Does online screening shut out good job candidates?

Applicants wait to meet potential employers at a Manhattan job fair in New York City.

With unemployment still above 7 percent, and new jobs now being created at a steady clip month after month, there are a lot of people applying for virtually every position that’s advertised.

At most employers, this tsunami of job applicants hits an electronic gatekeeper first -- a computerized "applicant tracking system." It’s an automated software program that requires an applicant to enter basic information and submit their application online, before they have ever a chance of speaking to, or meeting, a live human recruiter at the company.

These systems first came into use at big companies in the 1990s, as a way to systematize the HR process, track candidates and recruiting results, and in some cases comply with state and federal employment regulations. By the late 2000s these systems were all but ubiquitous for job applicants at all but the smallest companies, and for all but the highest-level headhunted corporate positions.

Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, says applicant tracking systems were initially deployed to do basic tasks -- gather names and contact information for candidates, names and dates of previous employers. Then in the Great Recession, HR departments downsized drastically, and the number of job applicants soared as unemployment skyrocketed. Now, Cappelli says, these automated systems have replaced much of the subjective evaluation -- both of written resumes and cover letters, and of in-person or over-the-phone interviews -- that used to be done by human recruiters.

Christina Bauske is looking for a senior-level position in health care management or IT. She was laid off in a corporate reorganization, and has been assiduously filling out online job applications.

She says she likes the challenge of trying to figure out exactly what the software is looking And she tries to follow up by phone with someone in HR at the potential employer, to double-check that her online application has actually arrived and displays properly.

“In some systems you can’t even tell that it actually has been received,” she says. “You don’t get any kind of email confirmation. So it’s like going into the dark hole.”

Another dark hole that an online application can fall into -- it can be rejected if the job titles, educational and training credentials, or requested salary that a candidate enters don’t precisely match what the software is programmed to look for. Or, if fonts and formats in an attached resume or cover letter aren’t compatible with the software program.

Barbara Barde of Barde Career Solutions is a certified professional coach who counsels both job applicants and corporate recruiters. She says some firms she works with are abandoning applicant tracking systems altogether, in favor of peer-recruiting (in which current employees are incentivized to identify potential job candidates), or networks such as LinkedIn and volunteer groups for professionals.

“They were finding that they weren't identifying the top talent they needed to truly fit into their organizations,” says Barde. “Because one of the things that the applicant tracking software cannot do, is it can’t look at the emotional side to things at all, it can only see on paper what someone may be worth in terms of their skills and expertise. It can’t see them in action.”

In fact, recruiters can now see a candidate in action -- through new video-interviewing platforms that can complement the now-ubiquitous applicant tracking systems.

The web-based service offered by HireVue.com, a fast-growing HR-tech company in Utah, lets candidates answer customized questions from an employer -- say, how they dealt with a demanding customer or an intolerant boss. Interviews can be pre-recorded, or conducted live in real-time in front of one or several hiring managers, located anywhere in the world.

“We believe that people aren’t represented by profiles and resumes or anything like that,” says HireVue CEO Mark Newman. “That’s kind of a travesty of HR technology. We ultimately think that people are voices and experiences and ideas for the future and stories.

“A lot of organizations, what they’ll do now is open interviews," says Newman. "Add your resume, answer some preliminary questions and introduce yourself, because we really want to have a much fuller view of who you are and what you’re about before we make a decision.”

Newman says, consider the potential inadequacies of electronic job-screening for former military members now looking for civilian work after deployment.

“Your resume may talk through how you made battlefield decisions and led teams,” says Newman. “But if you apply online for a job, you don’t have two years of hospitality experience helping people address the problem of -- do they have a cold cup of coffee?”

Hilton Worldwide now invites people who haven’t even applied for a specific job yet, to submit an introductory video, says VP of Recruitment, Rodney Moses. The company is also focused on bringing former military members into the candidate pool even though their resumes might not show specific job experience in hotel or restaurant management.

“We can do pop-ups, scenarios," says Moses, "real-life job situations and they can answer and you can actually see their response, versus someone typing something into a computer."

Moses says this adds some of the human element back into electronic job-search.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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