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What Is An ATS? Features, Benefits And Best Practices

One of my most used tools as a hiring professional is the applicant tracking system or ATS and there’s always a lot of discussion about which is the best.

Well, the answer to that is “Depends on what you need.” However, with so many on the market, how do you choose the best solution for you?

What is an ATS?

Applicant Tracking Systems are applications that can help you plan, track, and execute hiring plans. Some basic ones have enough for small companies (e.g. a tracker for candidates, posting for jobs). Others are a bit more advanced, with career site plugins, analytics of your recruitment process, and sourcing built-in.

Depending on how much you are hiring, you may want to take a look at implementing an ATS and move away from spreadsheets. There are also additional data protection laws in the EU, and many ATS comes with tools to help you follow the law (which spreadsheets cannot do).

What are the features of an ATS?

The main features of an ATS are:

  • Job posting: things like embedded job boards or a careers page for you that you can later link to job boards like LinkedIn or Remotive, for example.
  • Applicant tracking: this is a system where you create stages in the application reflective of your interview process (e.g. “applied”, “screened”, “1st interview” etc.). You can move candidates through the application process, making sure they receive relevant communication.
  • Messaging: some ATS systems have built-in messaging or emailing capabilities, so you can manage candidate communication in the system.
  • Interview Organisation: essential if you have multiple interviews going on at the same time and you want to make sure you keep track of data. You can arrange interviews from the system and send an interview kit (with the candidate’s resume and questions to ask at this stage of interviewing).
  • Careers page: it’s important to have a page where candidates can find out about your role, your employer story, and your brand. Some ATS have ways to create your careers page as part of your company website.
  • Analytics: essential to a Talent team, but still maybe of interest to companies hiring before they create a dedicated talent team. Keep track of your efforts and know when you need to change things – e.g. if people are coming onto your careers page but not applying – why is that?
  • HRIS integration: some ATS can offer HRIS or HRMS integration so, once a person is hired, they can automatically transition to your HRIS. The other way around can work too—as soon as a position opens up in the HRIS, a role opens in the ATS.
  • Candidate Surveys: It’s a good idea during a time of growth to keep track of how you are doing with the candidate experience. Often these will be automated emails to gather feedback on your process.

More advanced features may include things like a CRM system, where you build a pool of qualified candidates and keep them “warm” with occasional emails on what your company is up to, as well as sourcing tools, which combine a few different sources of candidates (e.g. LinkedIn and Github) to help you find candidates directly in the system and message them from there as well.

What are the benefits of an ATS?

How do they make your life easier and improve hiring at organizations?

  • Save time – a good ATS should be aiming to automate and streamline your hiring process, saving you time you would otherwise spend in a spreadsheet, calendar, and email manually checking everything. One of the things that usually takes the most time is trying to schedule interviews, so having a system that can help with that will change your life!
  • Help find candidates – a good ATS should be able to post your job descriptions automatically to at least a few job boards, increasing the reach of your job adverts. Some ATSs also have a sourcing section (Can I mention specific ones? I know Workable does this) letting you find candidates without going to multiple sources.
  • Resume parsing – this is a bit of a controversial topic as reumes come in so many shapes and sizes. I’ve known resume parsing to go so wrong that the hiring manager was concerned that the candidate had submitted a horribly formatted resume! Thankfully, I knew it was the parsing that messed up the format, so I explained. This could happen to you too, so watch out! Other than that, it is useful to gather basic details like names, contact details, and job details and create a candidate profile.
  • Emails and automation – some ATSs have built-in messaging to help you manage all your communications. You can set an automated template to go out to all candidates who have applied, for example, or to all rejections at a certain stage.
  • Improve candidate experience – you can put a lot of information in the template automated emails or the careers page, as well as seamlessly schedule interviews and give relevant and timely feedback. All this is exactly what candidates want, so you will be able to do this every time. And you can track this with a survey too!
  • Careers Page – Where you can show off who you are, maybe some people from the team, and also a bit more about your working culture.

How to Choose an ATS

There are so many ATS out there! Some come pre-packaged as a part of an HRIS, some are stand-alone and some come with CRM – there are loads of options for all kinds of budgets and requirements, so how do you choose? 

Here are some questions to answer to get you started and to steer your conversations with the providers in the right direction.

How many people do you need to hire in the next 6–12 months?

This is arguably where to start because if you need to hire 5 people in the next year, that is less than 1 person every other month, you probably don’t need an ATS yet. 

