Mass., said because workers in high demand often have their pick among multiple opportunities, a good candidate experience might foster an early preference for one job over another. "During the process, candidates will start forming opinions about the companies they're applying [to], so the better you make the candidate experience, the better you'll look," he said. "For top candidates, that's really important."

Optimizing the applicant tracking system

The primary purpose of an applicant tracking system is to help companies organize and monitor resumes. But Brablc explained that the software can also be used to increase transparency in the application process, a lack of which can be a major turnoff for job seekers. "Transparency helps in terms of just knowing what's happening -- not knowing is probably the most unsettling feeling for a candidate," he said.

According to Brablc, a company can foster a more pleasant applicant experience by merely creating automatic responses that go out at various stages of the application process. "In your ATS, that can be as simple as setting up alerts and email communications that happen at different steps," he said. "Trying out those communications and making sure that those happen is a really simple but important first step."

Many applicant tracking systems can also be configured to allow for an application portal where candidates are able to check what stage in the process their resume is in, he explained.

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However, some experts are skeptical about the value of these automated emails. "There is no other place in the operation of a business where one would even consider answering every query just because it came over the transom," Sumser said. "I think my problem stems from the fact that an automatically generated piece of spam isn't really much of an improvement, and a complete overhaul [of the application process] is not merited on a cost-benefit analysis."

As for the interview process, Jones said video recruitment software can help alleviate candidates' stress as well as reduce management scheduling issues. "The recruiter can say 'here are the five things we'd like you to talk about.' The candidate can sit in her house with her iPhone and [record her interview] and the hiring team can look at that and decide from there," she said. "You don't have to come in and get drilled by all these people when some have prepared and some haven't."

Although applicants are bound to be disappointed, Brablc and Jones agreed that informing candidates when they are no longer being considered for the position is an essential step. "People really need to know if that job is even an option for them," Jones said.

This message can also be automated through a company's applicant tracking system. "That can just be setting up your ATS to send out that communication so they're not left in the dark," Brablc said.

More tips on how to improve the candidate experience

Jones recommended that companies streamline their application process so that high-quality candidates don't get frustrated and exit the job site halfway through. "It could be an hour to an hour and a half for somebody to apply for a job. If you are unemployed, you may have that time. But [companies] are looking for the best people, and they are employed at [the company's] competitors," she said. "And those people will not spend that time on an application."

Brablc stressed the importance of providing content unique to the different types of positions on the company's career page. For example, if a company wants to hire a marketing professional, the career site should provide information about what marketing jobs are like at the company or a video of an employee who works in the marketing department.

HR managers should also ensure that their company's career sites are compatible with mobile devices. "The career site needs to be mobile friendly because a lot of seekers are looking for jobs on public transportation," Brablc said. "If your [site] is not mobile friendly, it's much harder for them to take in that information."

Lastly, experts agree that recruiters should bear in mind the value of the position they're hiring and give more personalized attention to VIP candidates.

"Technology cannot provide the same level of experience for every applicant nor is that a good idea," Sumser explained. "The way in which candidates are treated now and in the future is a function of the importance of their role to the company. The more important the role, the better the treatment."

This was first published in November 2012

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