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10 signs you need an applicant tracking system

Rob Long
Rob Long

Rob Long is CRO at Workable. He's a former recruiter who writes mostly about hiring best practices.

Think of a shortlist of your most effective business tools. Now ask yourself how many of those you wish you’d heard about and started using sooner. Then take a breath and think of the hours of your working life you won’t get back. Are you making the same mistake by not considering an applicant tracking system (ATS)?

Hiring is one of the most complex and challenging aspects of running a business. It’s the inevitable partner of growth and success, and yet most companies struggle with it. There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of coordination, and a lot of very human elements. So you would think we would use specialist tools for recruiting? Well, not really. Not yet at least.

We use software for accounting, for sales, for messaging and marketing but all too often we think we can muddle through our hiring needs with a mess of email and spreadsheets. Applicant tracking systems (the wonkish name for hiring software) have been around since the early 1990s. They used to be known, and still are to some, as a candidate management system. While they were long thought of as systems for larger organizations, they’re increasingly being adopted successfully by smaller businesses looking to improve their hiring.

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Here are ten signs that you need to try out an applicant tracking system or candidate management system:

1. You’re spending more time than ever submitting the same job ad to multiple job boards

Especially when hiring for tricky to fill positions you want to cast the widest net possible. This means getting your job ad on a variety of the best job posting sites. There are a host of excellent places to post jobs for free and a growing number of premium job boards and niche job boards, many of which can help you get the qualified candidates you need in a hurry. All of them have different posting mechanisms and even with a dash of copy paste this takes time. The better ATS and candidate management systems enable you to post to multiple job sites with a single submission. When you need a handful of job boards this is a cute time-saver but when you’re posting to 15+ job boards, it’s a lifesaver. In addition to saving time per hire, it can also save you money, as the best applicant tracking systems offer discounted job posting on some of the most popular job boards like Monster, Indeed and Career Builder.

2. Irrelevant applications from unqualified candidates are choking your inbox whenever you’re hiring

This is the number one headache in hiring. The advent of online job boards has been a boon in terms of getting the word out far and wide that you’re hiring. The problem is that the message is often received and misunderstood by people who aren’t even close to being qualified for the job you’re hiring for. This means precious recruiting time is lost sifting dozens of irrelevant resumes. An applicant tracking system, or candidate management system, can help in two ways. Firstly, the best applicant tracking system options have customizable application forms where you can include screening questions that focus on your core requirements. If you need a relevant degree and related work experience you can add a screener and avoid a large percentage of the unwanted applications. Secondly, a best-in-class ATS is built to deliver structured information about all applicants making it quick and simple to disqualify applicants who aren’t going to be considered.

3. You want a better careers site but you can’t find the resources to get one made or you’re not sure how to maintain it

Your careers site is the shop window through which prospects see your open jobs and get an idea what it’s like to work for your company. Two-thirds of all job seekers will go straight to your careers page when they’re interested in working for you. It makes good business sense to have an up-to-date and attractive careers page, it’s also the foundation of your employer brand. Building and maintaining an effective careers page in-house just isn’t an option for all companies. And it can be daunting to get the development resources. One huge applicant tracking system benefit is that it’s easy to create a branded careers page with no coding required. Hiring tools, like Workable, offer an online editor that gives you the tools you need to create a flexible design that’s always up to date with a list of your latest positions. PS… Attract the right candidates by providing a real sense of the environment they’ll be working in, as well as the team they’ll be working with. Don’t just stick your company logo on it, use photos of the office or a video of your team.

4. You were tracking your hiring efforts in a spreadsheet and using email to communicate with your team and the candidates but it’s starting to get overwhelming

Let’s get this out of the way now. Spreadsheets are great at so many things, they were life-changing when Dan Bricklin invented them. But spreadsheets suck as a hiring tool. If you’ve ever wrangled multiple Excel tabs, while mining down seemingly endless email threads trying you’re not alone. This is the most likely sign that you need an applicant tracking system. At its simplest and most powerful, an ATS brings together job posting and sharing in all forms with the ability to track candidates, build a shortlist, schedule interviews and make new hires. A best-in-class ATS should enable you to browse rich profiles of candidates, compare them easily and work effectively with your hiring team on a platform that keeps your notes, communications, feedback, schedules and analytics all in one place. No one who has used a good ATS goes back to spreadsheets and email.