However, if it is a sizeable volume, you need to think about getting an ATS. I cannot determine what is sizeable for you, but perhaps around 15-20 per year is a rough guide.

The number of people you need to hire and the time you need to do it can also help inform your decision on whether you need a very feature-rich ATS. 

For example, if you are one person and you need to hire 100 people in a year, perhaps opt for an ATS that has sourcing and job board integration to increase your outreach so you can make those hires.

Where will you be recruiting?

More and more ATS solutions are aiming to be global and can work in multiple jurisdictions, but if you are, for example, in the EU (and the UK), GDPR has had a massive impact on how you store and process candidate data (e.g., using the same data for future roles – you need to obtain permission).

The US has specific requirements state by state (New York and Colorado requiring salary information come to mind). So you need to think about where you will be hiring and if the ATS can support your compliance needs.

Additional note: if you are hiring remotely, make sure you have a discussion about that with the provider so that you can check if they have enabled integrations with remote job boards and that you can post your role as remote in general.

What is your interview process like?

Do you have fairly straightforward 2-3 interviews with one person each time for about an hour and no tasks, etc.? If so, a simpler layout and interview scheduler may work.

However, if your interview process needs to involve senior people and two people at the same time, for example, or two people from a pool plus technical tests, that is more complex!

At this point, you want to make a note of your interviewing requirements and discuss them with the providers during the call (maybe question them about whether you can send tests automatically or interview packs.

Who will be the main user of this ATS?

Do you have a dedicated Talent team who is going to use this or is it going to be the hiring managers directly?

If it’s the latter, perhaps a more visual form of a Kanban board with swimlanes and a simple candidate outlay to help the hiring managers move quicker may be helpful. Also, your ATS must be easy to use with other functions like interview and feedback tracking, and interview scheduling, so that people use it consistently, maintain better data, and remain compliant.

If there is a Talent team, more advanced features like analytics and performance start to become more important so that the team can keep track of the effectiveness of their efforts.

A quick note where you need anonymization, or where the ATS removes the names and other details of a candidate to minimize bias.

It may be useful if you have not had the time to train all hiring managers in minimizing bias, but I am personally of the mind that this is a band-aid solution and more general continuous training is needed in this area.

How developed is your employer brand?

If you have an advanced employer brand, you may want to check what the careers page builder is like and whether the ATS has the option to directly embed the careers page onto your website rather than have it hosted on their domain. If it’s not so advanced, perhaps a less customizable, but more robust and better-supported careers page builder can help.

If this is not your first ATS – what needs to change?

It could very well be that you already have a system, but it’s just not helping you accomplish what you need. Before you go out to market, it’s really important to consider what exactly is working well, what you want to keep, and what needs changing. This will help your conversations with the new providers go smoother and more focused.

Turn the question on them – what are their key features?

It’s always good to see what each provider has chosen to focus on when they were creating the system and see what features they have that you didn’t even consider possible!

ATS best practices

Number 1 – Evangelise the usage! The more people that use the ATS, the better the data and the better the experience you and your candidates will have. Make sure you help people understand that they need to keep all candidate communication, feedback, and information contained in the ATS.

Make sure you take the time at the start of the set-up and work with your provider to set it up just as you need it. Most systems have customization of some kind, so make sure that yours is tailored to your organization’s needs.

Factor in onboarding time. Once you decide to purchase an ATS, the implementation or switchover (if you are moving) will likely take between 2-6 weeks. Speak to each provider individually, but this should inform you that you should start earlier than when you need to hire.

Use templates and automation. Most modern ATS systems have templates that you can send to candidates, for example, as soon as they apply, if you want to send them more information, or upon rejection. You can also set it up so these emails get sent automatically from a generic inbox or your own at certain stages.

Be careful with automation as it can also backfire. Know when to use it and when to back away. For example, the more a candidate spends time with your process, the less you should rely on automation, especially if you need to reject them!

Beware of companies talking about automatic candidate scoring. Some have an automated resume review system that tries to pick out relevant keywords and give the candidate a score before you review. However, this can limit your candidate pool a lot and you may end up missing out on great candidates, so make sure that this is a feature that you keep an eye on and you can switch off.

Monitor the performance of the jobs and the teams—metrics like conversion rate will tell you if you need to change anything about the job or the interview process.

Closing thoughts

An ATS is a powerful recruitment tool to level up your talent acquisition and management. As there are many options for different needs, it is important to have a vision of what you want to achieve in order to find the best ats for your business.

To help, check our pick of the best applicant tracking systems on the market today.