Unemployed? 5 Reasons Companies Won't Hire You

Last Updated Jul 27, 2011 10:34 AM EDT

Have you seen a job posting that declared, along with a need to have a degree and experience doing x, y, and z, that candidates must be employed? According to the New York Times, this is becoming more and more prevalent as more and more people look for work.

Why would companies do that? As someone who has been involved in the layoff of literally thousands of people, I can say with authority that many of those people were high performers who would be an asset to any company they work for. We terminated them because their job function was going away, or the site they worked at was closing, or they were terminated as part of a Last-In-First-Out strategy. Sure, some were chosen because they were awful employees. Duh. But most? Hardly.

Here are some of the reasons companies prefer the already employed over the unemployed.

The preference for hiring the already employed has gone on for years and years. The difference was, it used to be that very few people were unemployed. Because unemployment was low, there was more of a possibility that if you were unemployed, you were at fault. It's always been easier to find a job when you have a job. This is why I advise people to stick it out at a job until they have a new one, unless the current job is so awful that staying there is a danger to health (mental or physical) or safety.

Hiring is really difficult so companies use "proxies" to help them. We're all familiar with a very common proxy--the degree. High school, college, or graduate degree are really nothing more than proxies for knowledge, perseverance, and enough social skills to not get kicked out. Employers assume that your school was capable of telling if you were qualified for a degree, so they trust the school's evaluation of you. Because it's really hard to tell how you'll perform on the job, hiring managers look and see that another company values your work enough to continue to employ you. If you don't have a job, it's like not having a degree. It doesn't mean you aren't capable, it's just another proxy.

Stereotypes are alive and well. We've all seen the stories about people being fired for sleeping on the job, stealing, being rude to customers or siphoning off thousands of dollars into private accounts. Somehow our psyches seem to think that those are the only reason people lose jobs. Even people who have been laid off in the past somehow thinks that they were the exceptions, not the rule. Unemployed=big problem, so you're not taken into consideration. It doesn't matter that the higher unemployment is, the more likely you are to have good people unemployed, this stereotype persists.

Companies are inundated with applicants. The New York Times reports that even fast food chain Pollo Tropical requires people to be employed before considering them. Normally, fast food outlets are the first place you'd think would be hiring the unemployed. But, the rising unemployment rate means that more and more people are trying to get any job. Companies don't like to hire people who want any job. They want to hire people who want this job. One way of cutting through the applicants is to eliminate the any job candidates, and these are most likely to be the unemployed.

Skills do deteriorate without use. If you're a nurse, going 9 months without starting an IV means that you'll need some refreshers and extra help before you're up to speed again. If you're a statistician, going 12 months without doing a statistical analysis means you'll have to think a little bit harder to do that first one. Some jobs are more skill heavy than others. Some have higher learning curves than others. Companies want people who need the smallest amount of training possible.

Even though companies do have some logical (and some illogical) reasons for excluding the unemployed, they do run into problems. New Jersey has outlawed the practice and other states are considering similar legislation. While this legislation sounds helpful, it probably will not have any positive effect on the unemployed. It's very easy to come up with a legal "official" reason for not offering any individual a job, even if the true reason violates the law. Additionally, laws impose burdens on employers that can further limit hiring.

In February the EEOC held hearings on the legality of excluding the unemployed from consideration. While the EEOC doesn't have a mandate to protect the unemployed, the reality is that unemployment has a "disparate impact" on certain groups. Christine L. Owens, Executive Director, National Employment Law Project testified:

Excluding unemployed workers from consideration for jobs is one such barrier, which is not only unfair but also may violate basic civil rights protections because of the disparate impact of such policies on older workers, workers of color, women or other protected groups. At a moment when we all should be doing whatever we can to open up job opportunities to the unemployed, it is profoundly disturbing that the trend of deliberately excluding the jobless from work opportunities is on the rise.

Most companies do not explicitly refuse to hire the unemployed and in fact, at the same hearing, Fernan R. Cepero (who represented the Society for Human Resource Management) testified:

When specifically asked about what tips the balance between two job candidates with limited job experience, HR professionals preferred candidates who held an unpaid volunteer position or internship directly in the candidate's career field (70 percent) over experience in a paid job that may not be directly in the candidate's career field (30 percent). This reinforces the value that employers place on direct experience and relevant skills.

Finding a job is never easy, and in an economy with high unemployment, it's even more difficult. But, don't assume that because you're unemployed you'll never find work again. Many people can benefit from making some changes in how they approach their job hunts. And companies would be wise to stop the ill-conceived practice of discriminating (albeit legally, in most cases) against the unemployed before the government steps in and increases regulations. Plus, there are a multitude of quality people who would be an asset to any organization out there. Don't foolishly exclude them.

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