Why Applicant Tracking Systems Suck at Team Building

Data from LinkedIn and various labor market studies show that employers are struggling to find talent to fill their roles. The problem is especially felt by Fortune 500s.

Meanwhile, it’s getting harder to land a job in those very same fields. There are likely many reasons for this, and one is particularly avoidable. Dependence on antiquated technology to match candidates to positions and teams is failing.

Recently, a recruiter emailed me a canned message informing me that I don’t meet the minimum qualifications for a position I applied for. The job was a rare fit in a role I’ve excelled in for over 10 years. This rejection didn’t make any sense.

In response, I copied the exact job description to a spreadsheet, line by line, and added a column to correlate specific evidence of my own practical success with each requirement. Perhaps this was a bit much, but I wanted an explanation.

The recruiter was respectful of my objection, and took the time to investigate. As it turns out, my application was rejected because my resume did not include the word ‘agile.’

No human made this decision. It was software that scans incoming applications and determines if a candidate is worthy of attention based on parameters fed into it.

Of course, no merit was given to my years of experience, specialized skills, or accomplishments that were all very relevant to this role and the company’s market. My portfolio didn’t matter, nor what many would consider to be impressive recommendations.

Furthermore, the machine was unable to qualify the terms SAFe and Lean UX in my resume, which are both common types of agile methodologies. Thus, the screening software completely failed to identify the very expertise it sought to qualify because it cannot understand context.

We’ve all been in this position. It’s part of the career journey. We research roles and organizations, carefully craft cover letters and cater our whole pitch to the job we really want. This is how we introduce ourselves and put our best foot forward. It’s how we express to a potential employer how important they are to us.

Our human touch is then met with an artificial response. The potential for a mutually lucrative relationship is abolished by a legacy machine over a single arbitrary parameter.

In my case, the recruiter was compelled to personally hand my package to the hiring manager, and I was invited for an interview. I declined.

Organizations that filter people based on arbitrary parameters lack basic human empathy, which is a necessary foundation for building a strong culture. Without a strong culture based upon empathy, the possibility of individual success is very limited. I didn’t want to subject myself to that kind of environment at this point in my career.

As I reflect upon past success with teams at Samsung and within the NFL, I realize the biggest wins were not the result of anything I can express on a resume. In almost every case, success was achieved through resolve and dedication to peers of whom refused to let each other down. Soft skills that are crucial to any team, yet, cannot be rationalized for resume scanning software.

So what are Fortune 500 organizations to do?

First, I think it’s worth noting that a human recruiter already determined I was a good fit. Why screen my resume at this point?

Many professional recruiters are actually quite good at identifying strong candidates. When a trusted recruiter stands behind a candidate, give the candidate a moment of deserved attention.

Second, hiring managers must get involved with scouting talent. Most of the people I’ve hired were targeted by myself after taking the time to browse public portfolios. Browse, shop, do homework. Team building is not easy, and it shouldn’t be. Sitting around waiting for magic to happen through corporate recruiting systems is not how you build great teams. We have to get out there with a well designed plan and build them through hard work.

Third — be human. I know we all want to simplify our work and our lives as much as possible, but it’s not too much to ask to give 30 seconds of attention to someone who spent upwards of 3 hours preparing what you’ve asked for.

Great candidates are on social networks. They’re commenting or reviewing your products online. They are engaging in many ways that you can find them with minimal effort. It’s not weird to approach them there. It’s just being human.

Finally, it may even be time to reconsider how hiring is done from a holistic perspective.

The world has changed a lot in the last ten years. Roles evolve rapidly, and changing jobs every other year is becoming normal. Why still hire as though a permanent situation? How we might improve the approach? What might be a better way to hire?

That’s a topic for another time.

Thank you for reading.