What’s Gone Wrong with Our Hiring Practices

And what we can do to about them

Two years ago, I decided to make a bold move: I attempted to switch from the competitive world of freelance writing to an in-house writing position. Who knows? Maybe the Atlantic or the New Yorker were looking for another polished writer to wow their readers.

After years of beating the bushes and competing with other cutthroat freelancers who undercut each other’s fees, I thought it would be a refreshing change to show up at 8:00 in the morning, put in my 8 hours, then collect a check every other Friday.

The results weren’t pretty.

The History of Looking for Work

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 20 years, you’re probably aware that today’s job search market is brutal. You’d think that with over 300,000 new jobs created in 2018 and dozens of online job sites, landing a new career opportunity would be easy. Just Google the types of positions you’re looking for, fill out the online application and wait for your Galaxy, iPad or Fitbit to ring.

The internet has dramatically changed all that; both from the applicant and hiring sides. Before online job sites appeared in 1994, applicants were geographically restricted to jobs they could apply for by local newspapers and employment agencies. People tended to apply for jobs only as far away as they were willing to drive. If you were really lucky, your dad got you a job in the mail room at his law practice while you were going to school.

I can remember the day when the most expedient way to find work was trudging down to the local unemployment office. Their recruiting took the form of directing you to a dozen bulletin boards covered with 3X5 cards of open jobs; mostly blue-collar, part-time and per diem. At best, you were competing against people who lived within a 10-mile radius of where you lived.

Today, through the miracle of Indeed, Monster, Glassdoor, and ZipRecruiter, applicants in Los Angeles can now look forward to competing with applicants as far away as New Delhi; that is, if the jobs they’re applying for even exist.

So, here are the hard, cold facts:

  • A Gallup poll found 7 out of 10 people find some aspect of the job search frustrating and unpalatable.
  • The average candidate spends 3–4 hours preparing and submitting one job application.
  • 72% of employers report that they spend less than 15 minutes reviewing an application.
  • 65% of applicants report they rarely, and usually never, receive any kind of feedback regarding their application status.
  • 60% of candidates report negative experiences applying for jobs.
  • 85% of applicants doubt their application ever met with human eyes.
  • 51% of candidates report that it takes more than a month to hear anything from hiring companies; if they hear anything at all.
  • 72% of applicants with poor employer experiences shared them on employer review sites or with others on social media.
  • Only 1 out of 4 employers regularly request feedback directly from candidates on their experience.
  • Nearly 60% of employers have read online negative feedback about their applicant process.
  • Only 46% of employers report making regular improvements to the recruitment processes (at least every six months) that would affect the candidate’s experience.
  • 1 out of 5 employers don’t know how regularly they make improvements to the candidate experience.
  • Candidates who are not informed of the status or decision of their application are three-and-a-half times less likely to re-apply to the company that declined them.

What Happens to Your Job Application

For a job with 426 applicants, only 2 ever get a chance to interview; less than 1% of all applicants. The issue, of course, is sheer volume. A fourth of the applicants are spam applicants: people who throw hundreds of applications against the wall, hoping one or two will stick. Ten percent make sophomore mistakes on their applications or resumes, and another 42% are nowhere near qualified. So, how have employers attempted to deal with this onslaught of applicants? It’s simple:

ATS software.

How ATS Software Has Changed the Recruiting Game

ATS software, also called Applicant Tracking Software or Applicant Tracking Systems, began hitting the workplace in 1991. More than 98% of Fortune 500 companies, 66% of large companies and 35% of small businesses depend on recruitment software.

ATS was designed to make the onslaught of online applications manageable by recruiters and hiring managers. Prior to ATS software, for every advertised position, hiring staff faced thousands of hours screening applicants. It was an impossible task. Robust ATS systems also help HR departments move new employees through the corporate process once they’re hired. Some ATS software follows each applicant through the entire hiring process. Good quality apps can:

  • Help with identifying good candidates
  • Track applicant testing
  • Schedule interviews
  • Check the candidate’s references
  • Consolidate the applicant’s resume, cover letter, references and education

In short, it can manage the entire on-boarding process from beginning to end.

To help deal with the sheer number of applicants (qualified or otherwise), hiring specialists began coding keywords into their system, designed to parse qualified applicants from the pack. The problem is no one, including the people responsible for them, have a clue how to do it. Why?

Because ATS configuration, job descriptions and applicant resumes are moving targets. Never the twain shall meet.

