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Can You Handle Rejection?

In the quest for the perfect candidate, many companies rely too much on software to weed out applicants, experts say. It could be one reason qualified candidates are being overlooked for good jobs.

October 4, 2012
Related Topics: Applicant Tracking Systems, Top Stories - Frontpage, Internet, HR Technology, Candidate Sourcing, Online Recruiting, Recruitment, Technology
Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School

There's no doubt that technology has dramatically changed the recruiting process for employers and applicants alike.

Long gone are the days when a candidate could just pick up a phone or send a résumé to a recruiter's attention. Instead, sophisticated software programs can narrow a field of thousands of applicants to a handful of the most highly qualified in no time.

That may seem like a great gift for overworked or downsized human resources departments, but whether the shift to a technology-driven process is a clear victory is a subject of some recent debate. Elaine and Jeff Orler of San Diego are proof of that.

Elaine Orler runs Talent Function Group, a San Diego-based company that advises companies on the use of software programs to streamline and dramatically improve their candidate-screening process. "I'm really passionate about these systems and ... I know that they can help an employer be so much more efficient," she says. She sees the potential of the programs as "limitless."

Yet Elaine Orler's husband, Jeff, who has been searching for a management accounting position for several months after taking a severance package at his longtime employer, isn't as big a fan. For Jeff Orler, it has been frustrating to respond to job descriptions online that he believes are a perfect fit, only to get no response and no explanation for why his application didn't rise to the top. Often, he's not even sure it was received.

"If I'm not a good fit, then just let me know and I'll put it out of mind and I can move on," Jeff Orler says. "The problem is you see a position and you get all excited about it, and it gives you an extra jump in your step. Then two, three or four weeks go by [and you hear nothing]. Then, you have to fight the mental and emotional battle all over again to keep your hope alive."

The Orlers' story illustrates both the promise and peril arising from a near complete dependence on software programs for filling jobs.

Peter Cappelli, professor of management and director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, recently wrote a book that touched on the software concerns, Why Good People Can't Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It.

Cappelli argues that there is no shortage of qualified applicants today, yet there are a host of reasons company leaders hold back on hiring, including: a pursuit of the perfect candidate when a very good one would do fine, an unwillingness to pay a competitive salary for hard-to fill jobs, and an over-reliance on software programs that screen out many qualified candidates.

He says that software programs often toss out perfectly qualified people because the job qualifications are laughably unrealistic or simply not needed for the positions.

Cappelli cites one example in which a manager revealed that his company had 25,000 applicants for a basic engineering job, but none was considered qualified. In another case, an employer was looking for a marketing position requiring experience in the green olive produce market. Apparently, experience in the black olive produce market wasn't good enough, Cappelli says.

One factor contributing to the dependence on software is that many HR functions took deep cuts during the recession, leaving HR managers overwhelmed, says Roberta Chinsky Matuson, president of the Massachusetts-based HR consulting firm Human Resource Solutions. Software programs can be helpful, experts say, as long as they're used to screen out highly unqualified job seekers. But there should be room to consider nontraditional candidates, such as a laid-off chief financial officer for a building company looking to translate his financial skills to new industries.

"I think you have to go back to the human touch. Organizations have to use a combination of tools," Matuson says. "If they are looking at 25,000 applicants and they can't find one, there's a problem."

On the other hand, Cappelli and software designers say the job applicant software itself really isn't the problem. The issue stems from hiring managers not thinking through what questions and features they should turn on within the software, and which ones they should disable. Furthermore, the job requirements and descriptions keyed into the software are often poorly written.

"When you don't think deeply about what you're trying to accomplish, you let the technology run you rather than you running it," says Gerry Crispin, an HR consultant and founder of CareerXroads, based in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "The technology itself has no mind. It's simply sitting there waiting for people to use it."

Elaine Orler says Crispin is right. "It's not a matter of the technology being bad. It actually has more capabilities than it has ever had," she says.

