Applicant Tracking System

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Applicant Tracking Systems


HR professionals and hiring managers are more reliant than ever on Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) as one of the most useful tools available for recruitment efforts. If you are unfamiliar with these systems or wondering if your company could benefit from using one, we will walk you through everything you need to know about them here.

Hiring can be a massive drain on a business, taking time away from other important work that needs to be done, sales budgets that need to be met, and goals that need to be achieved. Recruiting candidates to backfill vacated positions (or step into newly created ones) can bring corporate productivity to a screeching halt, especially where a smaller business has limited HR capacity.

This is why an Applicant Tracking System are so useful, in that they save companies time (and ultimately money) in the hiring process. The usefulness goes both ways: ATS can make the process much easier for candidates, too (but with a few caveats).

Later in this article, we will look at how an ATS works from a candidate’s perspective and cover some tips on how to ensure your application moves seamlessly through the process and, better still, moves your name to the top of the list.

What is an Applicant Tracking System

Applicant Tracking Systems work as standalone products or as part of an overall recruitment software package (read more about recruitment software systems here). The easiest way to think of an ATS is a talent management database: one that is used to track, screen, and test applicants. It can also be used to schedule and manage the interview process, including reference checks and even right up to new hire paperwork.

The ATS was born of the need for businesses to save time, headaches, and frustrations on what are now antiquated systems of paperwork—systems that led to inefficiencies and often work being duplicated by more than one manager. For both HR professionals and candidates seeking jobs, a “paper system” is a cumbersome and outdated approach to the hiring process.

A sleek applicant tracking system enable businesses to attract top talent through an easy and streamlined application process. Rather than having a job application process that turns candidates off, the ATS should build confidence in your brand among qualified job seekers.

In order to understand how an ATS works, it is important to first understand the recruitment life cycle.

The Recruitment Life Cycle

While there is some variation in the number of steps outlines by different HR professionals, the general recruitment cycle can be divided into five categories or steps

  • Preparing
  • Sourcing
  • Screening
  • Selecting
  • Onboarding

The ATS is your preparation starting point any time you have a vacancy to fill, or a new position has been created within your organisation. Here you will find the consistently branded materials you need to post jobs and communicate with candidates. The branded materials save managers time as they do not have to start each talent search from scratch.

Once you have been using an ATS for a while, sourcing really comes into play as you may have within your database a candidate from prior interviews who is perfect for the newly opened role. You will also use the ATS to source brand new candidates if you do not already have someone suitable for the position. With each new job opening at your organisation and the candidates who enter your ATS, you are beginning to build a reservoir of talent to draw from later.

Thanks to automated intelligence, an ATS saves time when it comes to screening candidates for particular skill sets. Rather than combing through resumes manually for hours, hiring managers can use an ATS to quickly weed out the candidates who lack the specific qualifications needed for a particular role.

Once your candidate field is narrowed, you can move into the selection (hiring) phase and then onboarding. Each step in this process can be tracked and later measured in this system, providing your organisation incredibly valuable data for planning recruitment budgets and hiring decisions in the future (more to come on that later in the article).

Now that you have a general sense of what the recruitment life cycle entails, we will jump back into the ins and outs of an ATS (and why your business needs one).

Why Are Employers Using Applicant Tracking Systems?

A candidate pipeline can turn into a candidate tsunami without an ATS (or, on the other hand, it can also turn into a candidate drought). Without a dedicated software system to manage job applicants, businesses are left to either drown in reviewing resumes or wonder why they are not getting applications at all.

This is because hiring managers are so often juggling other responsibilities, and candidate tracking and proper outreach and sourcing can simply fall by the wayside when one has a primary job (or 78 other jobs) to do.

Applicant tracking systems are the equivalent of an extra set of hands that happen to work at the speed of light.

Ask any hiring manager without an ATS how many hours they spend posting advertisements, screening candidates, responding to inquiries, and labouring over difficult hiring decisions. They will tell you it is overwhelming. Or sometimes it is incredibly disappointing if they fail to attract a substantial pool of candidates because of a poorly executed posting effort.

And once your hiring manager or HR team is overwhelmed, the entire application process suffers. Qualified candidates will be less than impressed by inconsistent or late responses from your organisation, directing their attention elsewhere when it comes to seeking employment. An ATS could very well mean the difference between you attracting top talent versus watching that talent sail right across your competitor’s doorstep.