5. You’re using external recruiters for mid-level hires to save time and admin hassle

External recruiters are — and in our opinion will remain — a vital resource for recruiting. But they should be a tool that gets used when you have a high-level or a super tough role to recruit for. If you find you’re reaching for your favorite recruiter every time you’re hiring, whether it’s for the C-suite or reception, it’s a sure-fire sign that you find hiring a headache. You do not need to spend the big bucks on low and mid-level hires. The tools needed to attract great candidates and get from job ad to job offer are more affordable and more effective than ever before. What you need is a process that works. One of the great benefits of a properly designed ATS is that it comes with that process built in. An applicant tracking system should deliver you an easy-to-use hiring pipeline. At Workable the default pipeline looks like this:

Source > Applied > Promising > Call > Assessment > Interview > Exec Interview > Offer

While this is customizable, you get the idea. A pipeline makes sense as it gives you the structure to keep moving qualified candidates along and disqualify those who don’t make the grade. For a fraction of the cost of a recruiter, you can expand your reach without overwhelming your capacity to run an organized hiring process.

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6. Your hiring team is having problems coordinating feedback on candidates and making decisions

This covers a little of the same ground as the email and spreadsheets previously. When you run a one-person hiring process it’s your inbox that tells you it’s not working. When you’re part of a hiring team working without an ATS, you get the message from all directions. Sharing notes, feedback and evaluations of candidates over email, forwarding PDF resumes and running multiple calendars, it’s an invitation for a headache. An ATS does all this in one place. Everyone’s notes, feedback and evaluations on the same candidate profile, together with their resume, application form answers and relevant history. With the right ATS, a new member of the hiring team can jump in and catchup on what’s happened so far in less than an hour. With no ATS forget about it.

7. You know you saw a potential star last time you were hiring but the position wasn’t right. Now you’re hiring again you can’t find them

We’re all guilty of being over-reliant on our email. For most of us the inbox is the heart of our working life but it relies on us being able to remember a name, an email or a date, in order to retrieve what we’re looking for. A well-run hiring process is not just about hiring for one open position, it’s about meeting prospects for future jobs — referred to by recruiters as a “candidate pool”. Don’t have a call or an interview with someone great only to lose track of them six months down the line when you’re hiring for a position that would suit them. An applicant tracking system keeps an entire record of everyone your hiring team has considered. Advanced ATS options, like Workable, also allow you to tag promising candidates, which makes them easier to pull up later when you have a more relevant position.

8. You’re about to go into an interview and you can’t find that all-important piece of feedback

This has happened to most people who conduct interviews, especially at a senior level. You know that others on your team have assessed the person you’re about to interview but you can’t find their feedback. You’re in a hurry so you head into the interview without vital preparation. There maybe little you can do about being busy but you can fix this. With a best-in-class ATS you get a mobile version, or a native app, which means that even when you’re on the move (or taking a laptop into an interview is not an option) you can pull up a record of every interaction with the interviewee. Nothing gets lost.

9. You want to take stock of your hiring efforts but you don’t have any real data to work with. You’d like to have some benchmarks to measure your efforts against

For many companies, especially SMBs, hiring comes in waves. The hiring needs come at you, crash over the bow and then everything you learned drains off the deck. The loss of all this hiring experience is one of the main reasons why hiring processes so often differ from one job to the next, even inside the same company.  A good applicant tracking system stores and then unlocks substantial data about your hiring process. The discussion around recruiting metrics has become really lively and the recruiting industry hasn’t settled on universal metrics yet. But a candidate management system can track the source of your most qualified candidates, and find out how long it takes to make the correct hire. It should deliver hiring reports that can be exported to CSV or Excel, and help you to make clearer, data-driven decisions with your team.

10. You’ve been asked to come up with a hiring plan but you don’t have solid data to base your budget of time and money

Recruiting metrics aren’t only there to optimize against. Hiring is affected by a host of external factors from the economy and labor market, to location and industry, as well as job function.  One of the main functions of proper recruiting is to give you a realistic measure of your hiring process. Key metrics such as “time to fill” (The number of days between the publication of a job and getting an offer accepted) exist to inform accurate business planning. You won’t always be able to reduce these numbers but you can use them to budget more effectively when you have the data a candidate management system or ATS provides.

Here is what Tim Sackett, one of the most respected recruitment experts in the world had to say when we asked him who should be using an applicant tracking system:

We moved into this space in our history where recruiting technology has never been so affordable, meaning organizations no longer have an excuse not to have it. Great tech is so cheap now that if you don’t have it, you’re making a personal choice to stay in the dark ages of recruiting! For SMBs this has never been more real. SMBs can now have even better recruiting technology than their enterprise peers. While enterprise folks get big, vanilla based recruiting technology, SMB shops can move faster to integrate the latest and greatest tech on the market. It’s such an exciting time to be in talent acquisition, the availability of world class technology is transforming how we all recruit on a daily basis.

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