Neal Bruce, vice president of product management for Peoplefluent, a job candidate software program, says employers make clear mistakes in implementing software packages. The key problem: taking a poorly designed and antiquated paper system and simply throwing it online.

"A résumé is a really horrible representation of a person and a person's ability to do a job. At the same time, a job description is usually a horrible representation of a job. When you're asking a system to match a horrible thing with another horrible thing, the odds of things working out are really low," Bruce says.

Often, managers don't think through job requirements before inserting them into the software, Bruce says. For example, they may set a minimum of eight year's experience, knocking out all candidates with less. Instead, they could set the software to evaluate years of experience as one criterion, among others, and then rank candidates based on a wider range of qualifications, he says.

Another common mistake occurs when managers try to measure more personality-based characteristics of a candidate, such as that person's level of empathy, kindness or resourcefulness. Managers might have unrealistically high expectations for scores in those areas, rather than setting cutoffs based on advice from experts in psychology and behavior, Bruce says.

Bruce says larger companies often have bigger problems with poorly designed screen-out questions. With so many recruiters and such a high volume of applications coming in, they might not have the time or expertise to tweak the systems for a specific department's needs.

"This is a complex system—screening candidates and setting the right thresholds for screening out candidates, just knowing what's right and wrong," Bruce says. "And bigger companies have to work harder because they have the added problem of name recognition. They're going to get far more applicants per job, so it's even more important to take the time to design the tools well."

Susan Vitale, chief marketing officer for New Jersey-based software developer iCIMS, says companies should have their existing high performers fill out job-applicant software questions, then see how many of them are ranked high. If the current stars at the company get knocked out during the screening process, something is obviously wrong with the questions, she says.

She also asks clients to rethink their recruitment process when they buy iCIMS software so that they don't make the same mistakes online as they did with the paper process.

"We advise clients that this is a great opportunity to look at your process. ... But some [companies] just sign the contract. They don't want to make their metrics any better," Vitale says. "I just think a lot of work can be done in just re-formulating the job descriptions. While that sounds like a massive task, a lot of progress can be made if that's done."

Furthermore, many software design consultants say employers don't use some of the basic features, namely notifications informing job hunters that their application was received, or features that keep candidates informed on their status in a timely way.

In some cases, companies worry that they'll be legally challenged—possibly with an age or racial discrimination charge—so they simply turn off notification features in the software, consultants say, figuring less information is safer than more.

In a tight economy, it might seem as if employers are in the driver's seat. Why should they care if candidates get turned off by the process, especially if they end up with plenty of strong people?

However, Crispin says the impact of treating candidates poorly can be much greater than employers might realize. For one, it's easier than ever for candidates to bad-mouth employers online. "Certainly more companies are beginning to recognize that if they don't focus on this, the candidates who haven't been treated very well are speaking much more loudly," Crispin says. "In the old days, if an employer didn't treat me well and said, 'You're not hired,' I had no recourse. But today, I can leave comments on sites like Glassdoor. I can tell 500 of my friends not to buy a product, and some of them will listen. I just have much more recourse than I've ever had before."

Crispin, like Cappelli, says it's important for employers to realize that if their job-candidate process is cumbersome or unfriendly, they're also losing valuable time and money from not filling a position quickly and efficiently. "The first priority for employers is to understand the true value of a job candidate," Crispin says. "If you treat a candidate poorly, how much do you lose in sales and retention?"

He adds, "We should be mapping the impact of every stakeholder in the process. Once that's done, I think the candidate is going to have more and more of an impact."

At the same time, Elaine Orler says that software can really help in that process, allowing employers to dismiss obviously unqualified candidates and narrow in on the better fits. For example, the best candidates can be invited to fill out a more detailed online questionnaire or participate in a phone or video interview, one of the hottest trends in recruitment software design.

"The systems can help direct where the attention needs to be," she says.

Meg McSherry Breslin is a writer based in the Chicago area. Comment below or email

Workforce Management, October 2012, pgs. 32-36 -- Subscribe Now!

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