There are numerous reasons your company should adopt an ATS, and to summarise what we have covered so far, those reasons include:

  • Time saved with automated tasks
  • Consistently branded communications, from job board postings to email blasts sent to job seekers
  • Screening capabilities fueled by automated intelligence, enabling HR teams to quickly weed out the unqualified candidates

How Do Applicant Tracking Systems Work

Applicant Tracking Systems store information about every candidate who submits an application and then use that information to guide HR teams through the process of hiring. They are sophisticated pieces of software that are proven to increase efficiency and productivity.

Still, a sceptical reader may be asking at this point, can I TRUST applicant tracking systems to help surface the correct applicants? Surely there are some problems to be expected when you transfer the process of screening applicants from a human to a computer?

It is important to note at this point that the applicant tracking system does not replace HUMAN resources entirely. Rather, the ATS is a tool that enables HUMAN resources to do a better job by equipping managers with time-saving tools.

An ATS still needs intervention from your managers to customise the tool to suit your needs. For example, you will want to insert your company branding into emails, and a robust ATS will be compatible with other software you already have in place, to ensure the information can be shared and stored across other platforms.

HR teams still ultimately decide the level of control given to the software itself versus human intervention; there is no rule specifying that an organisation cannot source candidates and even hire them outside of the ATS model. That said, it can certainly be helpful if a manager is backed into a corner with a request to place the niece of a company stakeholder into a position she is ill-suited to fill. The HR supervisor can gently remind the stakeholder that the company has invested a significant amount of money into software to source the best candidates for the role.

Trusting an ATS to do its job well will come in time when you have seen the benefits of the software in action, with an increased talent level and less time spent hiring.

With that in mind, we will dig into the features of an ATS and what you should look for in purchasing one.

Applicant Tracking System Features

The features of an ATS guide manager through the various phases of the recruitment cycle, which you will remember from earlier are:

  • Preparing
  • Sourcing
  • Screening
  • Selecting
  • Onboarding

Customisable features in a robust ATS software will enable you to move seamlessly through each step of hiring, and we will review some of the most common and popular features here, though this list is by no means exhaustive.

Integrations with Job Boards

Your applicant tracking system needs to do much more than work well internally; the best in-house ATS is useless if it does not get the best candidates knocking on your door (or your dashboard, so to speak).

This is where integration with job sites comes into play. You want an ATS that with the click of a button (or no more than a few buttons) enables you to create your job ad across all of the major job boards and recruiting sites.

Software developers know this is one of the most important and attractive features of an applicant tracking system, which is why the best ones will easily place your openings across a wide range of job boards in seconds.

Additionally, because recruitment is so competitive in the current market, your ATS should have job promotion functionality, allowing you to promote the job with marketing spend on particular sites if desired.

Social Media and Employee Referrals

In addition to spending your recruitment budget on traditional job boards, there is also a tremendous impact to be found in social media and employee referrals, and your ATS should accommodate these activities with ease.

These days social media is the most prominent source of information that many people are digesting. While users may scroll mindlessly through recipes and celebrity gossip and the latest political buzz, you never know when a passive candidate may see your opening and be enticed to apply.

Coupling social media with employee referral programs, and enabling your employees to share a branded communication to their own pages, will help you leverage personal relationships that might make the difference in filling the role with an average candidate and filling it with top talent instead.

Your ATS should enable you to recruit candidates through your corporate social media channels and then track the results of that traffic as well, which in turn will guide your future decisions about how to advertise vacancies.

An Easy Online Application Process

Perhaps the greatest value associated with an applicant tracking system is the ease of use, for both the employer and the potential employee, in the online application process.

The elimination of old-fashioned paper application processes serves every business well by:

  • eliminating the possibility of lost or incomplete applications
  • eliminating the need to create and store paper files
  • eliminating paper waste, which is better for the environment

An online application is also more valuable to the business as it creates the starting point for information that will not only be used to assess that individual but also build hiring data for the future.

Once you have captured the candidate digitally, this information can be easily shared with other hiring managers and also used to assess whether the candidate is a fit for a particular role.

The online application process saves time for everyone involved; there is no need for a data clerk to re-key handwritten information or for a potential employee to be turned off by a long and tedious form. Smart ATS software with autofill fields will make it easy for a candidate to upload her information and qualifications in a matter of minutes, even seconds in some cases!

A robust ATS is also optimised for mobile use, which is crucial when it comes to its effectiveness. Consider how many candidates may be skimming through job opportunities on a mobile device; if they can quickly and easily apply from their phones, they may do it on the spot. But if it is not possible because you have not optimised your application process for mobile users, you may lose that candidate’s interest altogether.

