The Ugly Spectre of Unemployment Discrimination

As a society, we’re unfortunately well-acquainted with many forms of discrimination that take place in the working world, including discrimination against job applicants due to age, race, gender, and sexual orientation.  And while we still have a long way to go to eliminate these prejudices, we’ve at least legally prohibited them, at the very least.

And yet, there’s a relatively “new” type of discrimination that is perfectly legal and that may be having more of an impact on the economy than people realize.  Consider the thoughts that were recently shared with me by a client who recently landed a new opportunity with a well-known local organization.

Matt: While I’ve just landed a new full-time role, I had to write and let you know that the overwhelming evidence I’ve witnessed tells me that the unemployed are clearly the most widely discriminated segment of the job applicant base.  Having chatted with my new company about the process they followed to find candidates for my new position, it’s clear that being out of work is a severe liability in getting hired.  While I just happened to catch a lucky break, and be in the right place at the right time, my contact in the HR department told me that their first attempted search for applicants (in their words) ‘only produced lots of contractors and unemployed job seekers’ all of whom were apparently rejected out of hand b/c of this status.  When I asked them about their unwillingness to consider people who were between jobs, they said such people usually have a ‘stigma’ attached to them and they ideally wanted to steal somebody who’s ‘currently employed and happy in their role.’  So while I’m obviously happy I’ve landed, I was very disappointed to learn that the organization I’m with so readily dismisses the applications of those who are between jobs in lieu of those who already have one.

I won’t mince words.  Frankly, I think this practice is downright disgusting.  While no form of discrimination is obviously a good thing, or permissible, I’ll admit this particular form of bigotry really gets under my craw — perhaps because the majority of professionals I work with, day in and day out, are currently between jobs and actively on the hunt.

While I understand that companies face a fierce challenge in terms of the screening process these days, and I empathize over the sheer number of resumes they have to review when hiring for a role, I would hope that most people in charge of recruiting would realize that many highly talented people get displaced from companies through no fault of their own and with zero correlation based on performance.  Given the incredibly dynamic new marketplace that’s emerged — where organizations can be bought, sold, merged, and transformed overnight based on a multitude of bottom-line business reasons — it seems ridiculously antiquated to assume that any job seeker who is “out on the street” must, by definition, not be very good at their chosen field.

Compounding this is the hypocrisy involved, as I strongly suspect (and the statistics back me up) that many of the folks making these hiring decisions have, at some point, been out of work themselves — or likely have a close friend or family member who has been on the hunt for a while and is dealing with the stress of unemployment.  Would these people condone such behavior if a company discriminated against them or their loved ones for a position for no reason other than that they weren’t drawing a paycheck at the moment?

While there’s no magic wand that will expunge this misguided attitude from the marketplace immediately, I’d implore anybody reading this who is in a hiring capacity — or who has influence on one — to make sure that their screening personnel aren’t filtering out candidates based on ridiculously shallow assumptions related to their employment status.  As for those of you currently between gigs, I’d encourage you to think hard about their phenomenon and what you might be able to do to offset it.  Can you line up ANY sort of “special project” or “professional endeavor” to plug the gap since your last W2 assignment?  Can you wrangle any consulting gigs?  Form a professional networking group?  Teach or volunteer somewhere?  While none of these activities may be perceived by employers as a perfect substitute for full-time work, they’ll hopefully send the message, loud and clear. that you’re not sitting around twiddling your thumbs or letting your lack of a paycheck impede your professional growth.

Again, apologies for the rant, but this one hit a nerve.  Let’s all do our part to stamp out this growing form of hiring discrimination — in the hopes that one day you’ll no longer come across articles like the ones you’ll find here, here, and here.

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13 Responses to “The Ugly Spectre of Unemployment Discrimination”

  1. Shel: That’s a very interesting line of questioning you pose and one that I was wondering if people would bring up. Not sure if we’ll have enough interest to spin off a discussion separately, but my quick response is that I feel many people 1) would take at a job with such an employer regardless of their feelings about their practices, simply for practical “need to earn a living” reasons; and 2) that one could always rationalize this decision by thinking optimistically and assuming it’s easier to change a company’s practices from within, versus being an outsider. This being said, I certainly think there’s a line quite a few of us would draw, and I doubt most people would align themselves with a company engaging in gross ethical misconduct or doing something completely anathema (e.g. building bombs) to their personal beliefs. Definitely lots of gray area in between, however…

  2. I’m happy for the guy in that he landed a new job. But I wonder how he feels (beyond disappointment) about his new employer and their hiring practices. I would have taken the job, too, and maybe that particular hiring practice doesn’t warrant a refusal of the job offer. But it raises a topic about which I’d like to know others’ thoughts—perhaps in a separate online discussion with Matt. Would you work for a company that does something you significantly don’t agree with? For example, Amazon’s alleged mistreatment of warehouse workers? Or Comcast and the price gouging they’re often accused of? Or Comcast and the price gouging they’re often accused of? I’m not looking for specific company names (the two above were only used as examples), but rather if other people have ethical issues with employers that would pose a dilemma for them in taking a job, especially if they needed one.