Deciphering the Job Description

The process usually begins with a hiring manager or HR department drafting a job description: a list of not only what skills an applicant should have to successfully perform the job, but also what additional skills they’d like to see — sort of a wish list. Often times, the job description is created by an out-sourced recruiter: someone who has no history with the hiring company. Someone who has no idea what it takes to successfully do the job. The results can be ugly.

The problem is a lack of consistency between the applicant, recruiter and the people designing the back end of the ATS software. Keywords are often arbitrarily selected and shared in-house. For the applicant, it’s Russian Roulette; if they fail to include the specific keywords in their resume and cover letter, they lose. They’re rejected by the system without ever having an opportunity to meet a human being. Even if they’re a perfect candidate for the job.

More and more, it’s not important what your resume says as much as howit says it. Great candidates who are changing career paths may slip through the cracks using ATS software. “Most companies have thousands of resumes sitting in a database that they’ve never looked at,” says Josh Bersin, principal at the human resources consulting firm Bersin by Deloitte. “In fact, 75 percent are never seen by a real person.”

Error-prone ATS software can reject more than 75% of good-quality applicants. Sixty-two percent of companies that use Applicant Tracking Systems admit “some qualified candidates are likely being automatically filtered out of the vetting process by mistake.”

Purple Squirrels, Unicorns, Ninjas and Rock Stars

What companies would like to find is the perfect candidate — or two. Someone who not only has previous experience in all the advertised areas but also brings something new to the table. There are even words for them:

Purple Squirrels, Unicorns, Ninjas and Rock Stars

The problem is the perfect candidate doesn’t exist. If they do, they probably already have a job and aren’t interested in going anywhere. Compounding the problem is matching past job performance and skills with aptitudes, or the personal characteristics required to successfully perform the job.

It’s as if the two sides of the application process, the applicant and the hiring company, are working against instead of with each other. In fact, there are things recruiters don’t want applicants to know. Matt Doucette, head of Monster.com’s global talent acquisitions confesses:

  • “The job description and even the job itself is probably going change once you get hired. There are also the times that the job isn’t even defined until we find the right person, which is crazy. We definitely don’t want you to know the specifics of the salary range. The biggest piece is that, more often than not, managers don’t actually know what they’re looking for in a hire until they find the right person.”
  • “Most candidates’ biggest problem in the process of getting hired is the lack of a recruitment feedback mechanism. They want instant gratification — but for every candidate that’s out there, a recruiter is talking to at least 100 other candidates and 30 hiring managers that week.”
  • “In the future, the cultural fit may become a more important barometer than experience, with people like college grads and military officers becoming more common clients of recruiting services.”

What the Candidates Are Saying

What about the applicants’ perception of the job search process? Want to hear what they’re saying? According to the Money & Career Cheat sheet, the top-10 most frustrating things about applying for jobs are:

  1. Crazy-long applications — Applicants resent having to input the same information over, and over again. Sixty percent of all job seekers bail out of online job applications because of their length and complexity.
  2. Super-picky employers — During a Today show segment, job seekers were asked to relate their biggest frustration: “Even a resurrected Jesus wouldn’t be hired because, even though he can perform miracles, he had trouble with the law at one time and he’s way over 50 now, plus that beard isn’t to corporate standards,” one reader joked.
  3. Getting recruited for a job that’s not right — It’s a common practice these days to be the lucky recipient of recruiters trolling for applicants;

even from another country. “I’m annoyed at the recruiters who call me right at dinnertime (always at dinnertime) with job offers that aren’t even remotely close to anything I’d be interested in, nor have any kind of competitive salary.”

4. The ‘helpful’ friend — Unless you’re actively looking for work yourself, you have no business dispensing job search advice. “Having my mother email me links to jobs that are nothing like what I’m searching for, not in my field of expertise, and in general, bothering me by worrying that I’ll starve by tomorrow. She seriously sent me a link to an open position for a dentist! I worked for an insurance company in the finance department!”

5. Personality tests — Employers desperate to find a Purple Squirrel are resorting to every trick in the book to find the right candidate — including personality tests. “A lot of these tests that measure aspects of personality don’t measure things that are particularly job-related,” says Susan J. Stabile, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.

6. Job scams — By the time you’ve spent the last 6 months (or longer) unemployed, you’re ready for just about anything. That’s where the job scammers take advantage of you. Stay away from people who promise you, “…make $20,000 a week, working part-time from home.” If they were that good, they’d all be gone.

