What is an applicant tracking system (ATS)?

An applicant tracking system (ATS) is software that simplifies the recruitment process for HR teams.

It’s sometimes called applicant tracking software, a talent management system (TMS), or candidate management system (CMS). What is ATS best known for? It’s usually thought of as a system that stores resumes. However, at its best, an ATS can be more like a recruitment co-pilot. Let’s look at the scope of what they can do: 

  • Source candidates
  • Screen applicants
  • Manage and track applicants through the recruitment journey 
  • Schedule interviews
  • Send automated, customized emails 
  • Organize paperwork for new hires
  • Store applicants’ information in a centralized database
  • Produce insightful management information (MI)

This is a broad summary, and the devil is in the detail. For example, more than simply scheduling interviews, many ATS support business-wide collaboration in some way, helping people across your organization play their part in sourcing, screening, and decision-making with ease. 

You can choose an ATS system that lets you build a database of candidates, harvested from cold applications or kept after unsuccessful applications for other roles (sometimes called a talent bank). 

Some let you filter candidates by keywords so you can pull up reports of people with experience in a certain area. There’s resume parsing, where the ATS extracts key aspects of resumes for like-for-like comparison—for example, specific work history, qualifications, or skills. 

They can even handle sourcing across different pipelines, weaving together options from employee referrals, job boards, social media, and more.

<< See our comprehensive checklist of ATS features >>

It can be your one-stop shop for all things recruitment. A dashboard of your candidate pipeline. A communications channel that inspires both potential employees and colleagues involved in the process. As well as an analysis tool to help you make the most of recruiting budgets and resources. 

With all this in mind, it’s no surprise 67 percent of UK-based HR leaders use an ATS-style system to support their recruitment. 

How do applicant tracking systems work?

Let’s explore the role of an ATS through the end-to-end HR recruitment process.

Candidate sourcing

Someone within your business will likely submit a job requisition form outlining the position’s title, the required skills and experience, and other key facts. The ATS uses this information to create a profile for the ideal candidate. 

Some ATS software can then use AI to create simple job ads to post on internal and external job boards. Then, as the applications come in, some ATS will sort and rank applicants against the ‘ideal candidate’ profile. 

Candidate interviews

An ATS helps colleagues work together to pinpoint both potential and favorite candidates and create a shortlist (or longlist!) to take through to interview. 

Some can also handle comms: issuing pre-created invitations to interview emails, letting others know they haven’t made it through to the next stage—perhaps even pointing candidates to surveys on the experience to improve processes. 

As candidates move through each stage, an ATS can keep them ‘warm,’ i.e., send regular updates on the process, together with news from your business or even interview tips to help them put their best self forward. 

From your perspective, the ATS helps your colleagues collaborate more closely. Many ATS offer features that allow them to share thoughts on how interviews went and add notes highlighting reasons to continue with particular candidates. All of this helps managers assess the pool of candidates more quickly and make well-informed decisions. 

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Candidate hiring

Naturally, ATS with comms features will likely be more than happy to send a pre-templated, personalized email to the successful candidate with your congratulations and the offer of a role. You can also create emails that (hopefully) let other candidates down gently. 

Some systems can then be set up to handle the first part of onboarding, creating a contract on acceptance and forwarding other new hire information and useful materials. 

Candidates’ first day and beyond

While some ATS stop at hiring (or even earlier), the best offer end-to-end employee lifecycle integration. This makes it easier, for example, to ensure the tone of voice and visual style of emails candidates receive through the hiring process match those on their first day in the job and beyond. 

Why use an application tracking system? 

An ATS can save you time and money. For starters, think of the hours it takes to manually sift through all the CVs from people applying for roles they’re clearly unsuited to. 

But more broadly, an ATS handles a range of routine administrative duties that would otherwise tie up members of your HR team.

It filters your candidates

As we discussed, some ATS software can do the heavy lifting when it comes to filtering applications. This is no small matter. What was once a laborious process managed in pre-digital times over snail mail now takes seconds on a job board (not least with LinkedIn’s ‘Easy Apply’ feature: useful for time-poor senior figures, yet can lead to thousands of CVs for other roles). 

An ATS’ automated system can simplify and speed up the sifting process. Plus, when an applicant applies for a job, it may also save their resume and any relevant information in a standardized format. This means you can use keyword searches to zero in on applicants who suit your needs. 

It tracks and selects candidates

As candidates progress through the hiring process, their information moves with them. Members of the recruiting team can add notes so everyone can see how candidates performed in earlier interviews and the results of any tests they completed. 

The system usually allows you to highlight preferred candidates, with the potential to send the successful applicant a contract. Then, it can move them into a wider Human Capital Management platform or hand off to a separate onboarding application. 

