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Choosing an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) for employee recruitment


I'd been working with our tourist attraction client, who wanted to improve many areas of their HR processes and systems, and wanted to introduce some software to help.

In my previous blog post, we'd worked through the requirements, and discovered that at the time, the company did actually have a reasonably competent database of staff, contact details, and most critically pay rates and timesheet records. These all fed into an automated payroll calculation system.

One of the key processes they wanted to improve was the recruitment of new staff. However if they had to replace the core Staff database and payroll system, both of which were bespoke inhouse developed systems (but the original developer had since left), this could take a lot of time and effort, before they could even move on to the recruitment process/system. There was a high risk of both compromising the payroll system which worked well - and of not getting a recruitment system in ready for next year.

And as we identified those requirements of the payroll - which was very focused on the business, with commission calculations and performance bonuses automatically calculated from other business systems, replacing this system would be massive, and put at risk the key requirement which was recruitment.

The good news was that we had found that there is a whole sub-sector of HR software called Applicant Tracking Systems, shortened to ATS's.

Focusing in on the recruitment requirement - Applicant Tracking Systems

Whilst the payroll requirements of the business were pretty bespoke (and working), the requirements for how you go about recruiting 100-150 people each year is actually very similar to many other companies recruiting that volume of staff:

  • make your vacancies visible - on your website, job boards, local advertising etc

  • applicants complete an application form

  • you screen the completed application forms and decide who to invite for interview

  • you either send a rejection, or invite the applicant to an interview

  • you perform one or multiple sets of interview or tests

  • you review the results of the interview/tests

  • you either offer the person a job, notify them that they haven't been accepted, or add them to a "talent pool" of potential future employees

  • for the candidates that you've offered a job to, you then need to get them to accept the job, and then plan their onboarding and notify relevant staff

Therefore I was pretty confident that we could buy an off-the-shelf package that would suit the companies needs, and get it in place in time ready for next season.

The great advantage of that was that we could likely agree a fixed budget, and that we could be confident of getting the system in relatively quickly, and therefore being ready for next year's recruitment cycle. Without any risk to the payroll system


There are many companies out there offering Applicant Tracking Systems. Many, came up on our initial research into HR systems, and are included in my previous blog post on that research.

We researched quite a lot of them, and settled on a shortlist of 3 of them with most potential for getting into deep testing and discussion with:

There are others that you may want to look at, but we found that any of these 3 could likely do what we wanted. But exactly which one is right for you may depend upon your circumstances.

For example, Workable, we relatively quickly eliminated compared to the other two. This was for a reason based upon the likely candidates - each system requires the applicant to register. They can set up a username and password, but the process can be made more "frictionless" by allowing the applicant to use register using their social media account. All 3 systems allow this, but (at the time), Workable only supported Linked In as it's social media connector. This may be fine for many companies with staff who are already in work and are probably on Linked In.

However, since the candidates in most cases were going to be under 25, and often applying for their first job, they were much more likely to have a Facebook account. And because those applicants may be looking at restaurant jobs, bar jobs, and there was a lot of competition for applicants, ensuring that it was as easy as possible to apply was key. So we eliminated Workable at that stage to give us a final two. But Workable may suit your company.

The final two

We then did lots of testing and engagement with the vendors. Both were very good and capable systems. Both had quite a lot of complexity to set them up, because they could cope with many scenarios, and you could adjust them to suit you.

They were sophisticated enough to be used by supermakets and other retail chains with hundreds of stores across the country. So they could cope with recruiting 1,000s of staff, potentially across tens or hundreds of sites, with "Hiring managers" for each site, with appropriate security and permissions so that each hiring manager could only see their relevant applicants. As a result, there was quite a lot of complexity to set them up.

But that complexity was necessary, because for recruiting 100-150 staff per year, there were several people involved in the process, just like a supermarket, but on a smaller scale.

Both ePloy and iCIMS were similar price - the price wouldn't be justified if you're recruiting just 1 or 2 staff per year. But for 100-150 staff per year, the price was reasonable - in the region of £5k - £10k in the per year. This was primarily based upon number of "Hiring managers" and other "Administrators" of the system, which is likely to be related to the number of staff you're recruiting. In this case, that worked out at between £33 and £100 per successful recruit, which seemed pretty reasonable.

