I should have just clicked “Yes.”

An October 1 article by Lorraine Mirabella in the Chicago Tribune discusses frustration felt by job applicants interacting with Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS).  I read or heard this other places as well.  Unsurprisingly, many candidates dislike the impersonal nature of trying to demonstrate their qualifications for the role by answering some “Yes” or “No” questions.  A “wrong” answer often triggers an email informing the candidate they are no longer being considered for the position.  To be sure, there are many good reasons for using these kinds of systems, including how “internet applicants” are defined by the federal government, decreased barriers to applying, and downsized HR staffs.

The consternation felt by job seekers brings to mind two issues near and dear to my heart as an industrial/organizational psychologist; applicant reactions and validity.  Let me quickly summarize why these are important to this discussion.

Applicant reactions can be described as the emotions and opinions applicants have as they go through a selection process.  Do they feel it was fair and they had a chance to adequately describe their qualifications and skills?  Did your organization come across as professional?  What did the process tell me about the culture?

For many organizations, applicants and potential customers are one in the same.  A bad experience (actual or perceived) may actually choose to not shop or eat there any more either– not to mention there is always a chance the scorned applicant will let fly with an epic Twitter rant that ends up getting a million hits on YouTube or file one of those pesky employment lawsuits.  None of these are positive outcomes your organization or employment brand.

Validity refers to how realistic the inferences are that we draw from data available to us.  When pre-screen questions are used to eliminate a candidate from the selection process, the inference is that specific answer means it is no longer worth continuing to talk to that person.  In some instances, this may make sense.

Consider the position of an Advanced Bulldozer operator and these two questions:

  1. “Have you ever operated a bulldozer before?”
  2. “Do you have 10 years of experience operating a bulldozer”

If the answer to Question 1 is “No,” I can see how one could make a reasonable inference that the respondent is someone who does not meet minimum qualifications for the position – eliminate them from the process by all means.  To me, eliminating someone for answering “No” to Question 2 is a far more suspect conclusion.  How do you know that 10 years is the “magic” amount? Is someone with 10 years of experience significantly more qualified than someone with 9 years of experience?  Too often, the line between “required” and “preferred” qualifications get blurred in the bells and whistles.

The moral of the story?

Just because the technology to do something is available, that doesn’t mean we should always use it.  And just because technology can reduce workload and make some “decisions” for us, that doesn’t mean other tradeoffs do not exist.  Too often, I find features and functions of online systems end up driving selection system design decisions, not what is in the best interest of the business.

The good news?

We tell the computers what to do! (at least until singularity comes!)

  1. Always, always treat applicants with respect.  It’s the right thing to do – and it has the upshot of helping solidify the employment brand you have been worrying about.
  2. Use technology to make the experience more personal, not less.  Make your “no thanks” email something other than “We are keeping your application on file.  Thanks.”
  3. Be very selective in what becomes a “knockout” question.  Ask whatever questions you want, but use most of them to help you figure out who to phone screen or call in for an interview first.
  4. Ask hard questions internally…how do we know someone has to have majored in marketing to be able to do this role?  Does that twelfth year of commensurate experience really make a difference?

Happy hiring!

Chad Thompson, Ph.D. is the Managing Director of the Consulting and Assessment Practice at Taylor Strategy Partners.  You can connect with him on LinkedIn or following him @TSP_Consulting


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