Consider bypassing an employer’s applicant tracking system (ATS) rather than trying to beat it

Nick-KossovanEvery job seeker I meet frets over how to beat an employer’s applicant tracking system (ATS), the software practically every employer uses to collect, scan, and rank applications. Essentially, ATS is a digital filing cabinet.

Assume you are applying for a tax manager position.

Your resume summary reads:

“Highly driven tax manager with 5+ years of financial experience managing tax returns and affairs. Proven experience of success, employer satisfaction, and strong communication skills.”

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Consider bypassing an employer’s applicant tracking system (ATS) rather than trying to beat it

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ATS reads:

  • “Tax manager”
  • “Financial experience”
  • “5+ years of experience”
  • “Tax returns”
  • “Strong communication skills”

The ATS then compares your summary and the rest of your resume against the requirements the employer has programmed.

  • CHECK: Tax manager
  • CHECK: 5+ years of experience
  • CHECK: Communication skills
  • NOT CHECKED: Analytical skills
  • NOT CHECKED: Microsoft Office.

At the risk of stating the obvious, an employer programs their ATS as per their requirement; hence, ATSs do not function alike.

Internet talking heads will tell you they possess the secret to creating an “ATS-friendly” resume that will beat an employer’s ATS and that the ATS is the boogie man. These claims are marketing fiction. While you can optimize your resume to be ATS-friendly, beating, or tricking, the ATS is impossible.

Job seekers should focus less on beating an employer’s ATS and more on getting their resume in front of hiring managers. In other words, consider circumventing an employer’s ATS rather than trying to beat it.

Years ago, I was job hunting after returning from India, where I had completed two lengthy call centre management assignments. Although ATS existed, it was not as widely used as today. I came across a job posting on Monster.com, which fit me to a tee. I thought to myself, “This has my name on it.” I sent my resume, which I customized, along with what I thought was a well-written cover letter.

The job posting was blind; therefore, I had no idea who the company was. All I knew was that it was a travel company with an extensive global footprint searching for a call centre manager to oversee their newly created inbound call centre.

A week passed without a response, not even an acknowledgement of my resume having been received. I applied again. Again, crickets. In the meantime, thanks to my professional network, which I maintained throughout my time in India and informed of my return to Toronto, I had been conducting interviews and was close to receiving job offers. However, I wanted to learn more about the travel company’s call centre management job before making a decision. I wanted to reach out to the company, but I had no clue who the company was.

As anticipated, a telco company I had been interviewing with offered me a job. I discussed the job offer with my wife over dinner. I also mentioned having applied to the travel company and how surprised I was that I had not heard back from them, and since the job posting was blind, I could not reach out to them. That evening, the planets were aligned. My wife, who is well-connected and often “hears things,” had a gut feeling about which company it might be. My wife’s gut feeling led me to reach out to the president of the travel company that “may have” placed the blind job posting.

The next day, I received a call from the president. It turned out my wife was right. We talked, then met, followed by a meeting with the leadership team, ultimately resulting in a job offer and an eight-year run managing the company’s 85-agent call centre.

Just as you will never know why an employer’s ATS did not green-light your resume, I never found out why the HR Manager did not pass on my resume. Although I did not work around the company’s ATS, which they did not have at the time, I did work around its human equivalent – human resources.

Though my bypassing the HR manager (READ: going over her head) worked, it came at a cost, namely a strained relationship.

Another workaround story…

This past August, a close friend lost his job due to a merger and was job hunting for the first time in over 20 years. On LinkedIn, he saw a job posting, not blind, for a project manager position at a large consumer electronics company, which he was more than qualified for. Applicants were instructed to apply via the company’s website, which meant resumes would be vetted by their ATS. I advised my friend to ignore this instruction and to contact the hiring manager directly, which he did.

The hiring manager was unusually candid with my friend and said, “Thanks for saving me the time of not having to go through resumes.” Understand the (READ: empathize with) the hiring manager still needs to review the resumes that have passed the ATS screening, which can still be overwhelming. Therefore, in a way, applying directly to the hiring manager can be thought of as doing them a favour.

Yes, my friend got the job.

Going head-to-head with an employer’s ATS is futile. However, if you feel you must beat the employer’s ATS, then adopt a workaround approach.

Nick Kossovan, a well-seasoned veteran of the corporate landscape, offers advice on searching for a job.

For interview requests, click here.


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