Bias Against Unemployed Shortchanges Organizations

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The bias against job candidates who are unemployed—especially those unemployed for six months or longer, regardless of the reason—is “swept under the rug” in HR, where the bias is most prevalent. But employers miss out on talent and a diverse pool of candidates when they turn their backs on this pool of job seekers, said Lindsey Gardner, HR manager for Florida-based TZ Insurance Solutions.

Gardner led the session “Bias Against the Unemployed: Impact on Diversity and Organizational Capacity” at the 2014 Society for Human Resource Management Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition.

This issue appeared on the radar of major media in 2010 when a job posting for global phone manufacturer Sony Ericsson, which was hiring for a Georgia facility, included wording that “no unemployed candidates will be considered at all,” she said. Similar wording was used in an ad by a South Carolina consulting firm advertising for grocery managers.

Bias against unemployed job candidates has impacted 9.6 million to 12 million people in the last five years in the U.S., according to Gardner. Black and Hispanic applicants are more significantly affected, as a disproportionate number of these groups are among the unemployed.

Approximately 30 years of psychological and management research has found that HR professionals frequently demonstrate a great amount of bias toward job candidates that are unemployed. Job seekers who have been out of work for more than 12 months are more negatively ranked as prospective hires. In addition, their employability is more often questioned, and their professionalism and warmth are rated lower than employed job candidates with comparable qualifications, Gardner said.

Job candidates may have been out of the labor force for a good reason, such as caregiving, military service or returning to school, she noted. The University of California’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, in a 2011 research paper on the stigma of being unemployed, cautioned that employers “may be unwittingly harming their competitiveness by eliminating completely qualified unemployed applicants for vacant positions.”

What should matter, Gardner noted, is whether the candidate possesses the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities for the job.

“You would think someone [serving] in the Peace Corps, who was in school [or] took a sabbatical would neutralize these gaps” in unemployment, but research suggests that is not the case. “We still perceive paid versus unpaid work very, very differently,” she said.

Legislation that would protect the unemployed from hiring bias is pending, has been passed or has been rejected in about a dozen cities and states, according to Gardner. New Jersey was the first state to attempt legislation of this kind, but the governor recently vetoed the bill. 
“In general, the proposed laws are very controversial. Enforcement is difficult and bias is difficult to prove,” she said. “This is not popular legislation; it doesn’t get passed very easily,” and when such laws are passed, they’re generally only applicable in areas where unemployment is highest.

What’s an Employer to Do?

“I see us as the front line in [combating] this problem,” said Gardner, who advised that HR professionals:

• Focus on the skills needed for the job.
• Be prepared to document and defend their hiring decisions and similarly, evaluate others’ hiring decisions. 
• Standardize methods for evaluating job candidates that can be repeated and duplicated for any position. It’s more likely that a hiring decision is prejudiced if it’s made “under the guise of a ‘bad fit.’ ” Basing a decision not to hire someone on a vague opinion that there was “just something about them” doesn’t hold up well in court, she reminded attendees.
• Consider the relevance of any employment gaps. “If you’re skipping those applicants ‘just because,’ there could be a lot [of talent] you’re leaving on the table.” 
• Use careful and accurate job descriptions and advertisements.
• Use resume scanning/application screening based on the specific job description. 
• Perform a job analysis for every position inside the organization, especially for positions that appear to be in demand, so you can get a feel for the skills being sought.

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News.


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