7. Jobs that don’t exist — “Staffing agencies are notorious for posting boilerplate ads for jobs that don’t really exist to build a database of candidates who they might call on in the future. Agencies defend this by saying that they fill jobs that are similar to the ones advertised all the time — but many job seekers are frustrated when they arrive for an interview, only to discover that there’s no job to be had,” HR expert Alison Green wrote for U.S. News & World Report.

8. Sneaking around — If you’re already employed and looking for a job, deception is the name of the game. But, unless you convince your boss that you’ve fallen victim to a mysterious flesh-eating disease, there are only so many times you can go to the dentist in one week. And it takes a magician to change into a suit in the restroom (when you wear cutoffs to work) without being detected by your co-workers.

9. Dumb interview questions — Many employers desperate to fill a job will resort to questions that belong on “The Dating Game” in an effort to make you feel at ease and test your problem-solving skills. Glassdoor published actual questions by employers:

  • Asked at SpaceX: “When a hot dog expands, in which direction does it split and why?”
  • Asked at Whole Foods Market: “Would you rather fight 1 horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses?”
  • Asked at Dropbox: “If you’re the CEO, what are the first three things you check about the business when you wake up?”
  • Asked at Urban Outfitters: “What would the name of your debut album be?”
  • Asked at W. Business Acquisitions: “How would you sell hot cocoa in Florida?”
  • Asked at HubSpot: “If I gave you $40,000 to start a business, what would you start?”
  • Asked at Trader Joe’s: “What would you do if you found a penguin in the freezer?”
  • Asked at Boston Consulting Group: “If you were a brand, what would be your motto?”
  • Asked at Delta Air Lines: “How many basketballs would fit in this room?”
  • Asked at Uniqlo: “If you had $2,000, how would you double it in 24 hours?”

10. Getting ghosted after an interview — By far, the biggest complaint job seekers expressed was being “ghosted,” or never getting feedback about their job interview — ever. Generally speaking, if you don’t hear from a company you interviewed with within 2 weeks, you can bet it’s not good news. But, to be ignored is a bigger sin than being honest with a candidate why they didn’t get the job.

There’s something ghosting companies are forgetting: more and more disgruntled employees and job seekers are turning to social media to express their frustrations. Just like consumers checking out user reviews on Amazon, people looking for work are reading what current and past employees say about the company they worked for.

The previously cited Gallup poll found that lack of communication was the biggest sin committed by employers: “Whether it was the wait for the results of their application; the length of time between applying, being interviewed, and being hired; or not hearing from the hiring organization at all, 22% of respondents cited a lack of communication as the most aggravating aspect of their job search.”

Another candidate complained, “I was amazed at the lack of respect shown during the interview process. It amazed me because this was a clear indication as to how I would be treated as an employee.”

Job-seekers’ complaints have not always fallen on deaf ears. There’s good evidence recently to suggest that employers are taking notice of candidate feedback. Ninety-nine percent of employers believe that enhancing applicants’ feedback-whether they get the job or not — can enhance their company’s brand. Yet, 55% of employers think having a better online application or interview process is more important than the risk of a candidate being ghosted.

There are Solutions

With all the bad news, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It doesn’t take a recruiting genius to figure out for every day a job that goes unfilled, it costs the company money in lost productivity and affects company morale. If there’s a job vacancy, either the work isn’t getting done, or someone else is doing it–on top of everything else in their own job description. That’s why it’s so important that job search candidates and companies hiring work together to try to figure out the most efficient ways to fill vacant jobs.

Here are 10 tips on how the job selection process can be improved:

