The Ugly (Un)Employment Bias

When the pandemic first hit, people weren’t entirely sure what it meant for business. As states implemented stay-at-home orders and travel ground to a halt, something became pretty clear: A lot of people were going to lose their jobs.

Unemployment in April 2020 spiked to 14.7% and remains uncomfortably high, particularly in the hospitality and service industries. And while the overall number would seem to indicate some recovery, it doesn’t include people who have simply stopped trying to find a job, and it certainly doesn’t take into account the underemployed (taking a job simply to survive).

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. It’s a similar pattern to what we saw in the recession that hit in 2007 and 2008. 

During that time, I remember our call centers had a massive uptick in applicants with MBAs and years of experience, simply because we were hiring and they needed work. They hoped that any job with a Fortune 200 company would mean a foot in the door and would lead to better things once the economy turned around. 

In reality, though, it’s hard to move from a call-center agent role to one in corporate. And once the economy picked up, those folks all found new jobs that were better for them. Thank goodness. 

The Biggest Hurdle

Now flash forward to 2021. Entire industries are decimated, and thousands of people find themselves in a similar struggle as they wait for their industry and job to come back, or find a new path. Either way, it’s going to be an uphill battle. 

And the biggest hurdle? Recruiters and hiring managers.

Hiring bias is alive and well in 2021. From racial bias to age bias to education bias to font-choice bias to cover-letter bias — it’s all up for grabs. One of the more insidious hiring biases I’ve seen is employment bias, or not wanting to hire someone who is currently unemployed. 

The justification typically goes something like this: “Well, if they were a good employee, they wouldn’t be out of a job, would they? I don’t want someone who no one else wants.”

Okay, Sunshine, let’s cut you off right there. As someone who has lost a job through three consecutive reorganization exercises, I am a poster child for the powerless nature of working in an employment-at-will world.

Unfortunately, I’ve worked with hiring managers in several industries who seem to think that only bad employees ever lose their jobs. I’ve done my best to re-educate these hiring managers, to get them to look deeper and understand why the job history is what it is. 

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Even if you get hiring managers past the initial ew, they’re not working reaction, the real battle comes when considering the long-term unemployed. Reports suggest that 40% of unemployed workers in the U.S. are long-term unemployed (six months or longer), inching closer and closer to the 46% levels of the Great Depression. Recent events have triggered a number of articles about the benefits of hiring the long-term unemployed, so I don’t want to rehash those here. Let’s focus, instead, on ways to structure your hiring process to ensure the long-term unemployed are not denied opportunities. 

Opening Opportunities

Review job-qualification requirements. People who are trying to make the switch to a new career or new industry won’t always be a 100% fit for your current job descriptions. And while some roles may require specific certifications and experience (engineering, medical workers), most are pretty flexible. Think about specific needs for the work to be done — which elements are transferable (customer service skills are pretty universal) and which are trainable (all new employees have a learning curve). 

Rewrite your job postings to encourage the long-term unemployed to apply. I co-moderate a weekly Twitter chat (#jobhuntchat) and consistently hear from people that they have just stopped their job searches because there was no point and they were sick of rejection. That hurts my soul. No one should feel that hopeless. Commit to opportunity —  explicitly state that your organization will consider the long-term unemployed. Actively recruit people from industries with similar skill sets, and be transparent about it. Give people hope. It changes their approach to their job search and makes them more attractive candidates. 

Emphasize empathy among hiring managers and recruiters. No one is immune to job loss. No one. So your judgment about why someone may have been out of the workforce should have no place in your hiring process. In fact, if you can’t separate the person from the circumstances, maybe you shouldn’t be part of the hiring process in the first place. If you’re in charge of recruiting, shut down anyone who speaks unkindly about a candidate’s circumstances. You get what you reward. Don’t reward assholes.  

Build a skills-focused interview process, and train your recruiters and hiring managers to execute it effectively. There are so many reasons someone might be in this situation: reorg, personal health, health of a loved one, sabbaticals, raising a family, etc. In a lot of cases, it’s not really any of your business. You can get to the heart of what you need to learn by focusing on skill sets. If you want to know whether someone who has been out of the workforce can still actually do the job you need them to do, build in assessments. This could be a simulation, a demonstration, or even a validated pre-hire assessment. Let them show you that they know what they’re doing — no matter what their work history might say.

Job searching sucks enough without having the added battle of being one of the long-term unemployed. Don’t add to their stress by perpetuating a system that works against them. Be one of the organizations that tries to help people re-enter the workforce.

Mary is a principal with IA, a boutique consulting firm focused on HR transformation. She is also a talent strategist and business leader with almost 15 years experience in helping organizations achieve their goals. After working on the operations side of start-ups and small companies, Mary landed in HR by way of learning and development, with extensive experience in leadership and organizational development, coaching, key talent planning, talent acquisition, performance management, business partnering, HRIS, process and policy creation, and instructional design.

In addition to her work within companies, Mary authors a leadership development blog called Surviving Leadership to continue the dialogue around the challenges of leadership – both being a leader and being led. 

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