Expert job search advice.

How an Applicant Tracking System Works: Interview Greenhouse Co-Founder Jon Stross

Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) and hiring platforms like Greenhouse ATS have replaced Human Resources’s need for file cabinets filled with paper resumes. While these systems were created to improve efficiency in the hiring process, many people have mixed feelings about the technology, leading some to refer to ATS as “the black hole of death.”

Greenhouse, ranked as one of the top hiring platforms by Gartner, is a revolutionary cloud-based platform specifically designed to streamline the entire hiring process for companies while being a trusted system for candidates. It covers everything from attracting candidates to onboarding new hires. While it functions as an applicant tracking system (ATS), it is equipped with additional features to improve the overall experience for both employers and applicants.

According to Greenhouse’s mission, a company that is great at hiring “has the confidence to dream bigger, think bolder, and hire for what’s next.” We know that the cost of a bad hire can be substantial, with estimates varying greatly depending on the source and methodology employed. It is important to note the actual impact of a bad hire often goes beyond mere financial losses. It can harm company culture, reputation, and overall productivity.

Despite best intentions, managers are notoriously bad at selecting candidates. According to a Career Builder survey, 75% of hiring managers report hiring the wrong person in the last year. There is a constant tension between the desire to hire the best candidate and the need to do so quickly and cost-effectively. That’s where technology comes in.

According to a report on artificial intelligence conducted by Eightfold, 92% of HR executives intend to increase their utilization of automation in at least one aspect of talent acquisition and personnel management. 

Greenhouse offers a range of features to help companies with their hiring process. This includes talent sourcing tools, a smooth candidate experience, streamlined workflows, structured interviews, onboarding support, and reporting capabilities. By centralizing all hiring activities, Greenhouse aims to improve efficiency and provide a positive experience for candidates.

Greenhouse ATS: Hiring Candidates Differently

Direct quote from Greenhouse ATS Jon Stross, "Recruiting and hiring is a team sport."

There are many misconceptions about applicant tracking systems (ATS). Not understanding how ATS works can make the job search process seem more daunting than it needs to be. Jon Stross, President and Co-Founder of Greenhouse, and I sat down to discuss the misconceptions and unveil the benefits for candidates and companies to embrace systems like Greenhouse.

Human Resume Review is Important

Unlike some applicant tracking systems and hiring platforms that employ “bots” or machine learning algorithms to move candidates through the hiring process, Greenhouse takes a different approach. Greenhouse’s platform does not rely on computers to auto-advance or auto-reject candidates, and it does not utilize computer-generated judgments. Instead, human intervention, often by recruiters, is necessary to advance, reject, or hire a candidate.

Greenhouse does offer companies the option to use “knockout questions” or auto-advance questions to streamline the candidate pool. These questions can range from simple inquiries, such as confirming the applicant is legally old enough to work or their willingness to relocate, to more complex if/then statements. By incorporating these types of questions, candidates can ensure their qualifications for the position before proceeding with the complete application process.

ATS Role in Filtering Candidates

Some ATS platforms utilize a “match score”, a numerical representation of how well a candidate’s resume aligns with the requirements of a specific job opening. It is essentially a measure of an applicant’s relevance to the position. 

The above image is of Breezy.HR ATS AI-assist candidate match score. Platforms like Taleo, SmartRecruiters, and ZohoRecruit offer machine learning or AI-assist keyword match scores.

Greenhouse is unique in that it is one of few systems that does not utilize a match score. The platform does offer filtering capabilities. When an applicant uploads their resume into the Greenhouse ATS, it undergoes parsing and indexing.

Parsing and indexing a resume involves the ATS extracting and organizing the data into searchable fields. This allows the hiring teams to search for candidates who meet specific criteria. As mentioned, Greenhouse does not use a scoring system; however, it does allow hiring teams to filter and sort applications for human review. Stross strongly encourages a Word or PDF document type as they are the most compatible for parsing. Greenhouse is not able to parse an image, warns Stross. Uploading an image could lead to errors in a candidate’s application process.

Auto Advancing

While it’s important to note that not all systems operate in the same way, Greenhouse’s platform does not rely on computer-generated judgments. Instead, human intervention is required to advance, reject, or hire a candidate. Unlike certain applicant tracking systems (ATS) and hiring platforms that employ bots to move candidates through the hiring process, Greenhouse takes a different approach. 

