Features July/Aug 2020

Collaborative Job Hunting: Beating the Sinister ATS

By Jack Molisani | STC Fellow

An applicant tracking system (ATS) is a software application that enables organizations to receive, store, and manage résumés and job applications. As a recruiter, I’ve been using an ATS for almost 25 years. At first, the typical ATS was little more than a database in which you could receive a résumé, associate it with a job, and then mark the résumé as “qualified” or “not qualified” for the job.

Another use was to receive résumés “to keep on file” for future jobs. When a new job came in, the first place I looked was my ATS to see if I already had a résumé that matched the job requirements.

The first ATSs were PC-based but soon moved to web-based systems. I was in Hawaii on 9/11 when the U.S. closed all airports for five days, but I could still work, because I had my laptop and a web-based ATS.

For decades, ATSs were just a tool for (as the name says) tracking job applicants as they moved through the hiring workflow: resume receipt, phone screen, first interview, second interview, and so on.

But then everything changed.

The Rise of the Machines

With the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, ATS companies gave their systems a sinister (in my opinion) ability to rank applicants based on how closely an applicant’s résumé matched the job description—and automatically reject applications that didn’t score high enough.

I can understand why organizations use an AI-based ATS. They receive far more applications from people who aren’t qualified for a given job than from people who are. Recently, I received more than 20 applications for a position that required five years’ experience with .NET programming and a Secret security clearance, but none of the applicants had a security clearance, and most weren’t even .NET programmers!

This problem of receiving unqualified résumés has grown significantly over the past decade. I attribute this to applicants not bothering to read job descriptions. Many just view the job titles on an app and then swipe! to apply.

Yet another contributing factor is that many job sites—like Monster.com or Indeed.com—enable people to upload a résumé or profile and set their profile so that the sites automatically send the résumé when employers post a job they might match.

So now you have AI-based systems automatically sending résumés to AI-based systems that automatically reject the résumés.

Talk about the rise of the bots!

On the Plus Side

If there is a possible silver lining to applying for a job through an ATS, it would be that the system is unlikely to display racism and other forms of discrimination. A study conducted in 2003 looked at whether candidates with names like Emily and Greg were more likely to get interviews than people with names like Lakisha and Jamal. The study showed that résumés with white-sounding names received 50% more callbacks than those with Black-sounding names. Using an AI-powered ATS would (in theory) reduce such bias. I say “reduce” and not “eliminate” because there is going to be a human decision at some point, and discrimination based on race, age, sexual orientation, and religion still occurs. (One can hope it is significantly less in 2020 than 2003, but it still exists.)

So What’s a Job Seeker to Do?

One thing you can do to increase your chances of getting an interview is to optimize your résumé to match the job you’re applying for, similar in practice to search engine optimization (SEO). A good place to start is the book Get the Job: Optimize Your Resume for the Online Job Search by Pamela Paterson.

Next, there are websites where you can upload the job description and your résumé, and the site will show how well you match, similar to the hiring organization’s ATS. I haven’t used these sites myself, so I don’t have one to recommend, but an internet search for “check if your résumé is ATS friendly” will produce a list.

Note: One reason I dislike AI-based ATSs is their lack of intelligence. A friend of mine was using a site to check how well she matched a job posting, but was consistently getting a low score no matter how she tweaked her résumé. But then she noticed that the title of the job posting was “UX/UI Developer,” but the title in her résumé was “UI/UX Developer.” That simple transposition was enough for her to be rejected by the ATS.

What’s a Better Thing to Do?

In the old days, a typical job posting would say: “Technical Writer needed. If interested, send your résumé to Jobs@BlackHoleNeverToBeHeardFromAgain.com.” You would send your résumé with the hope that, someday, someone might look at your résumé and call you back. It’s the same problem applying for a job through an ATS. Actually, it’s worse, because the ATS is programmed to weed you out.

So, what’s a job seeker to do? Stop applying for jobs through ATSs!

Enter what I call “collaborative job hunting.” Submit your résumé for a job via a living, breathing human being!

Your chances of getting an interview are exponentially greater if you submit your résumé through a personal connection versus through an ATS. There are many ways to do this:

  • The most obvious and fruitful way is sending your résumé to someone you know at the company—even better if they are in the same department!
  • Use your business networks, such as other STC members or people in your LinkedIn network who work at the target company. Ask people in your network if they will forward your résumé to the hiring manager.
  • Use LinkedIn to find someone in the company or department, even if you don’t know them personally. While you may be reluctant to reach out to someone you don’t know, keep in mind that many organizations give employees a bonus for referring a candidate who is hired. It’s far cheaper and easier to give a bonus to an employee than to post the job and weed through hundreds of unqualified candidates. You get a personal referral, and the person gets a monetary reward for referring you: win-win.
  • For bonus points, find hiring managers on LinkedIn and contact them. They are looking for candidates and should welcome your communication.
  • Here’s a secret: Most organizations do not list HR or recruiter contacts on their website, but almost all HR managers and recruiters have profiles on LinkedIn. Why? Because they use LinkedIn to search for candidates! So, rather than applying through an ATS, reach out to recruiters on LinkedIn and ask if you can send them your résumé. They might say yes, they might ignore you, or they might say, “Apply online and I’ll keep an eye out for the application.” Ah! You’re applying via the ATS, but you have a live person looking for the application, and maybe even moving you out of the “rejected” folder if the ATS weeded you out. Score!
Planning for the Future

Let me close with a piece of advice for increasing your chances of getting a job in the future if you aren’t currently looking: Be visible. Here are just a few of the many ways you can do this:

  • Volunteer in your STC chapter.
  • Speak at conferences.
  • Write articles for your chapter’s newsletter—or, even better, for Intercom.
  • Start a podcast.
  • Go to meetups in your area.
  • Start a meetup in your area.

The easiest way to get a new job is for a company to call you before they even post the job.

I wrote earlier that the first place I look for people when I get a new job posting is in my ATS. That’s not exactly true. The first place I look is the people I have met personally via online webinars, speaking at chapter meetings, going to conferences, and so on.

You can do the same.

Remember: Skip the ATS, send your résumé to a live person, and land that new job!

Jack Molisani (jack@prospringstaffing.com) is the president of ProSpring Technical Staffing, an employment agency specializing in content professionals (http://ProSpringStaffing.com). He’s the author of Be the Captain of Your Career: A New Approach to Career Planning and Advancement, which hit #5 on Amazon’s Career and Resume Best Seller list. Jack also produces the LavaCon Conference on Content Strategy and Technical Communication Management, to be held in New Orleans on 23-28 October 2020 (https://lavacon.org). Follow Jack on Twitter @JackMolisani and connect with him on LinkedIn. 


Howard, Jacqueline. 2015. “New Study Confirms Depressing Truth About Names and Racial Bias.” Huffington Post, 8 October 2015. www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/black-sounding-names-study_us_561697a5e4b0dbb8000d687f.

Paterson, Pamela. 2014. Get the Job: Optimize Your Resume for the Online Job Search. Toronto: Writer Types.

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