Navigating the hiring ATS robots

A true story was shared with me recently about Bill (not his real name). Now Bill’s is one of many similar stories I hear around issues of navigating the hiring ATS robots.

Bill had applied for a  senior role via an online hiring process.. The organisation was a high profile sporting employer of choice and Bill ticked every box and more. But he never heard back for an interview.  

This comedy skit from the BBC series Little Britain sums up the situation. Apparently a month later Bill ran into a mate who worked at the sporting organisation.

Sharing his frustration at not getting an interview the mate was equally gobsmacked as Bill was a standout contender.  But the ‘computer said no’ 



The mate spoke with HR to find what had happened in the hiring process. The story unfolded that Bill’s CV didnt get shortlisted by the ATS system and therefore never got to be seen by a human eye at all. The role was still open and upshot was that Bill had an interview and landed the job .

When I heard this story I was steaming mad for many reasons. It highlighted so much of what is ineffective in the hiring eco-system on all sides – hiring companies, recruiters & candidates.  But in this article I want to address some key issues and solutions for candidates to maximise their success.

ATS (Applicant Tracking Systems)  

Today circa 70% of online job applications go through some sort of predictive culling software system. Known as Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) there are 100’s of different systems that recruiters, organisations and government departments use to funnel resumes. Most smaller organisations and boutique recruiters don’t have them but the learnings are valuable and applicable to all job application and search activities.   

ATS’s absolutely have a crucial part to play in large scale recruitment, But they need to run in conjunction with other hiring and human processes.

Essentially ATS technology drills down keywords aligned to job specifications and advertisements that the hiring company is seeking and delivers shortlists of appropriate candidates to be then reviewed by a human eye. But the 2 key problems with ATS technology is that candidates are mostly clueless as to how they work.


And organisations often in their laziness or resource limitations rely far too heavily on the software (ie: variant IT capability and not enough intelligent algorithm data inputted) which often culls great candidates from a human view.

So it’s imperative to have a CV which gets to a human eye. I am often asked why a CV has to look so plain and its simple – you don’t want your CV rejected by a robot.  But there is more to it than just a pretty document. If a CV isn’t being pushed through a ATS (or when it has been shortlisted to view) there are multiple devices that it will be read on (iPad, mobile, iPhone, Desktop) So its critical that they are easily readable on all devices.

CV Online Application Format Tips

Ignorance means that despite the most amazing skill sets and background a CV that gets blocked by a ATS robot has zero chance of being shortlisted. So ensure this doesn’t happen by : 

1. A plain formatted CV  which is can be easily scanned – no graphics, text boxes, tables or images (yes it’s dull but that is the way it is sorry) You can always send a fancier and creative  secondary PDF document

2. Word Format only – (or in tandem with a separate PDF)

3.  Well-spaced out – not cramped with a clean and clear appearance

4.  Ideal fonts : Verdana, Arial, Tahoma, or Calibri (minimum 10.5 or 11pts)

5.  Location – put in your City & State – believe it or not some ATS programs will reject a CV if a State isn’t included (i.e. Melbourne, Victoria) – no need at all for your full address ok

6.  Clear Structured Logical Sections (forget the smart ass ones)

7.  Industry Language – if you are applying for roles outside of your current sector check for industry jargon and acronyms and tweak to simple general phrases

8.  Headers & Footers –NEVER have your contact details within a Header or Footer. A footer is to be used on for a page no and a repeat of your name only.

9.  Lines and large font sizes are fine and even a different DARK colour on the headline or your name . But no fancy pants fonts or styles – sorry

10,  Keywords – this is the gold of the ATS to select for a role. Make sure the job title and top 10 keywords are on the 1st page of your CV and in the Cover letter.

11. Bespoke your CV. You don’t need to rewrite your whole CV every time but you do need to tweak it to match the the job advertisement.

12. Words & Content – now this is where you shine brightly. Use them well.

Back to Bill 

Back to Bill’s situation: I have no idea what his CV looked like or if it was ATS compliant and key word optimised. Perhaps it just was an ineffective CV or it had a tiny glitch (a table, graphic etc) that instantly resulted in a “computer said no”. 

Follow Up Tips

Bill clearly did what the majority of candidates do. He found a comfortable seat on a ‘submissive and reactive” park bench and just sat back waiting to be contacted. WRONG WRONG. He was darn fortunate to have run into that mate but he could have taken a stronger proactive stance to help him get an interview front end,

After you send an application into a ATS funnel (and any application directly anyhow ) you should d try and telephone the organisation within 5-7 working days (esp for very skilled and senior roles). Why? Because you need to take a proactive stance with the intent of a/ raising your brand & value proposition & b/ to ensure your CV is being viewed by a human and not stuck in the stomach of an ATS robot.

Now approaching a recruiter or HR person with the “I’m just calling to check if my CV has been received” is a pretty low fruit approach and will generally not be well received.  So ramp it up with skill and an clever problem solving (for both sides) approach.  Use the call to open dialogue and demonstrate your value.  Then in that conversation you can weave in tools to confirm that your CV has been considered.

Going for a job is never easy at all. Indeed it is mostly a right pain in the behind. But it can be much easier and so much less stressful if you do it right.

So finally thank goodness Bill’s story ended well. But for 1000’s it doesn’t and they wonder why the hell they didn’t get an interview. So my final word is step up, have a professional CV which is ATS compliant and don’t sit on your behind waiting for the phone to ring. 

A CV is a reactive tool only

A CV is only sent as a reactive tool after a job advertisement.  This is still the least effective way to manage an executive and professional job search and career strategy.  Reactively sending CVs to advertisements should only be 25-30% of job strategy activities, 70-75% should be proactive (and obviously then a CV can be additional when required)   A proactive strategy and marketing mindset  is the real juice to flip the job search over.

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