Friday, 3 September 2010

The Headache of Online Applications

As regular readers know, I have recently been applying for jobs of all kinds in the hope that I can find work before I run out of money and my house is repossessed which I calculate will happen by December.  Compared to last year when I applied for 38 jobs, had 16 interviews and only received feedback from 3. In some ways the situation this year has got both better and worse.  Out of 35 applications I have had 7 interviews, and another due next week, all but 2 of the sets of interviewers this year have provided feedback.  The feedback was sometimes quite expected, i.e. they had a candidate already working for them who knows their business better than me and at other times it has been quite offensive, accusing me of having lied on my application form.  It does seem that my interview skills needed polishing and so I was lucky being unemployed that a local training centre gave me a free two-hour session.

Of course, in contrast to the past, interviewing skills are not the only ones you need to get a job.  Once you would simply send in a CV or complete an application form then hope to be called for an interview.  Then things moved from paper-based applications to electronic ones.  Saying that, in interviews Powerpoint seems to have passed its peak of the early to mid-2000s and people are now wanting presentations done by you simply speaking or using handouts at most.  The step from paper-based to electronic application forms was very much in my favour.  For some reason the way I wrote seemed to be either juvenile or threatening and it meant that I only got 1 interview for every 25 applications I put in.  Being able to complete the application in Word which generally came in, in the early 2000s for the kind of employers I apply to, meant my hit rate rocketed to 1 interview per 3-5 applications even though I was writing basically the same thing.  Now, of course, we have gone a further stage.  Rather than simply emailing your completed application, now you have to log on to the company's human resources website and complete the whole application online.

Application forms were not always best designed and sometimes you were desperately seeking the right place to put in good information about you.  Like all recruitment processes, they seemed obsessed with details that had no relevance for the job you are applying for.  Having completed my O Levels now more than 25 years ago, I do not really seem what impact whether I got a B or a C in Physics really has on my current skills and knowledge.  Furthermore, what significance is the date I was awarded that O Level or what the address of my school was back in the early 1980s?  Yet, time after time whether on paper or electronic forms I have to give all of this in detail.  Some take it even further and I had a ridiculous situation of being in an interview last year with a man sitting in the corner of the room comparing photocopies of my faded, typed certificates from the 1980s against all the originals.  I did not even get the job but the company insisted on keeping the photocopies for a year!  Why?  I have no idea.  To me it seems that many companies have little idea what they want out of their recruitment processes and so end up putting in these rituals as if they had some significance.

Now, I have commented on poor interviewing before, and today need to focus on the difficulties of online applications.  I am good at the applications, so much so that people are startled (sometimes angry) at how poor I appear in real life, hence them accusing me of lying on the forms.  I never bother to lie, there is no point: given how much trouble I get into writing the truth imagine the risks I would run lying.  However, interestingly, at two interviews in the past year I have been told that I am the only candidate to have completed the application form correctly.  This means that everyone else I have been up against has failed to do it right.  The forms may be repetitive and restrictive but they are generally not at all difficult to get your head round; the problems come from other sources, as I explore below.  Weirdly it seems I could still get interviews if I did my applications less well and it would help reduce the level of disappointment interviewers get when they question me!

The first issue that you encounter when trying to do an online application is the same as you encounter when trying to buy or pay for anything online, you have to log on.  For most of us these means setting up a new account.  However, having been unemployed so much recently, and applying for jobs with the same companies time after time, I kept getting told that I already have an account with that company and should use that, and, no, I cannot set up a new one.  Even when I have guessed how they see my user name, I have to try to remember the password they tolerated this time last year.  Of course, you can have them email you a reminder, but nowadays you are told that 'for security' there will be an intentional delay before the reminder is sent out, so you lose another 2 hours waiting for it to turn up in your inbox or more often your Junk box.  A plea to employers, please do not send out emails with simply 'HRdept' or 'HRServices' or 'Resources' in the email address; most email systems will send them straight to Junk immediately.  Get addresses that are more distinctive if you want them to get through.  So, finally you get to log in.  That is only the first hurdle, many more will follow.  I do wonder what is the point of logging in.  Going back to a company I had applied to for a different post a fortnight before I logged in and expected all the tedious details like my address, schooling and previous jobs to be remembered by the system.  It was clear that the account was working but had stored none of the information I had put in before so I had to go through right from the beginning once more typing in all the minutiae it requests.

A key challenge with online application forms seems to be the common mismatch between whichever department is recruiting the staff and the IT people who build the websites that you apply through.  Neither seems to be aware of how the other thinks.  Consequently I regularly apply for jobs with more than 25 requirements which I am expected to respond to and yet I read 'limit 4000 characters' sometimes with 'including spaces'.  Now, even if you use words no longer than 5 letters long that gives you less than 800 words to write.  This means you can only use 32 words per requirement.  You could basically type 'yes, I can do that' repeatedly, but certainly not 'provide evidence of your use of these skills'.  Typing in the name of one or two of the companies I have worked for uses up a quarter of my allocated words.  Of course the websites are generic for all sorts of roles across the company, but there is clearly no conversation between the web developers and the departments recruiting as to the amount of information the latter are demanding.  Of course, as I have noted before, many companies put far too many requirements for their jobs and they are often repetitive.  However, even if you halved it, to, say, 12 requirements, you would still have only 64 or fewer words and for most of the jobs I am going for, you need at least 200 words to say anything sensible (and, of course, many of the words will be longer than 5 letters).  A couple of the forms have further complexity.  Certain ones will not accept particular characters, difficult if you have ever worked abroad.  Some even do not accept common punctuation marks; one removed all the full stops, brackets and amphersands from my text.  It accepted full stops on some pages and not others and would not accept brackets anywhere, so some numbering had to be ended with a comma and some sentences simply with a space!  It seems no-one had tested the form using it in a way most people would.

