Can You Avoid the Executive Resume Applicant Tracking System (ATS) Vortex?

by Meg Guiseppi on January 27, 2014


If you’ve read any of my posts about personal branding and executive job search, you already know that merely updating your resume with recent accomplishments and contributions isn’t enough to help you rise above the competition in job search.

You need to present yourself as the best hiring choice.

So, you target certain companies or organizations, conduct company and industry research, and then define and communicate your personal brand relevant to those target companies.

Building resume content from this back-end work, and customizing each resume, will differentiate the unique value you offer each particular company or organization you intend to reach out to.

That’s a tall order and requires plenty of hard work.

But wait, there’s more hard work in store for you, if you plan to hit the job boards heavily. Although I don’t recommend spending much time, if any, on job boards, most people do because they think all job openings reside there.

An estimated 95% of job seekers use job boards, but only an estimated 3-5% of them will land jobs that way.

Job boards don’t work well for several reasons, including:

  • Jobs posted may not be legitimate openings.
  • Job descriptions may not truly represent the job.
  • Jobs may have already been filled, but still linger on the job board.
  • You may not be able to delete your resume from their database when you’re done job-hunting, making you forever appear as an active job-hunter, which can jeopardize future jobs.

. . . And probably the biggest drawback to responding to job board postings:

Your resume will immediately be thrown into a database with an Applicant Tracking System that matches jobs to candidates based on specific keywords.

Human eyes won’t review it, unless and until it manages to get called up in response to a specific job opening.

Even if you avoid the job boards in favor of submitting your resume directly to executive recruiters and on company websites you’re targeting, in response to their job openings, it may also go right into an ATS.

Many recruiters still employ the old methods – direct, face-to-face contact with candidates and careful matching of company needs to candidate qualifications – but unfortunately, the human touch is being replaced more and more by the sophisticated “weeding out” of ATS technology.

What’s going on here?

Program management expert Jill Bentley described the dilemma in a Netshare newsletter. I strongly suggest you read the entire, eye-opening article:

“At some point in the growth of universal use of the internet for posting and finding work, enterprising companies developed software that enables companies to scan and screen the resumes they receive from potential candidates, ostensibly to weed out applicants who simply don’t possess the necessary skills or experience to do the job. On the face of it, this is another great idea.

In theory, it should reduce both time and effort required to sift through a stack of resumes and result in a shortlist of viable candidate who would be invited to interview. In practice however, as a result of refinement after refinement of the criteria used to select resumes, there is a good chance that the best candidate in the whole bunch will be weeded out because his or her resume does not contain one or two very specific words or phrases.”

You’d think such a vast database of willing applicants, powered by a tracking system to easily sift through and pluck out good-fit candidates as needed, would be a boon to both job seekers and employers.

Candidates’ resumes sit at-the-ready, to be pulled out when matching jobs are open. And ATS assures that all applicants are treated equally.

But here’s where it all falls apart. If your resume doesn’t match enough of the precisely articulated keywords in any given job posting, and isn’t in a simple format that won’t interfere with the ATS, it won’t make the cut.

Throw into the mix that not all ATS are created equal. They can function differently from one to the other, and are set for different grading criteria.

The other kicker is that, even when you network to circumvent HR and ATS, the resume you physically hand to people may still end up in ATS, to meet companies’ compliance requirements and help them avoid discrimination.

Now you’re really screwed, right?

Not necessarily. Not if you push aside the notion that job boards are the way to job hunt in the 21st Century, and do the hard work of networking.

If you reach out to executive recruiters and the right hiring decision makers (not HR) through a personal introduction or your own first-degree relationships, and get your resume into their hands first, before it potentially gets plopped into their ATS, you have a better chance of moving into the interviewing process.

Hiring decision makers like to hire people they know, or know of through a trusted referral. And some companies have incentive programs to reward employees who refer new hires.

Get and stay on the radar of appropriate executive recruiters, the hiring decision makers at your target companies, and other employees at those companies who will introduce you to the hiring decision makers.

What choice do you really have? Although the vast majority of job hunters use job boards, we know they don’t work well. You may know this from personal experience.

Most importantly, networking your way into companies opens you to the “hidden” job market that includes jobs that are never posted and positions that companies may create to fit you, because of your potential value to them.

For best results, bite the bullet and resign yourself to focused networking – using social networking, in-person networking events, and the telephone. Networking has a much better track record than job boards.

Related posts:

The World’s Best Executive Resume Is Not Enough

What a Personally Branded Executive Resume Does For You

Executive Job Search: The Old Way (Networking) Still Works Best

Does Your C-level Executive Resume Differentiate You?



{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Meg Guiseppi April 9, 2015 at 7:44 am

Thank you for your comment, Vithal! I’m so glad you’ve found my post helpful.

2 Vithal April 8, 2015 at 7:30 am

Meg, you’re absolutely right.
It is really eye opening to many of us about the functioning of ATS and job boards.

Thanks to you and Jill Bentley as well

3 Meg Guiseppi January 30, 2014 at 6:45 am

Kim, I think you’re right to hesitate at even 10% of time on job boards, considering they typically yield a less than 5% success rate.

Thanks for your insight!

4 Kim Sernel January 28, 2014 at 4:59 pm

I advise my clients that no more than 10% of time spent looking for a job should be done using job boards. Sometimes I wonder if even that is too much!

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