Hiring managers biased against jobless: Studies

But length of unemployment can provide ‘valuable information’ for employers
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/17/2012

Hiring managers are exhibiting bias toward jobless applicants, even if they’ve only been out of work for one month, according to two studies.

“Even when the gap is the minimal possible gap, people are still discriminating and biased against the unemployed,” said Toronto native Geoffrey Ho, a doctoral candidate at the UCLA Anderson School of Management in Los Angeles and co-author of The Psychological Stigma of Unemployment: When Joblessness Leads to Being Jobless released in August.

“Psychological stigma may decrease an unemployed individual’s chances of obtaining a job independent of their duration of unemployment, skills and qualifications,” he said.

The study gave 47 HR professionals resumés to review for a marketing manager position. All the resumés had comparable training, skills and work experience but one-half showed the applicant was employed while the other half showed the candidate had been out of work for one month.

The HR professionals scored the unemployed candidates 10 per cent to 15 per cent lower than the employed candidates on both a competency scale and hireability scale, said Ho.

“This is surprising because the resumés are exactly the same, the actual competence levels are exactly the same.”

Another study sent out 12,000 fake resumés for 3,000 jobs posted online, with most showing the applicants had been unemployed between one month and 36 months. Overall, 4.7 per cent received a callback for an interview, but the chances of being called back depended on how long the candidate had been unemployed.

“What was surprising to us was most of the discrimination occurs at the beginning of the unemployment spell — virtually all the effect is concentrated in the first six to eight months,” said Kory Kroft, assistant professor at the University of Toronto and co-author of Duration Dependence and Labor Market Conditions published in September by the Canadian Labour Market and Skills Researcher Network.

Candidates who were unemployed for one month had a seven per cent chance of being invited for an interview while those who were unemployed for eight months had a four per cent chance — a 45 per cent difference.

After the eighth month, the callback rate flattened out and workers who were unemployed for eight months, 12 months and even 36 months had a callback rate of four per cent.

To overcome this bias, HR first needs to be aware of it.

“There might be some sort of bias that has been programmed into you via images in society that the unemployed are lazy,” said Ho. “Try to figure out: Are you actually throwing people out based on that bias? If you are, definitely take a step back and try to look at those resumés more closely.”

HR should strive to have an open mind and focus on past achievements, not current ones, said Hilary Predy, associate vice-president of business solutions at staffing agency Adecco in Edmonton.

“And look at what else they’re doing beyond the chronological job history,” she said. “The networks, the contacts they still maintain, periodicals that they read, conferences that they’ve attended — people can still do a lot of things while they’re unemployed in order to keep them very marketable.”

Ho’s study also found there was no significant difference in the perceived competence and hireability of unemployed workers who left their previous jobs voluntarily versus those who were laid off.

“People tend to err on the side of blaming people for their own misfortunes, as opposed to looking at situational factors that may have caused that issue,” he said. “If they voluntarily left their job we might think, ‘This person is not very committed or motivated.’ When the person was laid off you can think, ‘The bottom of the barrel gets let go first.’”

If the application clearly indicated the unemployment was the fault of the employer, such as due to a bankruptcy or specific setback that made layoffs inevitable, the stigma disappeared and those applicants were rated as highly as employed candidates, said Ho.

As a hiring manager, if Predy was faced with someone who left a job voluntarily and has been unemployed for a long time, she would ask: “Why would you choose to leave a job that you hadn’t replaced and what were the circumstances that caused you to leave?”

“We all know there are circumstances that make it impossible to stay in jobs sometimes but those are questions that need to be asked,” she said.

Layoffs have become “a reality of our world” and hiring managers may feel more sympathetic toward that group, said Predy.

Another reason why those who have been unemployed longer are less likely to be called back for an interview is because HR may feel the skills of unemployed candidates have depreciated, said Kroft.

“There’s a perception that somebody who has been out of the workforce will be behind the current trends, they may be rusty, they may not have all of the skills that somebody who has been working would have developed over that same period of time,” said Predy.

For example, in Kroft’s study, the resumés were submitted for jobs in customer service, administrative/clerical and sales, and sales saw the sharpest decline in callback rates.

“If you’re in sales and you’re out of work for a long period of time, it’s sort of a signal you can’t sell yourself to employers, so employers are going to be less likely to take you on,” said Kroft.

But considering the length of unemployment when choosing candidates may not be a bad idea and actually provide valuable information for employers, said Kroft. It’s a way to sort and separate workers who are likely to be either really good or bad, he said.

“In a labour market where unemployment is really low, if you need a worker who is out of work for a long period of time, one view is that there must be something wrong with this worker,” said Kroft. “Would we want firms ignoring the fact that this worker has been out of a job for a while? I’m not sure that we would.”

This is especially true in Western Canada where the unemployment rate is about four per cent, said Predy.

“When you see somebody who is not employed, you begin to wonder about the fitability of that person because there are so many openings in the job market in Western Canada and to find somebody with skills who’s not working, really some questions go through people’s minds,” she said.

On the other hand, there can be some very good, productive workers who have just been unlucky and are trapped in a long spell of unemployment, said Kroft.

Employers could be missing out on some very experienced workers, said Predy.

“Somebody who has been out of work for a long period of time and is passionate about what they do will come back, when given a chance, 110 per cent, and will be very, very dedicated and loyal.”

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