  1. Improve employee retention — Some of the best ways to improve the hiring process begin before someone decides to leave their job for a promotion or another job. Companies may need to spend more time and money on improving employee retention before employees decide to look for greener pastures. After all, people leave for a reason. It’s expensive to replace them. Maybe there’s something that needs to be changed. Perhaps a change in management is in order.
  2. Involve more people in the hiring process — Sometimes committee members charged with interviewing and selecting candidates can get too close to their work. One easy way to improve the screening process is to include a variety of colleagues in the selection process. Let them come up with their own questions instead of adhering to the tried and true, standardized list. They may see something in a candidate’s personality that others miss.
  3. Improve the job descriptions — “When hiring managers try to post the best possible job ads, they often end up with endless descriptions with countless details,” says one recruiter. “That’s not productive. Focus on what your company can do for the candidate, so you’ll attract the best ones your way.” Use real language instead of lifeless terms like utilize, monetize and re-contextualize strategically parsimonious approaches for achieving company-based guidelines. Nobody knows what that means.
  4. Focus on the Goals instead of the process — Exactly, what is it that you want this person to do? Does it really matter what college they attended, or how they go about solving the problem? When interviewing candidates, try to determine if they can do the job. That’s all. Forget how old they are, where they last worked or their gender-identification. None of that’s important if they’re the best person for the job.
  5. Skip the “magic questions” — Referring to the section above about candidates’ biggest complaints, skip the cute, creative questions. Asking them, “If you were a peach, what would you be… the fruit or the pit?” does nothing for either of you. At the very least, it confuses the candidate and makes them wonder if this is really the right company for them.
  6. Define your needs — If you’ve read their resume, you already know where and when they earned their degree. You know where they worked and for how long. Now, get specific: can they do the job that needs to be done? Ask the candidate outright, “Can you do the job?” and watch their facial and body language. You’ll get the information you’re looking for.
  7. Embrace social media — One of the things that companies often lose sight of is that while the company is interviewing the candidate, the candidate is interviewing the company. It’s been quite a while since there have been more job opportunities than unemployed workers. It’s a candidate’s market. So, companies need to put their best foot forward. One of the best ways to do that is by treating ALL candidates fairly; whether they get the job or not. You can bet they’ll all hit social media to explain how they’ve been treated. Use social media to enhance your company brand. Integrate a seamless approach to the physical as well as the digital company.
  8. Perform a social media background check — Most people are open to background checks and credit reports. But, employers will learn much more by requesting their candidate’s social media pages; particularly Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Instagram and Tumblr, not so much. Without prying, you’ll learn about the candidate’s interests, viewpoints and their ability to communicate using the written word. All very important for your job.
  9. Ask why they left their previous job — Everyone leaves jobs. The days of staying with a company for 30 years are over. So, ask the candidate why they left? Was it a matter of money? Challenges? Perhaps they didn’t gel with management. While some of these questions may be delicate, it’s a wonderful opportunity for the candidate to explain in positive, productive terms exactly what transpired. If they can put a positive spin on a negative situation, you have a winner.
  10. Ask them to interview you — In “the old days,” job interviews were always one-way, directed at the candidate. Today, companies encourage candidates to interview them. That’s why at the end of an interview, candidates should always be asked, “Is there anything you’d like to ask me?” Being open to candidates’ questions will provide the interviewer with valuable information about how much they’ve thought about the job and how much they want it.

Treating Job Applicants Like Human Beings

The key to improving the job search and selection process is to discover genuine, tangible ways for the applicant and company to get to know each other; even when you’re under the gun, deluged with applicants. The way to reach quality applicants is to approach them in human terms. Lose the worn out approaches that fail in our new, fast-moving digital age.

From beginning to end, whether you hire the candidate or not, do everything you can to instill trust in the candidate. Show them it’s not just about the job; it’s also about the person. From beginning to end, treat them with respect. After all, they came to you for the job.

Remain open-minded. In today’s active business environment, you’ll meet a variety of nationalities, faiths, backgrounds, gender-identities and work ethics. It’s common for people, especially men and women with families, to have extended breaks in their job history. View that as a plus, instead of something to be held against them.

Value the candidates’ questions and concerns. If there’s something they bring up, it must be important to them, or they wouldn’t have asked. Treat new applicants the same way you treat your customers with maturity, empathy, and interest in them as people.

Even if the candidate doesn’t get the job, encourage them to complete an anonymous online survey about the way they were treated, from beginning to end. Was there something they objected to? What could you do better? You’ll learn valuable information about how you can treat future candidates and your customers.

After reviewing the responses from multiple candidates, companies often discover flawed processes. Perhaps they weren’t going about the interviews in the proper way. Some may even discover that the interview team isn’t drawing the best responses from the candidates and it’s time for a change in management. After all, we’re all human.

Don’t sit on your laurels, using so-called “time-tested” hiring approaches. Make sure that the interviewers and decision makers are regularly updated with the latest approaches and techniques. Times change. Candidate pools change. If the company doesn’t stay current, they may be doing themselves a disservice and missing out on the best available talent.

In summary, if you want to fill your most important positions with the best candidates, it’s a two-way street. Statistics show that 80% of the best jobs are filled by referral; not by internet-based job boards.

Image is everything.

Allen Smith is an award-winning writer living in Oceanside, California and has published thousands of articles for print, the web and social media.