They both had pretty good security, and data protection, which is key given the sensitive nature of the personal data being handled:

  • iCIMS are US based, but they do have a UK office with a number of sales and support staff in it. They have EU based data centres for GDPR compliance, and they support 2-factor authentication for authenticating administrators, or they can restrict based upon IP Address

  • ePloy are UK based, so automatically had their data centres in the UK/EU, have put lots of effort into GDPR. At the time they did not support 2-factor authentication but they were planning to, but they could restrict admin access by IP address.

If I'm honest, the user interface of iCIMS was a bit nicer.

Both of them had an applicant portal, logged and tracked e-mails between applicant and hiring managers, had templates for sending offers and rejection e-mails.

They each had "quotas" so the hiring manager could set the target for how many people of each role were being recruited, so that they could measure how successful they were being at recruitment.

However ePloy had one key differentiator that we discovered, which made our final decision for us. It could have been just a small thing - and may not apply to you. In this case, because:

  • the market to attract applicants was very competitive, and they wanted to make it as easy as possible for the applicant to book an interview date, without lots of e-mails with "can you do this time on this date?"

  • the way the interviewing was done by my client, they wanted to be able to have a number of interview slots set up on prescribed days (when the part-time interviewers worked)

they wanted it to be easy to auto-create interview slots, and then when an applicant is offered an interview, for it to be very easy for the applicant to log into the portal, and choose an interview slot.

As it happens, ePloy had just launched an enhanced version of their interview slot functionality which did the above really well. And iCIMS just couldn't do it as well.

Since they could both do what was needed equally well in most areas, were similar ballpark of cost, but ePloy had this feature that was going to make everything flow really well, we chose ePloy.

Final choice - ePloy, signing up and then going live

It only took around 6 weeks from choosing them, until going live.

In that following year, all the recruitment objectives were achieved. There were enough staff, and the problems of the previous year were eliminated. Most importantly, through the spring months, there was visibility to HR and management of how many people were applying, interviewing, and being recruited. And this meant the training team had visibility of their upcoming workload, which they'd never had before.

It wasn't just a case of implementing the software. Part of the evaluation process, and implementation process, helped us look at every step of the recruitment process, from job advert to application form, to response times, to oversight, to invites to interview, to interview itself and then the offer letter.

In fact, the story of the first applicant through ePloy summarises the improvement:

  • the applicant applied late on Monday afternoon, around 3pm

  • the HR manager checked the portal before finishing for the end of the day, and reviewed the CV and application form at around 5pm. It was excellent, so she clicked the button to invite the applicant to interview

  • the MD could see that the HR manager had seen the application and responded (this management was just not visible in the old days of application forms and basic e-mail responses)

  • by 7pm, the applicant had picked an interview slot that suited her, on the Wednesday

  • she attended the interview on Wednesday and was offered the job using ePloy on Thursday

  • the applicant had agreed to join by the end of the week

The same application the prior year, would have been 2 weeks even before the interview happened. By which time, many applicants had accepted jobs with other companies. And in the past, the time from application to job offer could have been 3-5 weeks. No wonder it was tough to get enough staff - they got jobs elsewhere.

So not only did the process become much more efficient for everyone involved, it became quicker from end to end meaning less applicants were "lost" to competitors. It also changed the impression of the company, from "slow to respond and therefore uncaring", to "responsive, modern, and proactive". It made applicants feel wanted.

That summer, there were plenty of staff, and the company grew its revenues to a new record.

I'm pretty confident that any of ePloy, iCIMS, Workable, and a few of the other applicant tracking systems we looked at could have had the same dramatic improvement. The process of identifying the requirements, evaluating 2 or 3 in depth, and as we saw what they were capable of further refining the requirements, led to a great solution, and tangible benefits for the business.

If you're looking to recruit 20+ staff per year, I'd certainly encourage you to look at any one of those vendors.

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About the Author:

Dave Abraham is an independent consultant, working with a number of small businesses. Working at a strategic level, he looks at the strategic direction of the business with the directors, and helps the business improve processes, people management, and technology to help the business grow for the benefit of the staff, customers and owners of the business.  A core theme in recent years has been helping small companies improve how they nurture, grow, recruit and develop their staff, as it has such a massive impact on how a small company can go from surviving to thriving. 

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