Economy & Business

The pros and perils of AI recruitment tools

15 June, 2022

Without some serious modifications to AI systems used in the recruitment process, professional recruiters risk missing out on or alienating the best candidates

By Paul Shelton

I have given this topic a great deal of consideration over many months. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t quite shake the nagging feeling that the level of etiquette is declining and sometimes even entirely missing from the modern recruitment process. A lot of functions that used to be done by people in interaction with other people have now been automated, and, in the process, basic etiquette has sometimes fallen by the wayside. While some systems have maintained elements of common courtesy, they are less rarely used these days and in danger of extinction.

Yes, I come from a different generation, now commonly known as Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1980). My formative years were a time before the internet and mobile phones. In those days we used to write letters, usually by hand, and send them in the actual mail. It was an era of handwritten invitations, handwritten responses, and postcards for those fortunate occasions of travel. In the work environment, it was an era of carbon paper, dictaphones, typewriters, and typing pools (and submitting a letter to a senior colleague with even a minor error was severely frowned upon).

Recruitment before the digital era was also different. Old school recruitment was usually done either through personal contacts, newspaper advertisements (often pointed out by a trusted friend or former colleague), or, as a hiring manager, you worked on developing a tight network of reliable recruiters. This was achieved over time, often by using these individuals or firms to recruit candidates for roles that you had open. And, as a candidate, from time to time the recruiters would check in with you to see if you were ready for a new role and new challenge. They knew you and you knew them. They could even approach you to see if you knew of possible candidates (when their listing pool was not achieving results). If it was for a new role for me, I prepared the necessary CV, a polite cover letter and let the recruiter do the job. Of course, there was no guarantee of success but if interviews were arranged, there was always assistance from recruiters to find the right fit. Even if I didn’t get the job, the fact that I had established actual human contact and begun a relationship with the hiring manager, meant that there was at least a possibility that I may be considered for another position in the future, either at the same company or in another within the network of the hiring manager.

Fast forward to the present day. Like many others, I have a LinkedIn account, which I keep as up to date and as complete as I can (all sections following the advice of a learned coach and friend), and a somewhat smiling photo. I maintain a range of resumes and biographies which I believe reflect my various strengths or traits and would make me a suitable candidate for a variety of roles.

On a daily basis, I peruse a fairly wide range of recruitment sites and will actively read any advertised role that I think may suit me. Friends sometimes also kindly send me links that they believe would be “me” in terms of a role. And I am always delighted to immediately return any unsolicited contact from recruiters (known or unknown).

If I spot a role that I think suits me, I read the job description in detail. I usually also do a search on the firm seeking applicants if it is not one that is already known to me. I’ll look for red flags in the job description (indicators, to me at least, that the role is not really what it is made out to be) and I’ll check for any negative media about the hiring firm. I do my due diligence just as I would expect a firm to do on me should I be considered for a role. I click the “apply now” and wait to see where that will take me.

Often it will take me to a firm’s website and I’m happy to “sign up” in order to be taken to the page for the advertised role. I keep a record of any User ID (although typically it is my email account – fair enough) and securely record any password.

Based on the role, I choose the relevant resume and am happy to upload it. I’m also happy to compose a cover letter (making sure to get the firm’s name correct and to reference the relevant role). After I upload that, I’m usually then prompted to click NEXT. This is usually followed by acknowledgement of the receipt of my application. In the best instances, I may even get a courteous email from the firm indicating receipt of my CV and whatever other material I have provided.

However, in some cases, that is not the end of the process. There’s a relatively new tool employed by the recruitment industry that, if you are like me, will drive you to distraction: an Applicant Tracking System (ATS). According to Google, ATSs are “software applications that scan CVs and other job recruitment documents for relevant keywords such as skills, job titles, and educational background.” A further Goggle definition notes that one of the key ATS features is the ability to “filter stored CVs by job description keywords and sort the result by the number of keywords found” – or, in other words, to find and rank potential candidates by CV relevance. To pass the ATS scan, your CV has to be formatted properly, and include the right words.

I have every admiration for HR professionals both in-house and external (I’ve been a hiring manager on a great many occasions and an active one in that I firmly believe in working seamlessly with HR to get the best result for my team and my company), but it is at this point that I must demur in terms of how ATS is described and how, it actually works in reality for applicants. 

Like any form of artificial intelligence, I presume that ATSs work on some algorithmic formulas that have been built into the system and then the ATS is either developed in-house or sold to a company by a third-party provider as akin to the next best thing to sliced bread. But algorithms are complicated beasts that need constant review and updating, and, in my experience, that seldom happens (until there is a major incident).

