“Unemployed Need Not Apply” – Working Around This Scary Message
Lately, there’s been a very disturbing trend in the job market. More and more companies are automatically screening out job applicants who are not currently working. They are eliminating unemployed job-seekers from their candidate pools, and are choosing to only interview people who already have jobs. Recruiting firms from all over the country are reporting hearing this from their client companies with increasing and alarming frequency. Some companies are doing this behind the scenes, quietly instructing outside 3rd-party recruiters, internal corporate recruiters and HR people to focus only on currently working candidates while excluding those that are not working (without telling them, of course.) Others are brazenly advertising this preference in their job postings! I know … it sounds outrageous – and you’d think such a thing would be illegal, right? Well, guess what – it’s not. Unlike race, religion, age, gender, etc., being unemployed is not a “protected” status subject to anti-discrimination laws. Here’s a link to a recent article from CNN.com that made the rounds a few weeks ago, and brought this issue to light for a lot of people: “Looking for work? Unemployed need not apply.”
Below is a screenshot of an ad from Sony Ericsson for a Head of Marketing Communications and Public Relations position, taken from a video newscast from a TV station in Orlando. The ad was placed by an Orlando-based recruiting agency called “The People Place” for a job in the Atlanta area, which is where Sony was moving their headquarters. They were supposedly creating 180 new jobs at that new facility … and Sony was refusing to hire any unemployed people to fill those jobs! (The irony of this is astounding – advertising for a head of “Public Relations” with an ad that created a firestorm of BAD public relations!!!)
This practice has, for obvious reasons, angered a lot of people. In some cases it has caused a backlash against those companies. For example, in the Sony Ericsson case shown above, the local community of Buckhead, Georgia – the Atlanta suburb where Sony was building their new facility – threatened to rescind a deal they made with the company which included $4 Million in tax credits when they learned of this hiring policy. (Sony subsequently removed the ad, saying it was “a mistake.”) In other cases, when reporters called companies who posted jobs with restrictions against unemployed applicants, those companies removed the ads – obviously to avoid negative publicity … but we can only assume that their discriminatory hiring practices continued behind closed doors.
In the world of 3rd Party Recruiting, this practice isn’t really new at all. Traditional “Head Hunters” have done this for years, only going after top talent – usually people who worked for their client’s competitors – and actually recruiting them away from one company to come work for another. Head Hunters would never call someone who was unemployed. [Read “The Real Truth About Working with Recruiters” for more on how "Head Hunters" differ from other types of recruiters.]
So why are today’s companies now doing this? At a time when there are more unemployed job-seekers out there than any other time in recent history, why would any company eliminate from consideration such a huge pool of talent … potential candidates, many of whom are probably just as qualified (if not more so) as anyone who is currently working? Without trying to justify it, or in any way condone this practice – as a recruiter who has heard these preferences expressed from client companies I’ve worked with myself, I can probably shed some light on their thinking.
One reason might be expediency. Every job posting now brings in an unprecedented flood of applicants. Company recruiters and HR people are completely overwhelmed with literally hundred and hundreds of resumes for each and every job opening they advertise. By eliminating unemployed applicants, they are whittling that number down to a more reasonable group of people that they can screen and interview in a more efficient and timely manner.
Another reason is perception. It’s basic human nature to view a candidate who is still working in a better light than an unemployed job-seeker. No matter what the true facts are, there is always that irrational but nagging suspicion that someone is out of work for “performance reasons.” It’s not logical, and it’s not likely to produce a higher caliber employee … but it is the way many people think.
Companies might also rationalize that a currently working person is “the best in their field” since they managed to avoid the layoffs that so many others experienced in their industry. They may believe that those currently working “passive candidates” are more likely to be up to speed in their industry niche, and would therefore require less training than someone who has been out of work for a while … that they could more easily “hit the ground running.”
Trying to understand the reasons that companies do what they do in their hiring practices can be useful information for any job-seeker in determining how to position yourself for the best chances of success. If the name of the game is perception, then it’s up to you to create a perception that will be most likely to avoid being eliminated before you even get to the starting gate.
So what is an unemployed job-seeker supposed to do with this information? How can you work around the scary message: “Unemployed Need Not Apply?” The most obvious answer to that question is to not appear to be unemployed!!! I’m certainly not suggesting that you should to be dishonest or lie in any way. However, there are several ways to present yourself – especially on your résumé – that will avoid the stigma that comes with being an unemployed job-seeker. My advice is to position yourself as NOT being currently unemployed – but rather to use either Volunteer Work, Consulting (Contract) Work, or Self-Employment as your current position. I’ve detailed those strategies, and described how to use them on your résumé, at the bottom of a prior blog posting: “Explaining Short Job Stints and Employment Gaps.”
Don’t give companies any reason to overlook you before they even talk with you! Use this information, and my suggested strategies, to get past the irrational screening process. Your goal should be to advance yourself to the interview stages of the hiring process where you have the opportunity to impress people with your actual talents and skills, your positive attitude and your passion for your work.