It improves candidate engagement

Hiring processes generally involve lots of communication, from the initial holding email to booking and rebooking interviews and, ideally, the final offer. Lots of candidates can lose heart if they don’t get speedy responses or feel they’re just another number in a deep pool of candidates. 

Some ATS offer self-service interview scheduling, where candidates choose from a selection of times and dates. Plus, ATS featuring editable, branded email templates allows you to reinforce the key messages and personality of your employer brand. 

It puts candidate information at your fingertips

An ATS conveniently centralizes all the information you have on candidates, making it easy for your people to access data on potential new hires. 

It’s not just about the live recruitment process, either. If a candidate isn’t hired, some systems include consent boxes in their communications that allow the employer to keep applicants’ details on record. That way, if another role comes up that fits the candidate’s profile, the HR team will be alerted—and can potentially hire without even going to market.

It speeds up internal recruitment activities

We all know the lead time for hiring employees can vary wildly. However, internal administration and deliberation no longer need to be factors. 

An ATS can post live roles to several platforms with just a single click. Then, it can help you quickly pinpoint the right candidates for initial selection and efficiently facilitate the interview process. 

An ATS also gives the hiring team a platform to collaborate as they move towards a decision and can expedite the offer and contract phase. All of this contributes to better average hiring speeds—hugely important when research shows the best candidates for roles are available for an average of just 10 days! 

It does your recruiting analysis

All the stats and figures around your recruitment activities can be very powerful in the right hands. This is why some ATS platforms give you a wide range of reporting options, such as focusing on the type of people applying for your roles (to improve targeting) or summaries of your own hiring trends. 

You could also assess the diversity of people you hire and those applying to join, helping you create long-term plans that broaden the variety of backgrounds among your workforce. All this information can be synched with other applications or alongside the data from the rest of a comprehensive end-to-end human resource management platform

It keeps your data secure and meets GDPR 

Last but not least, there’s data security to consider. Some job seekers might apply for a dozen roles during a lunch hour. Others may be more selective when sharing their data with you. Either way, while it’s difficult for candidates to see or grasp the scope of security your systems offer, it’s vital that you meet GDPR best practice standards and at least present an image, user-side, that your application process is safe to use. 

A cloud-based applicant tracking system keeps your and candidates’ data secure and provides a professional user experience (candidate UX) that encourages trust. 

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How accurate are applicant tracking systems?

The one issue some employers have with ATS is around filtering. An applicant tracking system can sift through thousands of resumes far faster than any HR team. However, its methodology is based on searching for keywords and terms. This contrasts with a human reading a resume, who’ll assess a candidate based on their entire suite of skills, experience, and qualifications.

This means good candidates might be missed if their CV doesn’t list the criteria the ATS is searching for. Something 88 percent of employers feel happens on a regular basis, rising to 94 percent when discussing middle management roles. 

One solution is to ask the ATS to search for a wide range of terms relating to a role’s requirements to try to find all viable candidates. 

Another is to choose an Applicant Tracking System that allows you to set multiple-choice filter questions as part of your application forms, e.g., asking for knowledge of certain systems, management experience, or years’ experience (if legally allowed). 

Then, with the total number of resumes pre-filtered, the hiring team sifts through candidates that do meet your most basic criteria. It’s still the best and most effective way to ensure no good candidate slips through a gap. 

At the end of the day, there’s no replacement for what humans bring to this process, and using an ATS for filtering resumes needs to be used with that in mind. 

Strategies for seamless ATS implementation in HR

With hundreds of ATS software solutions on the market, exploring which is right for your company can be daunting. There are some free options that offer basic functions. But over time, you may feel ‘locked’ into the application as you discover you need extra, paid-for features. 

We recommend narrowing in on the features your company really needs first. 

These will largely be driven by your hiring team’s pain points, for example, ensuring it has language features to hire across different regions or will interface with other systems, such as governmental background checks or private drug screenings. 

If consistent or correct comms are an issue, choose an ATS that makes it easy to create and edit emails and forms, ideally with the flexibility to add elements of your brand to set your communications apart. 

Once the search has been narrowed, HR leaders generally get the best results from an ATS by carrying out these steps:

Step one: update the wider HR team. Tell all your HR professionals about the search for a new ATS, and allow them to ask questions and offer suggestions on the tools and features they need and how it can be implemented. 

Step two: speak to the ATS vendor/s. Set up an initial meeting between your HR leaders and any potential ATS vendors. During the conversation, the vendor should review their system implementation process and build their own comprehensive picture of your company’s requirements and any concerns.  

Step three: establish the ATS. During this stage, the vendor should be in contact with your HR leaders as they build and incorporate the system into the company. The vendor will also need to ask questions and confer with your team regarding any issues that come up.  

Step four: try out the system. It’s best if your HR professionals try out the system, bring up any issues, and report feedback.

