Newly updated for 2024 – our helpful little guide on all you need to know about the software that recruiters can’t do without. The Applicant Tracking System – but let’s just call it an ATS to make life simpler.

We first wrote this in 2019. Of course the biggest change – and something that’s changing even as we write – is the arrival of AI. Unless you’ve been hiding in the Kingdom of Bhutan without internet access, you’ll know AI is a huge catalyst for change, and recruitment is no exception. The tips in this article are built on real experience. We’ve been around the block in the ATS world – we know many of the suppliers, we’ve helped clients choose the right one for their needs, we’ve integrated them into careers sites.

We’ve split this into two main sections – we start with the planning stage and then look at some of the ATS features you might want to include.

Why you need an ATS

Just in case you are new to this… Most organisations have an ATS. It’s a piece of software that manages the recruitment needs of the organisation and, if done well, also creates a great candidate experience and supports the employer brand. So, a pretty important part of your talent and resourcing strategy to get right.

An ATS really is a must have. If you’ve worked in any form of resourcing you’ve probably used one. The advantages it brings go way beyond the part that candidates engage with, it brings organisation, speeds up internal processes, protects data and overall reduces the time to hire as well as improving the quality of hires.

What’s not to like? Well, it can be a bit of a process getting it right and plenty of things to consider (and avoid) along the way.

Fail to plan. Plan to fail.

Ask the business what it wants
Often specced by the resourcing or recruitment team, an ATS is really an organisation wide system. It’s used by line managers, HR, IT and of course your candidates. So, it would be a good move to ask the business to tell you what they, as internal customers of the ATS, would like to see.

When you are doing this, it’s worth having at the back of your mind the issues that you hope the ATS will fix. What has bought this about and what improvements are you seeking to make? Does the business want a faster hiring time, a better process to share and feedback on candidates? Has candidate feedback told you that the vacancies on your current careers site were slow to load and didn’t really bring the roles to life? Was the mobile experience poor?

Make a wish list
To get you started, here are a few things that we think your ATS really should have:

  • It needs to be user-friendly. Recruiters, hiring managers, and other stakeholders need to be able to use it, not loathe it.
  • It should offer a data feed. Either an API, XML feed or at least an RSS feed.
  • The roles should be Google for Jobs indexed.
  • Ease of job board posting to multiple job boards.
  • Mobile application – everyone should be able to access it on the go.
  • Video interview facility.
  • Strong data privacy and security that comply with regulations such as GDPR.
  • Ease of integration with the other tools and systems you use.
  • Good reporting tools and analytics. You’ll want to track key recruitment metrics.
  • Automation and AI capabilities. We cover this in more depth below.
  • And of course a good candidate experience. The features that help you as a recruiter also need to create a positive impression for candidates.

We’ll go into more depth on features in part two.

Supplier due diligence
Like we said, your ATS is a biggie. So, you’ll want to find out all you can about the options – and there are a lot of them. We can give you some pointers but why not start by asking your network. Who do they use, what do they like about them? Any poor experiences?

There are free ATS systems out there in open source. They might seem tempting, but the reality is they are free for a reason. There’s often no support, you can’t do your own customisation, so you run the risk of serving up a poor user experience – internally and for candidates.

So, sit down with the suppliers that interest you and ask them for their client list, their client retention rate, how long they have partnered with them, the specifics of how they have helped them, and see if you can ask their clients why they chose them and have stayed with them. What’s more, research the reputation and track record of ATS suppliers including customer reviews, case studies, and testimonials.

After all, as this graphic suggests, not everyone loves their ATS.

That Little Agency - Employer Branding - ATS consultancy - ATS Sentiment Image

What level support will you need?
When doing your research, assess the level of customer support and training offered by the supplier to ensure ongoing assistance and guidance. For example, how confident are you with tech? Once it’s up and running an ATS should be simple to use – but implementation can be involved, and you might want some dedicated support to guide you through.

So, here are a few support related things to consider:

  • Does the ATS supplier offer a dedicated contact, with a phone number to reach them?
  • Does the software include FAQs or other documentation to help you use it?
  • Where is your supplier based – can you get access to support when you need it? For those less tech savvy, this might rule out an overseas supplier.
  • Are there training sessions for new users?

Set your budget
The recruitment budget is traditionally focused on the cost of attraction – ads, job board postings and agency costs. However, an ATS can bring savings that reduce these costs so, there is a business case to have some of the recruitment budget allocated to the ATS as it will pay you back with interest.

The first thing an ATS supplier will probably ask you is the number of vacancies you are likely to place. That’s because there are a variety of pricing structures, some of which are based on the number of roles, system users and the number of employees. How scalable is the system? A scalable ATS can adapt to changes in hiring volume, organisational structure, and recruitment processes over time. If you are planning on growth and doing a lot of hiring, you should state this at the outset to avoid a model that may cost more than it might have done.

