Why recruiters should think twice before using keyword scanning software

June 1, 2017

Why recruiters should think twice before using keyword scanning software
In a world where robots and automation are everything, recruiters and HR professionals are turning to technology to support their recruitment process. From the simple “thank you for applying” email, to Matilda the Hiring Robot, recruitment automation takes many forms.

But what about keyword scanning software? Many recruiters use Boolean search strings to crunch through hundreds of CVs. In theory, this allows them to swallow hundreds of CVs, and spit out a compact shortlist of highly-qualified people – in a very short space of time.

But is keyword scanning software actually a good way to sift through your candidate pipeline? Or do you risk missing out on the hidden gems, for the sake of saving a few minutes? Today, I’m going to investigate why recruiters might want to think twice before screening talent with keyword scanning software.

Are recruiters who don’t scan for keywords idiots?

Dawn D. Boyer Ph.D. used to work as a recruiter for several defence contractors. By using Boolean search strings to scan for keywords within resumes, she was able to quickly pull a list of 1-100 highly-relevant candidates, from a pool of up to 133,000 job seekers.

“I can’t imagine not using search terms and Boolean Searches” she told me. “Any recruiter who does not use these digital tools is an idiot and wasting time.”

As a professional resume writer and career consultant, Dr Boyer’s opinion certainly carries weight. And Dr Boyer’s results were certainly impressive – she was able to fill all her requisitions within an average of 15-20 days, which is outstanding, considering it takes on average 48 days to fill a position in the UK! But while ‘time to fill’ is certainly an important KPI for recruiters, it’s not the only metric that’s important. And I can’t help but wonder if the trend of scanning CVs for keywords is simply making it easier for savvy job seekers to ‘play’ the system, and possibly gain an unfair advantage against other, potentially better qualified, candidates.

Job seekers who know which keywords to use are jumping the queue

According to Jobscan, many companies are now using applicant tracking systems which include the ability to scan resumes for keywords. In fact, this is becoming such common practice, that Jobscan sells a keyword optimisation service, for job seekers who wish to ensure their keywords are going to catch the attention of keyword scanning recruitment bots.

According to their website, job seekers can optimise their CV in three simple steps:

  1. The job seeker uploads their resume to Jobscan
  2. Next, they paste your job description into a text box
  3. After hitting “SCAN”, hey presto – they can now tweak their CV and jump the queue

Smart tool, right? Sure – for job seekers. But as a recruiter, all you’re doing by using keyword scanning software to build your shortlist, is pulling out the people who’ve added enough relevant search terms and keywords to their application.

Great for hiring SEO experts – not so good for other roles

Now, you might argue that candidates who put this much effort into their application deserve a chance. And you might even be right. After all, it certainly demonstrates certain skills – such as keyword research, a basic understanding of data analysis, and a smart approach to job seeking.

Great for hiring SEO experts – not so good for other rolesWebsites like Jobscan help job-seekers jump the queue by optimising the keywords in their CV or resume

But let’s be real for a moment. Unless you’re trying to fill the role of SEO Manager, are you really interested in hiring somebody who has so far only proved that they can fit the right keywords into their application, and capture the attention of a robot? What if you’re looking to hire an architect, and the best damn architect in the country applies – but doesn’t use enough of the right keywords? Are you happy settling for second best?

Besides, recruitment is about far more than just hiring the right skills. It’s about hiring the right values – and that’s a very difficult thing to screen for with keyword scanning software.

You should scan every single introduction manually – it often speaks volumes

Geoff Scott is a career adviser and resume expert at ResumeCompanion. According to Scott, ATS software has many flaws that get in the way of finding top talent – with a major issue being that keyword scanning software isn’t capable of gauging a candidate’s fit.

“We learn a lot more from a candidate’s resume introduction about how they might fit with our team, than from the keywords they manage to stuff into their application” Scott told me. “Even with a huge pile of resumes to scan through, it takes little effort to give a professional profile or resume objective a read.”

Scott says that by putting in just a little extra effort to scan every introduction, a hiring manager can quickly find out if an applicant has:

  • Done their research about the company
  • Created a targeted application, as opposed to a bulk resume campaign
  • Given thought as to the pain they’re required to solve

Scott says that keyword scanning software is too easy to manipulate, and only judges very superficial qualities.

Forget keywords – screen for talent by asking the right questions

Sat Sindhar is the Managing Director here at People®, and his personal philosophy when screening candidates, is to simply ask the right questions. He says that this is the best way to narrow down potentially hundreds of applicants, without needing to pass them through a machine – and risk losing somebody who hasn’t optimised their CV.

Forget keywords – screen for talent by asking the right questionsSoftware like People HR helps you screen applicants by asking relevant questions

“Any automatic screening or filtering should be done before the first candidate even applies” he says, “and you can do this by simply asking direct, relevant questions as part of the application process. So instead of scanning CVs for a keyword like ‘software engineer’, you could ask a question that only a software engineer should be answering. For example, ‘what’s the best piece of software you’ve ever helped to build?’”

He adds that what makes this approach so useful, is that it goes beyond simply screening for software engineers. It starts a meaningful discussion, which provides you with real insight into the person’s skills, abilities, and values.

Nothing beats human judgement – especially when it comes to finding passive talent

Any recruiter worth their salt knows that finding the perfect person often takes more than simply posting an advert and waiting for the applications to roll in. It often requires a specialist search for ‘passive’ talent – i.e. people who aren’t actually looking for a new job.

Fletcher Wimbush, CEO of The Hire Talent, interviews more than 1,500 candidates every year. This involves screening 10’s of thousands of resumes! In his opinion, nothing beats human judgement – especially when it comes to finding passive candidates.

“Good candidates are not looking for work” says Wimbush, “therefore they often don’t bother to update their resume or fill out their LinkedIn profile properly, making it very hard to rely on keyword searching.”

Wimbush admits that his team does use keyword search tools, but sparingly – and only with the broadest search terms. He says that his retained search firm places more value on stability and achievement, than on matching specific listed skills. He says that this is how a good recruiter finds truly talented people.

Keyword scanning software is useful, but there are definitely better ways

Automation in the HR and recruitment space is a good thing. If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t be working for an HR software company. But when it comes to tools like keyword scanning software, which begin to dehumanise important parts of the talent spotting process? I think there’s a lot of good reasons to think twice before using this kind of approach.

Here’s a quick summary of what we’ve talked about today:

  • Keyword scanning software saves you time, by sifting a lot of data quickly
  • However, job seekers are getting wise – and some are ‘gaming’ the system to jump the queue
  • The perfect candidate may not have optimised their CV for the right keywords
  • Asking relevant questions as part of the application process is a better way to screen large volumes of applications
  • Nothing beats human judgement – even a quick scan of the first paragraph can yield great results

Do you use keyword scanning software to sift CVs and job applications? If so, why? If not, why not? Let me know in the comments below – and make sure you speak up if you think I’ve got the wrong end of the stick.

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