• Susanna Williams

Blunt Force Trauma

Updated: Dec 20, 2019

"Are ATS systems really this bad? I've been trying to tailor my resume to make it past the ATS readers while at the same time being useful to a human being. I've tried plugging my resume and a job description into a free online ATS readers, and the results have not been good- the automated analyses are even worse than I thought they would be. The latest result, for example, dinged my resume for not having the key words "construction managers" even though I have "construction manager" listed a couple of times. Please tell me the actual ATS systems recruiters use are more sophisticated than that."

-LinkedIn Premium Career Group

The American workforce is dying a slow but inexorable death by blunt force trauma. Applicant tracking systems, used by 93% of employers, have set up a maze of secret keywords that serve to filter out anyone who doesn’t use the precise code required to navigate the filters. Job seekers spend months casting resumés into a void.

“What is happening there? 15 years experience and no answer to any of the CVs sent in the last 2 months. I am starting to feel very discouraged.” -LinkedIn Premium Career Group

“Resumés and job descriptions are two of the most flawed and useless documents in business. Why any firms are building new technologies intended to improve hiring based on either of those two things is beyond me,” says David Salinger, founder and CEO of

“Hiring Managers use applicant tracking systems (ATS) to automatically designate a Best Fit based on your experience level and the kinds of keywords spread throughout your resume… 93% of all Hiring Managers use resume scanning software called applicant tracking systems (ATS) to filter candidates from the application pool…. Hiring Managers use applicant tracking systems (ATS) to automatically designate a Best Fit based on your experience level and the kinds of keywords spread throughout your resume... The ATS will also assign a weighted score to Key Skills & Competencies from your resume to paint a picture of who you are as a potential employee."

-from an email from Top Resume

I had my resume reviewed by a company that promises to help you conquer the ATS gauntlet.

"[Your] experience appears to be concentrated in Finance / Compliance, with exposure to Marketing / General. [You have] 20 years of work experience, with 10 years of management experience, including a somewhat high-level position."

This was what the ATS believed about me.

I have never worked in finance or compliance. Those words and concepts never appear on my resume. I have done marketing on an ad hoc basis, but only once as a stated component of my job.

Furthermore, I have been part of leadership teams for ten years, including serving as an executive director. I worked at the largest foundation in the entire world and had far more influence than my job title indicated or my job achievements would point to.

The algorithm could not have been more wrong.

"Hiring managers are looking for an excuse to eliminate you as a candidate."

This is a horrible mindset to bring to hiring. There is a fundamental difference between an organization that is focused on filtering out versus one that is seeking to identify the best possible talent / fit for their organizational vision. Rather than seeking, questing, searching, hiring managers are focused on weeding, eliminating, sorting, rejecting.

Hiring managers are desperate for ways to wade through the thousands of applications they receive at the click of a button. Treating every job search like it’s “Survivor” is a demoralizing way to go about a process that requires immense vulnerability from both sides.

“From the way the resume is worded, you come across as a "doer," as opposed to an "achiever." "

Prioritizing “achieving” over “doing” is an incredibly biased viewpoint that brings a specific cultural and gender viewpoint to the hiring process. There is no real difference between doing and achieving beyond framing. Indeed, one of the main challenges in workplaces today is that people are focused less on doing than achieving- which is really only accomplished by doing. At my last job, I was known for being a “take the hill” kind of leader, and yet my reputation as a doer meant that I wasn’t taken seriously. This is certainly a cultural flaw, but one that, with awareness, can and should be mitigated.

"To be effective and create excitement, a great resume helps the hiring executive picture you delivering similar achievements at his or her company."

A resumé, they are telling me, is, in effect, a coming attractions trailer for a Michael Bay movie, all big explosions and drama, fireworks and dopamine triggers.

"More importantly, they want to know how you are going to make a significant difference at their company."

There are so many ways to make a significant difference that have nothing to do with percentage increases. Ultimately, we want to work with people we like and respect. The difference a colleague makes could be in the culture of the company, in the way people feel about coming to work each day, in the way that customers feel about interacting with the company. That might translate into increased sales or whatever your metric of success is, but often success isn’t tied to that kind of an outcome. I make a habit of asking each new client at the beginning of a project what success looks like to them. Often it’s something like building relationships or getting new information. That’s not quantifiable. Not everything that matters can be measured. In fact, the things that matter most often can’t be quantified. That’s why they matter. We desperately want to make life fit inside boxes, to make it ordered and predictable and replicable. We want success to be scientific. It’s charming, in a way. But it is also dangerously misguided.

For $150, this company will rewrite, format, and keyword optimize my resume. In every aspect of life, from dating to finding work, we are paying other people to present us in ways that will get us past arbitrary filters. It is increasingly clear, however, that we just need to #HumanBetter. And if we #HumanBetter, I’ll bet you that we end up getting to #HireBetter. It’s an idea worth exploring.