Of the ATSs I have used, there seems to be no sign of filtering, and hiring firms rarely, if ever, provide concrete examples of how they want your resume to be formatted. Yes, I fully accept that, I, as the applicant, should review the job description and be sure that I am qualified for the role and that, if necessary, should make suitable “key word” adjustments to improve my chances of selection (even if it is only to succeed in becoming one of the short-listed applicants).

But, in reality, this is what happens: I upload my CV and cover letter and when I press the NEXT button I am confronted with page after page of incomplete or in many cases simply incorrect information and dates that are inserted into the ATS fields. My name (first and surname) is often inverted, whole chunks of my work experience is either non-existent or so jumbled as to make it totally unintelligible. Inevitably, my university degrees (degrees which the company has in some cases specifically designated as “required”) are either omitted or, again, so badly misinterpreted by the ATS as to make me wonder whether three degrees and nine years at university was worth the effort.

Should I wish to continue with the application, I am then required to essentially re-write, into the ATS, all of the information contained in my CV, my cover letter or even my LinkedIn profile. To ensure accuracy and completeness, this effort takes at least another hour or more of painstaking checking, re-checking dates, employers, and details of my roles during those periods of employment to again, enhance my chance of selection. Depending on the ATS in use, it is also sometimes impossible to even properly “designate” my degrees. For example, on numerous occasions a “Bachelor of Commerce” simply is not listed as an option, and I am obliged to select some form of reference which is not correct. Obviously, misrepresenting my qualifications is not ideal and reflects poorly on the professional standard of the ATS.

Finally, after completely checking and rechecking the information, I press the SUBMIT button. Depending on the system, this can elicit a number of responses. The better ones thank me for my application and actually name someone who will review the entire suite of material. Others offer a basic “thank you for your time spent” and then everything appears to enter some sort of black hole from which nothing ever re-appears. Another response is an automated reply (which may appear regardless of whether an ATS is used or not) which says something along the lines of “due to the sheer number of applications that we receive, we will only be contacting shortlisted applicants”. Maybe it’s just a generational thing. Perhaps millennials and Generation Zers don’t care, but I take umbrage at this as it sends the signal that they do not respect their candidates, much less appreciate their time and effort.

As a Generation Xer who has experienced both the pre-digital and digital recruitment process, I have an obvious preference for the way things were done in the old days. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that it is not practical to go back to the traditional ways. It would simply take up too much time and personnel hours. Moreover, it would be foolish to forego the great advances in modern technology that speeds up the filtering and vetting process.

However, my experience has shown that the systems currently being employed by recruiters need some serious tweaks in order to improve both the experience for candidates and the results for recruiters.

Firstly, ATS systems need to be properly fine-tuned and tested to make sure they are easy to use and produce accurate results. There is no excuse for glitches in output (as outlined previously) that do not accurately reflect input. If the system in question requires a specific format to be used, this should be clearly explained. It should be obvious to recruiters that an inadequately performing ATS will give candidates a negative impression of their firm or provide inaccurate information, or both. Ultimately, they are doing themselves a disservice by missing out on the ideal recruits for their advertised roles.

Then, there are some common acts of courtesy practices in the real world that can be (at least partially) mimicked in the digital experience that would make people feel as though they are valued. At a minimum, candidates who have submitted applications, should receive an automated email thanking them and stating how long the vetting process is expected to last. Finally, while I sympathise with HR professionals who have to sort through large numbers of applications, it would take very little effort to send a simple standard courtesy email to all the unsuccessful applicants to thank them for applying and inform them that their application has not been successful. Something along the lines of “thank you,” “better luck next time” would suffice but an even better option would be: “would you like us to retain your details should we identify a role that may better suit you?” Those firms that actually do retain details for future reference may actually save themselves time and effort in future recruitment searches. In addition, by bestowing a level of courtesy and dignity to candidates, they are likely to keep candidates satisfied and ultimately be more effective in finding staff who are more suited to the culture of the firm than those who rely on the garbled output of a dubiously functioning ATS.

All hope is not lost. There are still good recruiters and indeed good firms looking for recruits who maintain the necessary level of professional courtesy. New technology and systems can be useful to increase the pool of candidates and better match the ideal candidates to the suitable roles.

However, despite these benefits, I must confess that virtually all the roles that I have been offered and taken to date were the result of a personal introduction and not through the vagaries of a robot. This may well be a generational thing since the formative roles I took on were in the pre-digital era and those in my network are also from the same era. However, I can’t help but wonder if some recruitment firms and their customers are not missing out the best candidates by relying too much on their ATS and not enough on old-school recruiting methods that involve spending much more time making actual in-person human connections.

Paul Shelton is a consultant with 30 years of experience in the international financial services and related industries with skills in all aspects of legal and financial crime compliance and regulatory relationship advisory and management.

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