When Good Hiring Practices Go Bad

Believe it or not, more than 98% of the Fortune 500 companies use an ATS (applicant tracking system) to conduct an initial screening of resumes. Yup, biggies like Workday, Taleo, iCIMS, etc., are all fans of the ATS.

What does that mean for the job seekers out there? First, it means that a software is in charge of filtering and parsing through hundreds if not thousands of resumes to save the recruiting team some time. And, then there’s the fact that the ATS will employ various algorithms to generate results.

Is that a bad thing, though? I mean, we’re all okay with Facebook and Netflix using algorithms to make our lives easier when it comes to people we may know and movie selection. Why should an ATS be any different?

The problem isn’t with companies utilizing an ATS to help with the recruitment process. An applicant tracking system makes use of filters to sift through a candidate’s resume — which means the chances of you landing an interview depend heavily on how your resume is written rather than its substance. And therein lies the rub, as Shakespeare would say.

Not to mention, if the ATS in charge of the hiring process (and your professional life) isn’t up-to-date, that’s just asking for trouble. For the company — it means losing out on potentially viable candidates. And, for job seekers, the downside is losing out on a dream job — even with all the right qualifications.

So, while using an ATS isn’t a controversial hiring practice, it can quickly become one when the software isn’t up to the mark. Let me draw you a real-life analogy. Remember the recent elections? Of course, you do — it’s not something we’re likely to forget in a hurry.

The mail-in ballot system has a long history as far as the US elections are concerned. But, in 2020, the number of voters using the absentee voting system grew exponentially, thanks to the pandemic.

Long story short, the existing mail-in system wasn’t advanced enough to deal with the rise in voters’ numbers.

That led to delays in counting the votes, which lead to Americans hanging onto the edge of their seats for countless days on end. In short, we were zeptoseconds away from the aftermath of elections blowing up in our faces.


My personal opinion (and experience) about the ATS is that it doesn’t help much beyond storing resumes. It doesn’t decide on the fate of poor, helpless candidates like a fickle Greek God. Sometimes, it’s more like a decades-old hard drive, where people dump their resumes and forget about them.

But, this article isn’t about me. It’s about all those potential candidates out there who’re trying to land the perfect job. Which brings me to our topic for the day — When Good Hiring Practices Go Bad: The ATS Edition. Stick with me as I walk you through the pros and cons of an applicant tracking system and how you can write a resume that’ll beat the system fair and square.

The Cons Of ATS Recruitment

If you’re wondering why we’re still talking about the ATS, instead of talking about how to beat the system, then you need to learn some patience, grasshopper.

It’s like Maya Angelou said, ‘you can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been.’ Plus, how can you know what pitfalls to avoid when making a resume if you don’t understand ATS recruitment’s shortfalls? See what I’m getting at?

1. Dependence On Keywords Can Backfire

You know the saying — ‘everything in life is location, location, location’?

Well, most things within ATS recruitment are keywords, keywords, and more keywords. An applicant tracking system uses algorithms and AI to scan for predetermined catchphrases to mark the boundaries of a particular job.

Unfortunately, that also means if you miss out on that predefined keyphrase, your resume may never actually make it to the hiring manager’s desk. And, to say that sucks would be an understatement.

This type of screening leaves a lot of room for error. What if the purple squirrel you’re looking for happens to go in for non-traditional resumes and isn’t too acquainted with the current workplace lingo? Or what if the best guy or gal for the job took a few years off and fell just a year short of the required number of years of experience?

And, here’s another juicy tidbit about ATS recruitment. Did you know that companies like Amazon have actually declared that their ATS software was unconsciously biased?

Yup, apparently, the ole’ HR software over at Amazon somehow ended up favoring catchphrases used primarily by males — which of course, resulted in indirect discrimination of the sexes (yeah…awkward).

It wasn’t like the ATS was channeling the spirit of Ron Burgundy. Instead, it highlights another weakness of the system: keywords set humans can be colored by bias (knowingly or unknowingly), and that can be multiplied and worsened by technology.

2. Lack Of Human Inventiveness

Jeff Bezos said, “I’d rather interview 50 people and not hire anyone than hire the wrong person.”

You can’t program software to pick up stuff like personality, character, integrity, etc. Granted, the ATS is generally only ever applied to sift through mountains of resumes. Still, with the right candidate, even summaries can talk.

A resume with formatting problems can still get a candidate’s qualities across to a human eye — but not the ATS. That means it’s possible to lose the worthy candidate even before the interviewing process begins.