An Emphasis on Candidate Engagement

One of the most challenging pieces of recruitment for any HR team or hiring manager is candidate engagement. If you have 1,000 candidates vying for one position, there is simply not enough time or manpower to handhold them through that process; however, it is still important that the candidates feel engaged with your business and your brand and that they feel connected to the application process, rather than just another name in the pile.

Ultimately one of those candidates is THE candidate for the particular job you have open at the time, and it is possible that another 100 of them could indeed be candidates you would wish to hire in the future. Their impressions of your corporate brand are shaped from the very beginning on the application process, which is why an ATS can help you turn it into something consistent and meaningful in terms of communication.

Something as simple as an email to candidates confirming that their applications were received or letting them know the status of the job opening can go a long way as far as making an impression. Candidates who feel overlooked or dismissed in your application process are unlikely to recommend your open positions to others, or they are unlikely to apply again.

Automated Email That Does Not Feel…Automated

An ATS will make use of email templates to save time for hiring managers, but the automation does not mean these communications will sound as if bots wrote them. The best way to use your ATS to its fullest potential is to make use of all the areas you can customise.

By changing and editing the email templates to fit your brand—whether that voice is a bit cheeky and irreverent or 100% polished and professional—you will leave the candidate with the feeling of not only engagement but also a good idea of what your corporate culture is like.

Email templates in the application process can be used to:

  1. Respond and thank every candidate for submitting applications
  2. Schedule interviews, whether in-person, over the telephone, or via videoconference
  3. Send out skill assessments or requests for references
  4. Send updates to candidates who were not chosen for the job

That last template is especially important: a well-crafted rejection letter is a key component to all recruiting processes as you never know when a candidate may resurface as a brilliant fit for a different role. You do not want to leave rejected candidates with a sour taste when it comes to your organisation’s handling of rejections.

Searchable Candidate Information from Prior Applicants

To reiterate from above: you never know when you might be giving a rejected candidate a second glance!

An ATS creates a way for you to store all of your candidates’ information, from every opening in every department of your organisation. Better yet, a robust ATS will include a number of ways for you to slice and dice that information as you search the talent pool when new openings arise.

By logging every candidate’s resume, references, skill assessments, and more, you have an incredible amount of useful data for candidate reporting. For example, let’s say your marketing team has an opening, but you only want to look at candidates with a background that includes graphic design.

Automated intelligence to the rescue! Your ATS can pull out these candidates in a report, instead of an individual hiring manager having to come through hundreds of old resumes.

Interview Features: Scheduling, Reporting, and More

An applicant tracking system will make a tremendous difference to the interview process, especially when it comes to scheduling. Rather than trying to correspond with individual candidates to set schedules, they can simply sign up for available slots that you have predetermined.

Before the interviews, hiring managers may use the ATS to churn out brief reports on the candidates. After the interviews, they may rank the candidates within the software and also save relevant interview notes (which will come in handy in the future).

Analytics and Reporting in Decision Making

Many a manager has later regretted a “gut” decision when it comes to hiring. The candidate who seemed polished in a brief interview but flakes when it comes to meeting with clients, the jovial bloke who as it turns outspends more time making jokes than actually working….these kinds of catastrophes may be avoided when decisions are backed by data and metrics rather than how well a manager “hits it off” with a candidate.

Funnelling potential employees and their skill sets through this software, along with rankings from interviews and skill assessments, will eliminate some of the unqualified candidates who stood out based on personality alone.


Compliance may not be the word at the forefront of every hiring manager’s mind. Still, it can quickly and easily become a major issue for organisations who fail in this area.

Compliance with various recruitment rules and regulations has become increasingly important in the 21st century, and applicant tracking systems can be incredibly helpful in this regard.

If your hiring practices are questioned or if your business is accused of acting unfairly toward particular candidates, your ATS will provide the data needed to defend your decisions and actions.

The ability to provide data on your entire candidate pool, as well the steps you undertake to recruit for positions fairly and within the confines of the law, are some of the greatest benefits associated with an ATS even if they are not the ones most often touted to businesses.

Choosing an Applicant Tracking System

At this point, we assume you are convinced that your business would benefit from an applicant tracking system, and it is simply a matter of determining which one would be best for your organisation.

To evaluate the choices, here is a handy checklist you should use when looking at applicant tracking systems.