Step five: train the HR team. HR leaders can run training sessions to teach the rest of the HR team the ins and outs of the ATS. Integrating an ATS system is a big change, so allow for a learning curve as your team gets comfortable with the new software.

Though HR professionals may have to invest time to learn how to use an ATS, it will ultimately save them time and your company money.

How can a well-implemented ATS improve company culture?

An effective ATS lets your HR professionals focus on cultivating a nurturing company culture. 

Because the ATS handles much of the repetitive, mundane tasks associated with hiring, hiring managers and HR teams are free to focus on what the mechanized ATS can’t do—interview and assess candidates, and decide who aligns most with the company culture.

Plus, when an ATS creates an exceptional experience for candidates, it emphasizes your company’s culture and sets up new joiners for success, from recruiting to onboarding and beyond.   

What’s next for applicant tracking systems?

ATS software is already ubiquitous. 97 percent of Fortune 500 companies use them, and 35 percent of small organizations rely on recruitment software. 

Developments in the very near term are likely to focus on making the experience even more seamless for hiring teams and candidates. Improvements in UX, smarter use of the information on resumes, and more features around interview booking and management are all very much front-of-mind for ATS providers. 

Then, you have AI’s ability to enrich the candidate experience. Your chatbot could not only field questions about a role in a human, engaging way. It could also inspire applicants about your company’s mission, ethos, and working environment. 

But what’s on everyone’s mind is AI’s effect on an ATS’ impact, effectiveness, and return on investment. Many already use AI to build profiles and screen applicants. The next logical step is to use AI to comb social platforms for potential candidates who express an interest in relevant roles—passive candidates who might stay with your company longer. 

The concern is whether these advances run the risk of introducing bias into hiring. Does it put too much responsibility on what will ultimately be human-driven parameters and prompts? Even in its infancy, there have been a number of court cases around the world on this very issue. 

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Applicant tracking system FAQs

What is the role of an ATS in recruitment?

An applicant tracking system (ATS) is a digital application used by companies, HR departments, and hiring teams during recruitment. 

An ATS handles and supports numerous hiring activities, such as listing roles on job boards, collating and filtering applications, filtering resumes, screening candidates, booking interviews, and helping the hiring team to collaborate. 

Do HR teams need lots of training to use an ATS? 

A good ATS is a ‘pick up and play’ application. They generally follow the same candidate journey most HR professionals have used for years. For ATS platforms that have a modern UI/UX, it should be relatively easy for your teams to jump in and start working once implemented. Some more cumbersome and traditional platforms may require additional training for HR, TA teams, and hiring managers. 

That said, be sure to ask your provider to provide training so you can make the most of the tools at your disposal.

How does an ATS help with tracking and analyzing recruitment metrics?

On a base level, the metrics can help you pinpoint the best-value recruitment channels and advertising campaigns, and guide the way you invest in media going forward. Then, there’s the practical. Compare time-to-hire to time-to-fill metrics, and you might find certain teams, departments, or role levels need reviewing. 

More ambitiously, they can give you insights into the success of your recruitment strategies. You can set the data to, for example, feed into your DE&I reporting, or look at the hiring methods vs length of stay. With the war for talent so fierce and the cost of hiring going up, recruitment metrics can give you a competitive edge. 

How does an ATS handle compliance and data security? 

ATS are naturally set to improve data security. For starters, records are stored in the cloud rather than, in the old days, in HR departments’ cupboards. You should also be able to carefully restrict access to authorized personnel, who have to complete multi-factor authentication before they can see any private information. 

It’s worth noting that it’s usually up to users to ensure they use the latest version of their ATS to have the latest protections. Each vendor will handle compliance and security differently so it’s worth asking these questions during your evaluation.

Can an ATS integrate with other HR software and tools? 

Absolutely. The best ATS works seamlessly as a bolt-on to your existing HR packages, so it can work with separate candidate management software (CRM), onboarding application, and staff management systems

Some ATS applications can also be as part of a wider human capital management platform—delivering a complete consistency of approach along the employee lifecycle and providing even more powerful recruitment and workforce analytics and MI tools. 

Are the any disadvantages or limitations of ATS for employers? 

Some employers struggle to get the best out of their ATS when it comes to filtering candidates. But only because ATS platforms filter resumes by searching for key words and terms. If a candidate doesn’t name-check a keyword or term, they may not make it through to the next stage. 

However, employers that take the time to set their ATS up properly and search for a wide range of terms have less problems getting their long lists to include all the best candidates.

The right ATS frees your hiring team to focus on what matters

For HR, ATS platforms bring many clear benefits. From a financial perspective, it saves your HR team time and money. But more broadly, it helps you find and hire the best candidate in the fastest possible way. 

Furthermore, an ATS can positively impact your DE&I practices and add depth and quantifiable learning to your HR strategy

If you wanted to recruit someone who could transform your hiring function, an ATS would be the stand-out candidate. 

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