And, no offense to Bezos, you could keep interviewing candidates till kingdom come and not get the right one — if they aren’t deemed worthy by the software, to begin with.

3. Technical Difficulties

Have you ever called up your boss and said, ‘Hey Dave, I’m not gonna be able to come into work today on account of technical difficulties?’ I’m guessing that’s a hard NO.

But, your ATS can go full diva on you — without you even noticing. How’s that? Because it’s a software, bugs will sometimes take their own sweet time to be discovered. Like when you’re presenting Windows 98 to the whole world — looking at you, Blue Screen of Death.

Likewise, your ATS system can develop technical issues and do wonky things like rejecting perfectly good resumes. As a matter of fact, some companies have reported that during a glitch, their software ended up eliminating resumes because of a specific font. Like I said — diva.

How To Beat Applicant Tracking System

Welcome to How To Beat The ATS — 101. In this section, we’ll focus on applicant tracking system resumes designed to rise to the top of the proverbial food chain. And before you get too anxious — relax. The following are easy-to-implement tips and tricks that’ll help your resume become more ATS-friendly.

Pick Your Keywords Carefully

At the risk of repeating myself, keywords are super-important when it comes to the ATS. One of the easiest ways of making your resume ATS-compliant is to ensure your application includes all the right keywords.

But, how do you find the right keywords? Start by scouring the job listing/advertisement. Or if you’re feeling super-sneaky, grab your Sherlock cap and Google the company website to look for a more detailed job description.

If search results don’t bear much fruit, that’s okay. Just go through similar vacancies and look at those for inspiration. Keywords are basically technical jargon that professionals in that field tend to employ. If you see a phrase being repeated more than once in one or two job descriptions, there’s a good chance you can use it as a keyword.

You can also search Google with the words ‘keywords for (whatever job post you’re interested in).’ For example, I ran a quick search for ‘keywords for graphic designer jobs,’ and here’s what turned up:

Pretty easy-peasy, right? While it’s okay to use critical keywords more than once, you want to avoid keyword stuffing — remember you’re not trying to rank on Google (and even Google doesn’t fall for that anymore).

Update Your Resume According To The Job

I know what you’re thinking. If you create a targeted resume for every job you apply to, you’ll be writing resumes forever.

That doesn’t necessarily have to be the tragedy of your life, though. You don’t have to type out a brand-new resume for every job; just utilize copy+paste and work on the important bits.

A trouble-free way to target your resume is to incorporate a qualifications summary (or career highlights section) smack bang on the top of your application.

You can tweak that section to include the education, credentials, and experience relevant to the job. Once you’re done listing your creds, move on to mention your work experience as you would in a regular resume. Also, don’t forget those keywords when you’re writing out your qualifications summary.

Work On the Format And Avoid Fancy Stuff

According to Jobscan, most mid-to-large-sized companies employ an ATS to make their job recruiting process more streamlined. But, it’s always best to assume your resume may come up against an ATS, no matter the company’s size.

That’s why you want to make sure your resume is a Word document — with plain text. Remember, applicant tracking systems have been known to reject resumes based on font type, and really, no one’s going to judge you for using Arial.

Also, don’t try making your resume appear bigger than it is by changing the font size. A regular ole size 11 will work just fine. Try leaving 1-inch margins on all sides to make your resume’s format pop. Oh, and one final thing, as tempting as it is, try and avoid adding creative graphics at all costs because the ATS and graphics just don’t mix.

Don’t Bury Your Contact Info In Headers and Footers

Saving your contact info in the header or footer section of a Word Doc may look appealing to human eyes, but the act is confusing to applicant tracking systems.

Some automated systems have trouble reading and picking out an applicant’s contact information. Ironically, that leads to your resume being rejected.

Play your cards safe — and figure out a way to include your contact information outside and away from the header and footer sections.


Being a job seeker isn’t a walk in the park at the best of times, and stuff has gotten a little more complicated, thanks to applicant tracking systems. But that doesn’t mean you can’t work smart and make sure your resume lands right on top of the pile. All you need is a little bit of research, some practice, and hey presto! — you’re ready to take on the ATS.

However, if you’re at a point in your life where even breathing requires time you don’t have, or if you’re feeling plain old lazy — you have the option of relying on web services like Jobscan. These guys will do all the heavy lifting for you, including employing AI to analyze your resume and make it ready for the world at large.

Till then, Happy Huntin’ Folks!

Founder @ NxtLevel.io | Blogger | Sourcing Ninja | Recruiter | Ex-@Facebook, Ex-@Zillow | Consultant | Entrepreneur | Startup Junky

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