Costs and demonstrating ROI
So that costs don’t spiral, consider the total cost of ownership (TCO) of the ATS, including implementation, licensing, training, and ongoing support costs. Consider the ROI (Return on Investment) of the ATS in terms of time savings, efficiency gains, improved candidate quality, and other measurable benefits.

Consider how you use AI
Since we first wrote this, AI has significantly transformed applicant tracking systems (ATS) in several ways. AI can help by streamlining processes, improving candidate matches, enhancing user experience, and enabling data-driven decision-making in recruitment – just as long as it’s used with care. Chatbots may also be able to answer common candidate questions. However, it’s essential to balance the benefits of AI with ethical considerations and ensure that algorithms are transparent, fair, and free from bias.

When deciding how much of the AI enabled features you use, always look at it from the candidate’s perspective. Despite the efficiencies of automation, recruitment still involves decisions that impact on real people and the effort they have put into their application. Any aspect that dehumanises their experience of your employer brand, creating a negative candidate experience, can do more damage than any advantages it might bring.

Getting what you want. What you really, really want.

Can it post to multiple job sites and social media?
What job boards and social media do you and your candidates engage with? Not all ATS solutions work across all job boards, particularly some of the more niche. You therefore run the risk of missing ideal candidates as they probably won’t see your roles. The more specialised the role, the far greater the likelihood they’ll be looking at sites within their areas of expertise. An ATS that only connects to the generic sites like Jobsite and Monster won’t offer the flexibility you’ll need.

How easily can you customise it and adopt your branding?
We’ve all been on those careers sites where you’ve taken a little tour, read the content, maybe watched a video. It’s all going well and then you decide to look at the vacancies. All of a sudden it’s different. You just know you’ve gone to the ATS and what was quite an engaging process now feels very er, ‘generic’. You could be on any careers site. Just at the point where you want the candidate to be most enthused – it all goes a bit cold. That’s what happens when the ATS isn’t very flexible. That’s why you need your ATS to be branding friendly – it’s a big part of the expression of your employer and corporate brand.

Does the ATS enable employee referrals?
We think it should. Referrals are still highly effective in generating candidates who are likely to become warmly engaged with the business through the relationship they have with the referrer. The best ATS will provide you with a clear way to attract and reward referrals from your employees.

Does the ATS allow you to communicate with candidates, hiring managers and recruiters?
No more unread emails to hiring managers chasing their decisions. The best ATS software allows you to communicate directly which better serves your internal needs and keeps candidates in the loop too. Poor communication can reflect poorly on the candidate experience and employer brand so always spec this in your ATS brief.

Is it mobile friendly?
We hardly need to state this but even if you think your business is still largely desktop based, it won’t be forever. An ideal ATS will enable your resourcing team to review candidates, schedule interviews, leave feedback and check the candidate pipeline via the device of their choice.

Does the ATS give you recruitment analytics data?
We started by suggesting you work out what you want the ATS to improve with your recruitment process. Now you need to measure it to help continuously assess and enhance it. You can extract resourcing data the hard way – by pulling internal data and chasing hiring managers but it’s hard work. So, although not all ATS solutions offer an analytics function, we think it should be included if your budget will allow.

If recruitment metrics is something you’ve been meaning to brush up on, you’ll find our recent article will make you an expert in no time at all.

Does the ATS integrate with your systems?
Such as your calendar software, so that interviews scheduled via your ATS will also show up in everyone’s calendar along with any subsequent changes. Also consider your HR IT system, intranet, any background check provider used and, as we covered above, different job boards.

Does the ATS have diversity and inclusion tools?
Many ATS applications offer tools that can help support your DEI initiatives. Some of these capture information from candidates when they apply or accept an offer as well as reporting and analytics to simplify the measurement process. This is also an area where AI can help. For example, AI can help mitigate unconscious biases in the recruitment process by focusing on relevant qualifications and skills rather than demographic information.

Is there a free trial available?
You’ll want to find out if the ATS can do all the things you want it to, but also how easy it is to use. The goal of implementing an ATS is to simplify and streamline the recruitment process after all. So, ask the supplier for a free trial and make sure that the features it has (as good as they may be) are actually what your organisation actually needs.

In conclusion

Choosing an ATS is an important process and a decision that impacts your internal hiring managers, your resourcing team and not the least, your candidates. There are many options but there will be an ATS out there that will suit your needs. Finding it needs a clear wish list, an idea of the best suppliers and a lot of time. We hope this guidance will help you find the right one for you.

Need a little extra help?

If you feel that you’d like some help, support or even a little chat around selecting your ATS, defining your employer value proposition, developing your employer brand or any aspect of your talent attraction strategy just drop us a line. After all, much of our best work has started with a cup of tea and a biscuit.