Job Application Software Runs Amuck

Job applicationA recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlights a serious problem with North American industry. The article entitled "Software Raises Bar for Hiring", documents how Human Resource departments have taken to scanning job applications for key words and terms as the first step in screening candidates. Anything that makes candidate screening easier must be a good idea, right?  It's not that easy.

Your background might have similar skills or experience as the job posting. Let's say you have used Windows 7 but not Windows 8 like the job posting requires; the software isn't smart enough to know the different and you're rejected even though the time to transition from one version of the software to another is probably less than a day of work time. Or your last job was as a "project coordinator" because that is the title your employer gave it, but your application is for a "project manager"; again rejected because you are deemed to not have the required background.

Given the hundreds--sometimes thousands--of applicants applying for a position, the use of software makes sense, but at what cost? Employers who are only looking for key words often miss out on applicants who have made a career change and can approach the new job with a wealth of skills, experience and "cross training' knowledge from another field. For example, software programming is a fine career, but if I'm looking for a team leader, I'd sooner have someone with 3-5 years of programming experience along with an education background instead of someone with 15 years of coding; such a person will likely be much better at mentoring his or her team and growing the skills within the entire organization.

Similarly, insisting that candidates for a management position must have management experience seems to make sense. But many people manage people without a formal "manager" job title. As well, many "manager" job titles don't involve any personnel or budget management roles at all. I've met "IT managers" and "Systems managers" who spend all day, every day with their computers and "Procurement managers" who spend all their time trying to get vendors to deliver product according to some contractual arrangement.

According to Peter Cappelli, a professor of management and human resources from the University of Pennsylvania, incumbents to a position anonymously applied for their same position and didn't make it through the screening process.

Cappelli suggests that applicants need to modify their resumes to parrot exactly the requirements, skills and experiences listed in the job posting. But do not to copy these requirements verbatim; the software will detect plagiarism. One engineering firm drew 25,000 applicants only to have their HR system tell them that not one was qualified.

The ethical issues facing job seekers is also critical: should an applicant "lie" or misrepresent themselves on their resume just so they can qualify? For example, I have a wealth of experience using Drupal (a content management system for the web) but almost no experience using Joomla (a competing system). I know that transitioning from one platform to another would take me a couple of days at most and I could easily become competent in time for an interview. So, should I fudge my resume? As a rostered professional with two professional organizations, am I violating my profession's code of ethics if I do so? And if I don't, am I hurting myself against those applicants who are not so encumbered?

Job hiring is a huge, time consuming, and often soul-sucking activity for HR departments and line managers but there has to be a better option. I suggest the following protocol:

  1. Use software to screen applicants to get the pool down to 20% or 50 people (whichever is smaller).
  2. Use a human review to look at this short-list and ensure that what remains is a list of candidates with a wide variety of skills, backgrounds, personal characteristics (for example, ethnic and gender diversity), and experiences while still possessing the core requirements for the position. If all the short-listed candidates seem to have come from a cookie-cutter, reset the software and start again. The initial filters were probably too tight if all you got were 40 year old Caucasian male engineers who used  to work for Nortel or RIM.
  3. If the short-list meets these requirements, stratify it into cohorts of 4-5 applicants such that each cohort has a wide variety of backgrounds. Then with 2-3 employees (likely including the HR person and line manager), book each cohort for a group interview session for an hour. The benefit of this step is that it:
    1. increases the capacity of in-person screening per hour (by at least a factor of 4);
    2. allows the employer to assess how each candidate performs when working with new people in a corporate environment reflecting (to some extent) the employer's culture; and
    3. allows the employer to evaluate how each candidate interacts with people with whom they may not have much in common--an increasingly important skill within the North American workplace.
  4. After all the cohort sessions are complete, there are likely 4-6 candidates who are truly outstanding and could be invited back for a more formal interview.