Applicant Tracking Systems: Is High-Tech Always the Best Option?

Simple Ways to Keep Track of Applicants

When your application numbers are low or you recruit infrequently, I’d recommend a simple solution to track your applications, such as:

  • Email. If the applications come in by email, create three folders in your inbox named Qualified, Possibly Qualified and Unqualified. When you shortlist an applicant, drag their application email into the appropriate folder.
  • Cloud-based file sharing. If you use Dropbox or OneDrive, create three folders for the same three categories, and put CVs into the relevant folders. An advantage of this method is that your colleagues also have access to the CVs.
  • Spreadsheets. Create three columns for the three categories. As you shortlist each applicant, enter their name in the appropriate column.

You can create more advanced versions of these solutions by adding further folders and columns, such as Left Message for Telephone Interview, Arrange Interview, Arrange Reference Call, Make Job Offer, Send Job Offer and so on. Spreadsheets in Google Docs can be shared with your colleagues so that everyone can contribute.

<span class="grey-callout"><span class="text-color-purple">Tip:</span> I’ve explained how to manage job applications via your inbox, cloud-based file sharing tools and spreadsheets on the website</span>

If you have ongoing hiring requirements, you may need a better way of managing applications. Hiring managers often use applicant tracking software (ATS). However, this won’t necessarily mean less work and may not be a good fit in the long term for the following reasons:

  • The applicant data you collect will quickly become outdated and irrelevant.
  • The software may have advanced features that will rarely be required for carrying out the basic task of filtering CVs.
  • There’s little value to be gained from the data-reporting features included in these packages. Most organisations have insufficient data to spot trends or relationships (e.g. “where did our best candidates come from?”); there are few lasting trends in recruitment because the market changes so fast; and when you consider more variables (e.g. when advertised, location, expertise, salary, who interviewed), the data becomes almost meaningless.

A few years ago, I was researching ATS software with a group sponsored by Microsoft. I saw managers track applicants with spreadsheets, with their inboxes and, in some cases, by keeping everything in their head. The most interesting case was an HR Director of a FTSE 100 company. He had powerful and expensive ATS software, but would print out and annotate CVs, throw those of unsuccessful applicants in the bin and keep the rest on his desk. Though he signed off on the ATS software, he hated it because it was too difficult to use. He found a better way for him, and likely his staff did the same.

Having used a lot of applicant tracking systems, I find they are all very similar. A new supplier is popping up practically every week and seem to have the same features but in a different design.

Research a few ATS providers and you may realise that these systems have a lot of disadvantages:

  • You’ll never use most of the features. There’s probably lots of buttons on your TV remote control that you’ve never used. What you need is to be able to turn the TV on and off and change the volume and channel. All you might ever do in an ATS is to rank applicants and skip to the next one. Software that messages applicants can be helpful, but hiring managers often prefer to use their own email that they can access on their mobile device.
  • A problem with having lots of features is that it makes things too complicated. I’ve often seen hiring managers avoid ATS software and default to email, spreadsheets or similar. It’s usually the simple solutions that get used.
  • Solutions with lots of features require training, not just for your current staff but for future staff too.
  • A seemingly small monthly subscription fee costs a lot in the long run. A cost of £200 per month is £2,400 per year! Are you really going to get that much value? That money could be paying for additional job adverts instead.
  • It’s not always practical to automate recruitment, and these solutions can rarely make decisions for you.

Overall in my experience, regardless of the type or scope of the recruitment project, I find managing applications via email because it is so quick and simple. If I need to collaborate I’ll possibly add a cloud-based file sharing service and a spreadsheet.

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Geoff Newman has dedicated his entire career to recruitment. He has consulted for many well-known international brands, and worked with over 20,000 growing businesses. He has helped fill over 100,000 jobs.

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We literally wrote the book on...

The secrets of great recruitment

The Secrets of Great Recruitment is a top-seller. It is easy to read and wastes no time in giving powerful actionable strategies you can use straight away.

Book cover for The Secrets of Great Recruitment