Reducing Bias in Hiring Systems

Stross believes that using a computer-generated relevancy score introduces additional bias. ATS can introduce several biases in the hiring process. 

Keyword bias occurs when resumes must match the exact wording of the job description, disadvantaging candidates with different terminology or transferable skills.  If you know how the system works, you can game it like a pro—think of it as resume SEO. You can stuff your resume with so many keywords it could double as a dictionary. But here’s the kicker: just because someone knows how to play the keyword game doesn’t mean they’re a perfect fit for the job. Heck, half those keywords might not even apply to their actual experience!

How to combat keyword bias: Keywords on a resume are precise terms that are directly related to the job description. “Try to be relevant to the job,” says Stross. These terms include required skills, job titles, certifications, and industry buzzwords. Hiring teams utilize Greenhouse to create job postings with specific criteria. When you submit your resume, be sure that it is tailored to the job you are applying for. This is where resume keywords become significant when applying through Greenhouse. Hiring teams have the capability to search through submitted applications and resumes for specific words, skills, and experiences.

“What I do hear is people saying ‘I worked with a resume coach and I figured out how to tell the narrative of my story and that actually totally changed how I thought about what job I was looking for and then I got a great job and I’m happy’ those are the stories I hear, which are not about technology cheat codes.“

Jon Stross

Experience bias occurs when soft skills are undervalued and when candidates with non-linear career paths are overlooked. 

How to combat experience bias: While Greenhouse sets itself apart from other ATS platforms by not using a keyword ranking or scoring system, it is still important to optimize your resume for the specific job you are applying for. The ultimate objective is to capture the attention of recruiters or hiring managers and have them read your resume. The question to ask yourself is: does your resume align with the requirements of the job? Stross advises job candidates to invest time in tailoring their resumes to the specific roles they are applying for, rather than hastily submitting generic resumes to online job postings.

“Creating a relevant resume is most important,” says Stross. Whether it’s being reviewed by a computer or a human, the goal is to demonstrate your suitability for the job. Employers want to see if you are a good fit. So, if you have a generic resume and apply to numerous jobs on platforms like Indeed, it’s not surprising if you don’t hear back. “It’s important to consider how relevant you are for each of those positions.”

Resume formatting bias penalizes candidates who submit a resume in a non-traditional format or in languages other than English. 

How to combat resume formatting bias: Traditionally, job candidates have been advised to avoid excessive graphics or tables in their resumes. The concern was that these elements could confuse the platform, cause parsing issues, or even lead to the resume being overlooked. However, with advancements in technology, especially on Greenhouse’s platform, these concerns are becoming less relevant.

We tested the use of tables on a resume uploaded into Greenhouse’s system. Despite the design element, it successfully parsed columns and tables without any issues or loss of content. While this may not be true for all systems, technology is continuously improving and allowing for readability on both sides – computer and human without much editing.

Example of a resume that uses design elements of tables and columns.

Job applicants can help reduce bias created by some ATS platforms by ensuring their resume includes skills and achievements. Showcase your skills and accomplishments using strong action verbs and quantifiable results, not just keywords. Job candidates should also focus on a targeted resume. Adapt your resume to each specific job description, using relevant keywords and highlighting transferable skills.

Who should be involved in the hiring process?

Comprehensive systems like Greenhouse go beyond just housing electronic copies of resumes and maintaining compliance. Stross and his team recognized that the hiring process isn’t solely the responsibility of the human resources department. “Ultimately recruiting and hiring is a team sport,” says Stross. It involves multiple teams across organizations. 

Greenhouse allows companies to streamline their recruitment process. Its algorithm is specifically designed to assist the whole company in taking an active role in hiring talent. “Everybody has a role to play so we built a tool that changes the way people think about ATS,” says Stross. Greenhouse moved the needle from ATS being a recruiter compliance tool to a comprehensive system to help build a company through strategic hiring.

Setting Yourself Apart When Applying Online

While job search websites like ZipRecruiter and GlassDoor can help candidates find jobs, 60% of jobs are found through networking and the Hidden Job Market.

Organizations are more likely to attract top-notch candidates from their existing workforce. These employees possess a deep understanding of the job requirements and are motivated to recommend qualified individuals, particularly if they will be collaborating with the selected candidate. Referrals can narrow down the pool for hiring teams.