  • Budget: Consider the costs associated with each software system and whether there are different payment options (for example, some base it on the number of employees in your organisation and others charge a per recruitment price).
  • Size of my organisation: Do your research to determine if the type of software is suitable for an organisation of your size. For example, can it be modified if you are a smaller business and do not need all of the features in the software? Or can it be expanded in the future with greater capabilities as you need them?
  • Compatibility with my existing software: It is critical to determine if the ATS is compatible with the existing software your company uses in other areas.
  • Customer service reputation from provider: Nothing speaks louder than the words of users. Find out what other businesses have to say about each ATS you are considering.

Now that we have reviewed the ins and outs of applicant tracking systems for businesses, we will take a brief look at how they can be used (and manipulated) from a candidate’s perspective for the best results.

How to Beat an Application Tracking System

TLDR: You can't beat it, but you can make some improvements to the way your resume is formatted to ensure it is read and indexed in the right way.

Applicant tracking systems are indeed systems and not humans, and they can have trouble accommodating anything that falls outside the “norm.” So perhaps turning yourself into a hologram to impress would-be employers was not the best use of your time and money after all!

Getting your resume to sail smoothly through an ATS—and in fact sail right to the top—is not impossible if you know a few tricks. Follow our guidelines below to ensure that an ATS does not prevent you from landing the job of your dreams.

Test Your Resume: Making Sure it is ATS Compliant

  1. Forget Fancy. The best way to ensure your resume thrives in an ATS environment is by simplifying it. Forget fancy fonts and formatting, and avoid anything unusual. A simply formatted resume, with normal margins and fonts, is your best bet for an ATS.
  2. PDF Images. Resumes where they have been incorrectly scanned as image files and converted to PDFs. These do not get correctly indexed in an ats and you should check before submitting.
  3. Check, Double Check, and Triple Check. It goes without saying that a resume, cover letter, and/or job application should be error-free, but this is even more important when it is filtered through an ATS before hitting an actual human’s desk. The actual human would know, for example, if a spelling error was intentional (let’s say you were quoting that company brand’s famous tag line from a commercial); however, the ATS might simply weed you out for a certain percentage of errors.
  4. Keywords. ATS systems are far more advanced nowadays and do not just rely on keywords to rank and rate your resume they do still pay a role. If you crank out the same resume with every job application with no editing, you may be missing out on getting noticed by the ATS with keywords. Make sure your resume includes plenty of keywords relevant to that specific position, taking great care to update it each and every time you apply for a position. This is not to suggest you should boast of skills you do not have, but if your background includes both graphic designs as well as accounting, you want to beef up the graphic design keywords for an art director position.

Finally, qualified job seekers should still find ways to make an impression outside of the ATS. Even if you are stymied when it comes to determining the specific hiring manager for that role, reach out to any contact you may have within the organisation to reiterate your enthusiasm for the role as well as the reasons you are qualified to fill it. You never know when that personalised communication may fall into the right hands at the right time!

Closing: Why Are Applicant Tracking Systems So Important and a few FAQs

In a time when many businesses are already short-staffed and operating on tight budgets, applicant tracking systems can make it much easier to fill vacancies quickly and in an organised fashion.

These systems alleviate much of the burdensome minutiae associated with recruitment efforts, freeing up hiring managers to better spend their time elsewhere. Whether a business has a full-fledged HR team or relies solely on department directors, an ATS can be of benefit to anyone.

What should not be overlooked is the impact an ATS could have on your existing employees. An improvement in a business’s recruitment efforts does more than just bring new talent through the door; it builds trust and confidence in the talent pool that already exists in the company, demonstrating to existing employees that the business takes seriously its effort to source new candidates and nurture the best talent.

Applicant Tracking Systems: Frequently Asked Questions

Is it difficult for an HR Team to implement an ATS?

It should not be difficult at all, provided your team chooses a software compliant with your existing systems. An ATS is built to make your working life easier, not harder, and this should be the case when you roll it out. While any new system may cause a few hiccups, most applicant tracking systems are user friendly enough to be rolled out with ease.

How do employees outside of HR interact with an ATS?

From the moment a candidate enters an ATS, her information should follow her through the life of her employment. This means that department managers should have access to their original candidate profile, which can be rolled into her employee profile and performance management.

This can be an especially helpful resource for new managers who may “inherit” an existing team of employees. And these records will come in to play as internal candidates interview for new positions as well.

How do employees outside of HR interact with an ATS?

By taking the steps we outlined earlier to ensure you purchase the RIGHT applicant tracking system for your organisation, you should be able to implement the ATS easily across your employee base.

Make sure it is compliant with your existing software and run some trials internally before rolling it out to the entire employee base, just to be sure any small kinks are worked out ahead of time.

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