Why we must ban online application forms

There are obvious societal evils: theft, racism, cruelty to animals, etc. These are plainly wicked and quite rightly against the law. Other less obvious evils just make life more miserable and dispiriting: car park ticket dispensers, 1980s architecture, irresponsible dog owners, children’s play areas in libraries, etc.

Since it morphed from the lowly 'Personnel Department', the HR function has become a crucible of evil, developing ever new ways to ensure a dispiriting, insecure work life for most of us: performance measurement, diversity training, quality control methodologies, job design, 360-degree appraisals, KPIs, aims, objectives, milestones.

Through these devices, HR surveils performance and time-keeping, while wasting our time and undermining our ability to perform.

Perhaps the most wicked aspect of HR is the least obvious. People grumble about the endless HR demands: diversity awareness, environmental consciousness, milestone reporting and KPI fulfilment. They groan when faced with mandatory workshops, and the endless online forms and procedures now required. However, they rarely complain about the most insidious and damaging feature of modern HR: the online application form.

Back in the time of personnel departments, many employers would accept a posted CV with a covering note about why the applicant wanted the job and thought they were suitable. For the jobseeker, applying for work was quick and convenient. It was equally so for the brown-clad 1970s personnel manager, who could easily finger through the pile of CVs while taking a drag on a ciggie. People applied, applicants were reviewed and hired, then as now, but with much less time and effort.

In the current smoke-free, paperless HR office suite, however, such practice is anathema. With the advent of job design, each advertised role now has a series of 'requirements' to be met and 'qualities' to be displayed. CVs don’t cut it as they vary in format and personal data, and don’t address the attributes required for the specific role. So, CVs are out, along with the once popular and convenient standard application form.

Company-specific online application forms are not quick or convenient. Designed by recruitment professionals in line with the latest progressive thinking about job-mapping, career planning and inclusion, they not only require the usual work history/education/training details but ask questions about other aspects of the applicant: some specific to the job role, and others designed to delve into the applicant’s psychology, personality and increasingly attitudes.

So instead of sending in a CV, jobseekers are now obliged to complete a long online application form for each vacancy they apply for. The dated details of education and job history already laboriously typed onto a CV, have to be transcribed for every single job applied for.
Of course, most jobseekers are not merely applying for one job, but for any job. This means multiple inputs on every detail about education and work experience, and longwinded answers to tedious and unnecessary questions. It is a needless waste of time, and wasting people’s time like this is evil.

Take for instance a single graduate trainee position at a digital publisher. The employer might reasonably receive two hundred applications for the one position. If each online application form takes 90 minutes to complete, that is 298.5 wasted hours of young bright people’s time. 199 young, talented people wasting an hour and a half – for nothing.

Let’s now zoom in on one of the applicants, Zainab, a final-year marketing student. She sighs as she finally completes the application for the above job and presses 'send'. Zainab is ambitious and is assiduously sending off 10 job applications a week. 15 hours a week. Three hours a day, five days a week. This is time knocked out of Zainab’s busy final-year schedule.

HR’s insistence on increasingly burdensome application requirements steals the time of productive young people. It is even worse for older people with longer employment history, all of which has to be typed in before the software allows them to proceed to the next page. What appears costless and rational from the perspective of HR is anything but for the applicant, or indeed for society as a whole. Indeed, moving the focus from an exasperated Zainab to view society as a whole, we begin to appreciate the enormous impact of the online application form in wasting millions of hours of people’s time.

There is a simple solution to this problem, which would instantly release Zainab and millions of other job seekers from the tyranny of the online application form. That is for companies and government to recognise the scale of the problem – the needless waste of human capital – and to do something about it.

Organisations must come together and agree an online standard application form, which can be used across the whole job-seeking sector. This, with the option to attach one’s CV as well, means that after the initial laborious filling-in of the master copy, each application would take five minutes max. Zainab and millions like her could then use these freed-up hours with living life.

Online application forms waste people’s time and effort, and do so invisibly. Jobseekers suffer in silence, but are alienated and demoralised by the whole process of multiple application forms. It is time to highlight this recruitment practice as the societal evil it is, and to tackle it. Doing so is simple, and would instantly improve the quality of millions of people’s lives, while making no difference whatsoever to companies’ ability to hire the right people for the right jobs.  

By Mark Neal, freelance academic