  3. I find this sort of ignorance disgusting. Throw in the fact that ‘who said unemployed was a bad thing?’ For anyone in a recruiting or hiring position to make a decision based on someone’s current work situation is just simply appalling. There are SO many reasons why someone isn’t currently working that it is directly a reflection of the bias and ignorance of the recruiter/interviewer. I’ll bet these are the same people who check candidates’ facebook pages for insight into the candidate. Shame on them.

  4. Maria — Thanks for your comment and no, I definitely don’t believe all employers and recruiters are guilty of this practice by any means. At the same time, however, I think this “screening strategy” has become more and more common among SOME employers out there, which is unfortunate and why I wanted to call attention to it. Glad to hear there are still many companies that don’t view candidate employment status as an immediate pass/fail issue!

  5. While I am not suggesting that no employer has been guilty of this practice, I would also hope this is not a broad-brush suggestion that all employers are guilty of it. In my past roles leading HR organizations, as well as in my current role within a large employer, this has not been and is not currently a “strategy” to recruit and retain the best talent. Irrespective of the job market, a period of unemployment is an area for curiosity and questions, not a reason for immediate disqualification. Have I experienced the opposite? I suspect so — I was out of work for 18 months in the dark days of 2008 and beyond. However, I can say from experience that not all employers are this way, and I’m grateful for having avoided those who are.

  6. As usual, Matt, spot on!

  7. And what’s so silly about this is that if you ARE working full time, you’re either occupied during the same hours they will likely want an interview, or you have to take personal time, or basically spend time your current employer is paying you for to search for another job- which is stealing. So, the HR community’s subjective bias actually favors employees who are much more likely to be searching for a job ON COMPANY TIME– I wonder if they think about it that way, or care?

  8. A frustrating reality. Add to this how the most recently hired are commonly the most quickly targeted in the next downturn or budget cut, and you see many good people subjected to a recurring cycle of joblessness. So one needs to work twice as hard to make a difference, be visible, and become valuable in a new job situation; perhaps not so hard when you have been looking for a while. But creating relationships, standing out, and really becoming valuable needs to not appear desperate; in some places that is like blood in the water. Find your stride and make yourself interesting to the organization.

  9. Add age discrimination. The discrimination is very real. Your honesty that it bothers you is good to hear. Most people are oblivious to what goes on with the stigma attached
    to unemployment and the stress involved. You would think Human Resource people would be a little more caring or at least sensitive with all the sensitivity training but
    I guess sheep will be sheep. Your comments are warranted.

  10. I’ve most recently experienced a phone interview with a hiring manager who asked, “Why do you think it’s taking you so long to find a permanent job?” dismissing the short-term contract work I’d done, any response about the economy, and an attempt to re-route the conversation towards what I could bring to the position and address his pain points. He seemed to think that if a contract job didn’t turn into a regular full-time job, there must be something wrong with you–it was a “big red flag,” in his words. At least I got the phone screen with him by working my contacts. But even if the job description qualifications didn’t specify “no unemployed or contractors need apply,” it was clear that he had closed his mind already.

  11. Lbotts@semiahmoo.com February 24, 2014 at 7:54 am

    When I was laid off I contacted my Linkedin network and found contracting work in my industry.
    Therefore my resume should no gap and not only a desire to work and learn but that I had stayed current with tends and ideas in my field
    It is a shame that companies would do this and while I disagree with the practice it is up to us who are employed to ensure our companies don’t do this and we help those friends, family and colleagues who are unemployed to find full time employment.

  12. Aprilmatsui@gmail.com February 24, 2014 at 7:40 am

    Thanks for another great article. You hit on points that I too experienced when I was between jobs. My job had been eliminated due to no fault of my own but yet, despite my solid work history, it took me months to land something and I am sure the unemployment stigma had a good amount to deal with it. Another point to add is that once I landed a job, it was not anywhere near the level at which I had been at but I ended up grabbing it so I could start working my way back up.

  13. No rant apologies needed… anyone who’s been through it will only amplify the feeling!

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