Another key problem is pull-down menus.  Rather than allowing you to put in free text, increasingly it appears, you have to select from a long list.  Sometimes these lists seem unnecessarily extensive, I am not certain how many people entitled 'Lord Colonel' or 'Professor Reverend' the companies I apply to be employed by; even 'Sir' and 'Dame' seems a little too much.  In terms of towns and counties you seem to get a bewildering mix of locations 'South-End-on-Sea' rather than 'Southend' was one interesting option I saw.  Many of the towns seemed to be in the Russian Federation rather than the UK and the same applied to counties, many of which were located in India.  One one application form it seems they simply scooped up what people put on former applications, so one 'town' was a street address and Hampshire appeared both as 'Hampshire' and 'Hants' its old postal abbreviation.  If you leave these sections free text then people can put in their address no matter what country it is in.  When you reach the equal opportunities section, companies seem at a real loss as to which categories to put.  I think some intentionally are taking a dig at Nick Griffin who claimed there were no black Welshmen, as you can select 'White British' and even 'White Scottish' or 'White Welsh'.  As for mixed-race people you can tick a whole plethora of combinations.  The most genders I have seen is four (male, female, male to female transgender and female to male transgender); in my estimate they have left out hermaphrodite. I think the diversity information is useful to gather, but there needs to be real thought about drop down menus which make it complex especially as you have to search so far down the list to find 'United Kingdom' and you get so tempted to select a British dependency from further up the list instead.

The worst situation with the pull down menus, however, is on qualifications.  Of course, you are asked to put in everything you have ever studied even if it has no relevance to the job.  "Yes, I see you got a 'B' in Latin 'O' Level in 1981, excellent, that will really help with quality control of the production of our oil pipeline fittings'.  Then they do not have the qualifications you have studied from the list.  They have ever form of German doctorate you might want to take, but a lot of standard UK qualifications, especially professional ones, are missing.  Do you simply leave them off or stick them under some other category or try to get them into some free text part of the form?  I do not know, I have tried all approaches.  As UK companies recruit not only from across Europe but globally, it will be impossible to list all possible qualifications.  What does an engineer from Shanghai have on their list?  What about a call centre manager from Mumbai?  Can you list all the different qualifications?  Even if you tried you would have a list even more unwieldy and irrelevant than the current ones.  Again, it seems, that rather than being fit for purpose the choices are simply what someone on the website building team can think of.

The other key problem with online applications is how little time you get to complete them.  In recent days I have done one with a 20-minute time out and one with 30 minutes.  I know they do not want people staying logged into their system all day, but again there clearly has been no discussion between the web staff and the people recruiting.  Even if you do not have to type in every school, every employer and every training course you have attended since your birth, the requirements section, which, as I noted above, has an average of 25 things to respond to.  I cannot write anything coherent in less than 1 minute on each requirement.  The best online applications either save automatically periodically or allow you to save when you like.  At least then if you get timed out you (should) have a chance of logging in again and continuing.  Some of the functionality leaves a lot to be desired and the guidance shows how poorly the sites are designed.  One advised me to keep clicking forward on to the next 'page' and then back again (of course not using the browser 'Back' only the small misaligned one on the page) to ensure my answers we not lost. 

The worst, despite me logging in, timed me out having given me 30 minutes to answer 29 requirements that were to be put into 5 different groups on the website to the 7 groups they were in on the job specification.  Naturally I logged back in again and was frustrated to find that not only had I lost all the content on the page I had been working on, but that despite all the promises, all the content of the previous pages had gone.  I had to face typing in all my O Levels once again with no guarantee that I would not lose it all again.  The only solution was to mock-up the online form in Word and cut and paste (very quickly) the answers from each section.  I guessed it was worthwhile because given how difficult the website is to use, many potential applications are likely to give up reducing my competition.  However, what is the point of having an online application if the only way to complete it is to create your own form and copy over?  At least this online application allowed cutting and pasting, many disable that function meaning you have to type out every tedious bit of employers address or qualification again and again.

I know that with 70 applicants for every graduate vacancy, companies are seeking to reduce the number of applicants.  However, the online application forms which are now the norm for so many posts, seem simply to be poor and difficult to use due to the fact that the people building them have little idea what is required of them or how applicants will actually be expected to use them.  You get a good one only when the web designer has some experience of such forms and those that do seem very limited in number.  The general ignorance among so many staff about how websites work means they do not feel in a position to intervene or even ask for particular functionality.  There needs to be good dialogue between the recruiters and the web builders in a company as there should be between the marketing staff and the website builders.  People forget that often an online application form is the first real encounter a person who is considering working for you, has with the company.  On the basis of the bulk of (well, in fact almost all) the online application forms I have used, I would believe that UK companies are incredibly badly organised and have no control over their web presence; not something which is going to encourage me to work for them or, in fact, hire or trade with them.

No comments: