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Is There a Bias Against Hiring the Jobless?

April 29, 2011
Kelly Wiedemer's job search frustrations peaked last fall. That's when the 45-year-old Denver-area resident applied for a position that seemed just perfect for her: putting into place the same sort of accounting software she had installed at a previous job.
Hiring the JoblessWiedemer landed a phone interview the next day with a staffing firm screening for the post. But the fact that she had been out of work for more than two years gave the recruiter pause. “She said, ‘I'm willing to submit your résumé to the hiring manager, but I'll be honest: Your long-term employment gap is going to be a really tough sell,' ” Wiedemer recalls.
Too tough a sell, it seems. Wiedemer did not get the position. “I was really, really devastated,” she says.
     Advocates for the unemployed say Wiedemer is not alone. They contend that employers increasingly discriminate against jobless Americans in hiring decisions, and such practices could violate equal opportunity laws. Because of such concerns and the fact that 6 million Americans have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held a hearing on the subject in February. And in mid-March, U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) introduced a bill to amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect against discrimination on the basis of “unemployment status.” The legislation defines “unemployment status” as “being unemployed, having actively looked for employment during the then most recent four-week period, and currently being available for employment.''
Where Are the Workers?
   “Discrimination against the unemployed smacks of days gone by when signs read, ‘Women need not apply,' ‘Irish need not apply' or ‘No blacks allowed,' ” Johnson says in a written statement. “I'm going to do all I can to fight for the unemployed.”
Employers argue that questioning candidates about work history gaps is legitimate and that bias against the jobless is not widespread. But to the extent that it does exist, companies are only hurting themselves, says Josh Bersin, president and CEO of the talent management consulting firm Bersin & Associates.
A Long Wait for Job Seekers
A recent study by Bersin's firm found that for the first time in almost three years, more than half of business leaders cited talent shortages as a key challenge. With a new “war for talent” shaping up because of an improving economy, smart companies will open their arms to older unemployed workers with managerial experience in hard-hit fields such as banking and real estate, Josh Bersin says. “They have incredibly good skills. They just were in the wrong industry. Employers should snatch those people up.”
Many workers certainly want to be snatched up. The U.S. unemployment rate in February was 8.9 percent, translating into 13.7 million jobless people. And long-term unemployment has jumped to levels unheard of in the past several decades. Nearly 44 percent of those considered officially unemployed have been without work for 27 weeks or more. That figure remained below 30 percent from 1948 to 2009.
Even the official data fail to reflect the full extent of joblessness in America—especially long-term unemployment. An additional 2.7 million people wanted and were available for work in February. Those people had looked for a job sometime in the previous 12 months, but they were not counted as unemployed because they had not searched for work in the past four weeks. This figure for people “marginally attached to the labor force” includes 1 million discouraged workers who believe no jobs are available for them.
The official unemployment statistics also don't capture 3.7 million Americans who want a job but either did not search for work during the prior 12 months or were not available to take a job for reasons such as family obligations or transportation issues. Indeed, in the past 18 months or so, the percentage of working-age Americans who are employed has fallen to as low as 58 percent—a level not seen since 1983.
Employers have long touted the benefits of passive candidates, meaning workers who are already holding a job and therefore are considered likely to be solid contributors. But advocates for the jobless suggest the practice of recruiting passive candidates has gone too far in recent years. They point to cases where job ads explicitly rule out unemployed candidates. Last May, for example, Atlanta TV station 11Alive News reported that a job listing for a marketing position at telecommunications company Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications read: “No unemployed candidates will be considered at all.” The ad was later edited to remove those words, the station reported.
Lauren Haralson, a Sony Ericsson spokeswoman, told Workforce Management the ad was a “mistake,” and that the error was made by a job agency rather than Sony Ericsson.
At the EEOC hearing in February, Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said that deliberately excluding the jobless from work opportunities is a growing trend. Owens also said the practice could violate civil rights protections because of its impact on protected groups of workers.
“Among unemployed workers, older workers are much more likely than their younger counterparts to experience long periods of unemployment that undermine opportunities to return to work,” Owens said in written testimony.
Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Center advocacy group, made a similar point. “Businesses increasingly exclude unemployed job seekers from their applicant pools, either limiting applicants to those who are currently employed or those who have been employed within a recent period of time,” Graves said in her testimony. “Creating barriers to employment for those who are out of the workforce could have a serious negative impact on women.”
Discrimination against the unemployed also could be especially damaging for the disabled and some minorities, notably black people.
Justine Lisser, an EEOC spokeswoman, says pinpointing the extent to which employers exclude the jobless in hiring is tricky. “It's hard for us to measure.” Still, she adds, the EEOC will continue to study the matter. The probe could result in guidance from the EEOC on hiring practices that don't discriminate against jobless applicants or possibly even lawsuits against employers. Lisser says that to the best of her knowledge, the EEOC has never filed a lawsuit on the grounds that an employer refused to hire someone who was unemployed. Nor is she aware of any private lawsuits making such a claim.
Fernan Cepero, vice president for human resources at the YMCA of Greater Rochester and director of the New York chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management, said at the February EEOC hearing that the professional organization was unaware of a trend to exclude the unemployed in hiring. In an interview with Workforce Management, Cepero says smart recruiting involves casting a wide net because “you're definitely going to find gems among the unemployed.”
That's also the attitude at Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., according to Todd Davis, executive director of worldwide recruitment for the division of New York-based Time Warner Inc. In fact, Davis says, recruiters in the entertainment industry often are on the lookout for talented people whose television projects come to a close. Warner Bros. looks at the “whole package,” he says.
Wiedemer, the unemployed Coloradoan, would love to find an employer thinking along those lines. She has sent out more than 650 résumés since she was laid off from her job as a business analyst in July 2008 and even learned new software development skills.
Wiedemer believes that bias against the unemployed has played a role in her struggle. And her experience with long-term joblessness has caused her to think about a new career. She has become passionate about social justice issues and would be interested in joining a not-for-profit organization.
“I don't know where I'll land,” she says. “Preferably somewhere outside of the traditional corporate world.”
Workforce Management, April 2011, pgs. 10-11 -- Subscribe Now!