When possible, candidates should evaluate their network and try to identify connections within the companies they are applying to. Systems like Greenhouse allow employees of companies using their platform for hiring to designate candidates within the system who are Internal referrals. Hiring managers are then able to filter based on referrals and narrow a pool of 300 candidates to much fewer as a place to start. 

The Benefit of Internal Referrals

Stross emphasized in our conversation – this connection doesn’t have to be your best friend. Leverage your network and step outside of your comfort zone to make connections. “Our system allows every employee of our customers to go in and refer someone for a position. If I were hiring, the first thing I would do is narrow down based on internal referrals and start there.”

Under the Hood: Greenhouse ATS

Jon Stross graciously gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of the platform that he and his team have built and continue to improve. As a test, I submitted a fake resume that I created in a hurry using a template from Job Search Journey through Greenhouse, specifically targeting the position of an Android developer.

In the screenshot below, you can see the view that the hiring team has when reviewing the position I applied for. They have access to various features, such as the number of candidates who have applied, a list of applicants sorted by the time of application submission, and the candidate’s position in the company’s hiring pipeline. The entire hiring team has the ability to review the candidates and provide feedback. This ensures that the responsibility of hiring is not solely on the recruiter or hiring manager, and it allows the entire team to feel involved in finding the right candidate.

As depicted in the screenshot below, my resume has been preserved in its original format and design to facilitate human review. My name and identifying information was redacted from the resume to remove bias. Greenhouse’s anonymization conceals the candidate’s first name, gender and pronouns, contact information, social media profiles, race and ethnicity and headshot. (Note: The resume anonymization feature will be available to Greenhouse customers later this year.)

What Recruiters Think About Greenhouse ATS

We recently spoke with recruiter Danielle Nakatsuji about her experience using the platform. Nakatsuji has used a number of different platforms and likes Greenhouse the most. She expressed that, as someone who values visuals, Greenhouse provides an excellent visual representation of candidates throughout the hiring process. This feature helps her effectively manage her pipeline and make accurate forecasts.

She doesn’t mind that Greenhouse lacks AI-assisted “candidate match” features. For her, the focus is on facilitating conversations between hiring managers and candidates. Greenhouse’s robust reporting tools help in discussions with her hiring manager by providing valuable metrics such as time to hire, passthrough rates, and interest in job postings. Nakatsuji also noted that while Greenhouse doesn’t make hiring decisions for teams, the ability to download all scorecards into a single PDF has been incredibly useful. This feature allows hiring managers to compare all feedback side by side, greatly aiding in making informed hiring decisions.

Prediction of the Future of ATS and Hiring Systems

There is a really interesting article in The Wall Street Journal by Lindsay Ellis that talks about the state of search and how “You’re fighting AI with AI.” She says, job seekers are now “deploying new automated bots to robo-apply for hundreds of jobs in just a few clicks. In response, companies are deploying more bots of their own to sort through the oceans of applications. The result: a bot versus bot war that’s leaving both applicants and employers irritated and has made the chances of landing an interview, much less a job, even slimmer than before.”

Briefcase Coach May 2024 LinkedIn poll results

Job seekers are not excited about the potential for an all-out bot war. Many view it as a waste of time and a step backward in terms of progress. Some have even gone as far as saying that we are removing all humans from the hiring process.

When I asked Jon about the future of Greenhouse and other online job application platforms, Stross echoed many of the sentiments shared by job seekers in my poll. He agreed that the current system is ineffective and needs improvement. While the current focus is on simplifying the application process for candidates, the surge in applications is becoming counterproductive. Stross suggested that introducing new methods to gather more insightful information from candidates could aid the hiring process. Although this might be less convenient for candidates, it would lead to a fairer evaluation.

Tomorrow’s winning organizations are the ones that view their approach to talent as strategic, not administrative.


“The current system is ineffective for all parties involved,” says Stross. Clients are seeking ways to differentiate themselves and showcase their value, but the current information-gathering methods employed by systems make this challenging. Companies highly value talent and strive to hire the best candidates. As a result, applicant tracking systems like Greenhouse continue to evolve and improve as they strive to help organizations excel in differentiating and finding the best match.



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