Six Mistakes Employers Make in Automated Job Application Systems

There is a new age of automated job application systems that are quickly redefining the market.  They can help employers sort resumes and help job applicants work quickly through the process.  As useful as these systems are, I have noticed some basic but important limitations. 

  • One size fits all application questions. 

For a new college graduate (or less) it is useful to filter for specific skills.  For more accomplished applicants, skills increase exponentially.  Employers expect some listed skills such as Microsoft office (and its subprograms), project management, and leadership.  Failure to list these basic level skills may lose a person consideration, yet it means that there is no room for more advanced and meaningful skills.  If a person has publication and public speaking skills, is it reasonable to assume that they have also mastered MS Word and PowerPoint? It a person is accomplished at R, SAS, or SAP, can we assume they can also operate Excel?   The tension between application length and skill inclusion produces difficult choices between basic skills and those that really apply to the anticipated job. 

  • Inconsistent, redundant, or wrong questions. 

Some questions are added without fully considering the use and order.  Questions such as criminal history, association with the company, and demographic details are often awkwardly handled.  These basic sections are often redundant or unnecessary for example: “Highest level of education achieved” and “Did you graduate high school?”  If a person has a graduate degree, is it likely that they graduated high school?  On some systems, the exact same questions may be asked multiple times. 

Questions that require expanded answers such as, “Are you related to anyone that works with this company?” often require that you fill in a not applicable answer.  On several systems, the correct answer is “not applicable” on some questions and “NA” or “N/A” on others.  A failure to answer in the proper form causes the application to be rejected. 

Sometimes a question is so poorly worded that its meaning is difficult to decipher. The employer has a set of assumptions in mind that is not fully articulated by question. For example, expected pay in cases that might be full time, remote, or contract work. The eventual condition of employment dramatically affects expected compensation. Another, alternative is the classic double-barreled question — one that is really two questions in one. For example, “Would you be willing to move to the company location for full or part time employment?”

  • Limited response choices

Many systems try to impose order on answers by essentially limiting answer choices to something predefined.  I see how this can be useful to the employer.  It prevents misspellings, inconsistent abbreviation, and answers that are just wrong.  Still, it is a place where systems often fail. 

For example, where “Country” is the United States — perhaps the most common answer yet low on the list alphabetically forcing the applicant to scroll through most of the possible alternatives.  This limitation is particularly acute when the country must be listed several times for home/business locations, education, and references. 

“College Major” is often incorrect or overgeneralized making the applicant choose degrees that might be either misleading or meaningless. 

“University or Business” listings often fail when the system does not list all possible answers and does not allow for a clear “other” response.  It is not just a few odd locations that are missing from these lists.  One of my alma maters, Western Kentucky University, is often left off the list of possible universities. 

  • File upload size restrictions

It is understandable that some limits on file uploads be enforced.  Application systems cannot provide unlimited space nor do you want to encourage large uploads. Yet, some documents are simply larger for accomplished people – licenses, portfolio, letters of reference.  The biggest problem is with college transcripts – usually a photo embedded in a PDF.  Application systems often require or encourage transcripts yet fail to provide enough space for even a single copy.  For people with graduate degrees, it can be virtually impossible to provide the required documentation. 

  • Social media posts. 

I understand that there was a time when people posted ridiculous material on social media and companies feel the need to see if a potential employee is an idiot.  However, there are problems. 

  1. Social media has aged so that the people posting crazy spring break pictures have changed to people much milder crazy business conference photos.  If a business is not willing to read whole resumes, is there really time to wade through public media posts?
    1. Other than LinkedIn, the correct social media outlets are not reflected.  Facebook and Twitter are quickly being replaced by Instagram and Snapchat.  Are you really looking at relevant social media posts?
    2. Social media posts give a potential employer access to information that they are not allowed to ask.  Social media reveals age, race, and gender at the very least.  Very often, it might reveal religion, sexual preference, political ideology, and medical information.  As such, social media posts are a discrimination lawsuit waiting to happen.  Does a business really need this headache?
  • Skill and Psyc testing. 

Rarely do companies test potential employees with the first application, but they often try to glean insight from such evaluation.  Frequently, intelligence or skills tests are poorly written with unclear questions or arguably incorrect answers.  Companies should understand that psychological testing reveals as much information about the company as a potential employee.  Are the questions reflective of the true organizational culture?  If not, it could drive away desirable employees in place of less desirable or even untruthful choices.  

I understand that the business is offering employment and some work on the part of the applicate reasonable.  At the same time, the online application system may be the first real look at corporate culture.  The five problems above are only the most common errors. 

A business that has a problematic application system is the same as a resume with spelling errors.  It just doesn’t look good.  I suggest companies run tests of their application systems for several types of applicants. 

Online applications are basically surveys and should be treated as such.  As an experienced surveyor, I see the mistakes made by inexperienced researchers.  First, people confuse the order of question as written with the order of questions optimally presented.  Second, question clarity, consistency, and necessity but be rigorously enforced.  Third, surveys must be flexible to skip unnecessary or redundant.  On complex questionnaires, one size fits all rarely works.  Finally, I encourage businesses to actually test the systems from the viewpoint of the desired employee.  Does the application system present the desired corporate image or encourage desirable employees?

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