I had an interesting situation pop up this week with a colleague who is currently in transition. They possess exceptional qualifications and skill in all aspects of HR. They have worked for large multi-national corporations and managed HR departments of all sizes covering both domestic and international locations.

A few weeks ago someone in his network, familiar with his leadership qualities, capabilities and experience called to inform him of an upcoming opening at a well respected local company. They forwarded his resume to the HR team and he subsequently went to the company’s website to apply through the “normal” required channels.

A few days later he received a call from someone in the company’s recruiting department to set up a phone interview. Needless to say, he spent several hours researching the company, talking to current and former employees; mapping out the lay of the land in terms of what the company and culture are like in preparation for the phone interview.

When the phone rang on the day of the interview, he was ready. He skillfully recounted his previous experience as it related to the questions asked. In addition, he had prepared his own thoughtful questions for the recruiter designed to demonstrate both his interest and his research. At the end of the conversation, he and the recruiter agreed on the next steps and he hung up feeling very positive he would be proceeding to the next step in the process.

After ending the phone interview on that high note, he was flabbergasted to receive a canned, computer generated email a few days later stating, “We are fortunate to have many qualified candidates apply to each of our positions. We have reviewed the qualifications of each candidate and after careful consideration; we have determined that the credentials of other candidates may better fit our needs at this time.” His reaction was stunned silence. What happened? How could this be? If he was going to be rejected, he at least expected a personal rejection from the recruiter he talked to. Was this a joke, was this a mistake?

To date, he still doesn’t know what happened. He’s stunned to think he was just summarily dismissed with no more than a thought.  It’s quite possible that this is an ATS (Applicant Tracking System) snafu. For those of you who might not be familiar with ATS, its computer software designed to pre-screen applicants by comparing the position’s qualifications and keywords to the applicant’s submitted resume. Many companies establish a minimum threshold and any resume not meeting that arbitrarily set threshold is rejected.   So, the question is – did the people who received his resume with the personal recommendation “see” something in his qualifications that the computer software missed? Is it possible that without the personal referral he would have been screened out of the process and the company would have lost out on a promising candidate?

ATSs emerged out of necessity when recruiting moved into the internet age. With the advent of internet recruiting, companies became deluged with resumes and human resources (HR) departments were literally overwhelmed by the screening process. In today’s new economy, with rampantly high unemployment, HR departments are receiving hundreds of applications for each opening and thus they are choosing the convenience of ATS systems to help them sort through the madness. The question is, are they choosing convenience over the higher quality of hand screened applicants. It’s no surprise, that applicants are learning to play the game, using methods such as “white texting” to ensure they are able to meet those arbitrary thresholds of qualifications and keywords and get to a live person and an actual interview.

ATS systems are not so different from fast food – you get the sustenance (applicants) you need, but in many cases you have to give up nutrition (quality) for convenience. HR departments beware – if you’re relying exclusively on ATS systems, you may not be getting the top talent needed by your business to drive future results.