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How To Beat Unemployment Bias

Date Published: July 06, 2021 | Last Updated: September 15, 2023 | By Hugo Britt

Unemployment bias is nothing new. Unemployed candidates often face stigma and discrimination during the recruitment process. But should unemployment really be considered a red flag?

Unconscious bias is a major problem in the recruitment industry, impacting marginalized people based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, class, sexuality, and educational background. Fair chance hiring laws help, but do they go far enough?

In the U.S., for example, research shows resumes from candidates with names presumed to be African American, Asian, or Hispanic are less likely to secure an invitation to interview.

Meanwhile, BrightTalk reports that 79% of HR professionals have admitted that unconscious bias exists in both recruitment and succession planning decisions.

Fortunately, many organizations are confronting the deep-rooted discrimination in their recruitment processes and working hard to combat it. But one factor that is often overlooked is unemployment bias.

According to Indeed, 83% of employers believe it’s easier to get a job when you have a job and 70% of hiring managers assume unemployment could mean a candidate will be a less productive employee.

Why does unemployment bias exist?

Employers, recruiters, and hiring managers are often tasked with hiring top talent in a short space of time. As a result, ruling out unemployed candidates at the first stage of the recruitment process might seem like a logical way to quickly sift through hundreds of applications.

Baseless stereotypes prevail that unemployed candidates are less talented, unmotivated, and unreliable. Some employers worry that people who have been unemployed for a prolonged time will have an outdated skillset and, as a result, require additional training or support.

Stigma is especially high against the long-term unemployed – those who are out of work for 27 weeks or more. It’s assumed by some employers that a candidate who hasn’t secured a new role after a certain amount of time must have something wrong with them. Forbes reports the bias against the unemployed is as pernicious and prevalent as ageism.

In reality, there is likely to be little correlation between a stint of unemployment and a candidate’s ability to perform a role for which they are qualified.

Let’s not forget that 22.2 million Americans lost their jobs in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic; many (if not most) of them skilled, hardworking, and experienced professionals. In some cases, unemployed people have faced redundancy as a result of a business folding while others voluntarily leave the workforce to take a career break, raise a family, travel, care for loved ones, or due to ill-health.

How to beat the unemployment bias

Even in a healthy economy, the Federal Reserve reports that the natural rate of unemployment is between 3.5% and 4.5%, and just 12% of those surveyed by Indeed said they had never been unemployed.

Given that unemployment is something that impacts the vast majority of the workforce, how can organizations beat unemployment bias and treat candidates more fairly?

1. Raise awareness about unemployment bias

Organizations should provide information about unemployment bias as part of their unconscious bias training. This could include education about what drives this kind of discrimination, why it is so unjustified, and statistics surrounding unemployment.

Recruiters and hiring managers, in particular, must be encouraged to challenge the stigma surrounding unemployment and be instructed not to filter out candidates based on their employment status.

2. Be empathetic towards unemployed candidates

Being unemployed can take an enormous toll on someone’s wellbeing, whether their circumstances are due to factors outside their control or because they willingly opted for a career break.

Unemployed candidates often feel shut out from the workforce, which can impact their confidence. They might also have additional stresses such as financial insecurity and uncertainty about the future.

Employers must strive to establish a recruitment or hiring team that is kind and empathetic towards unemployed candidates. The past year has proven that anyone could find themselves in the vulnerable position of being unemployed, but every candidate deserves respect and the opportunity to get their career back on track.

3. Listen to candidates

It is particularly unjust to dismiss unemployed applicants without allowing them to explain their circumstances. As discussed, there is a whole range of reasons why someone might currently be unemployed, and most of them have no bearing on a candidate’s aptitude.

It’s not appropriate to pry, but most candidates will be prepared for questions surrounding their unemployment, and glad to have an opportunity to provide assurance about their suitability for the role.

Be mindful not to pressure those who seem reluctant to discuss their personal lives. Instead, focus on evaluating their skillset.

4. Re-evaluate job descriptions and job requirements

It’s important for hiring managers and recruiters to continually review recruitment processes, job descriptions, and qualification requirements to ensure they are inclusive of all potential applicants.

For example, unemployed candidates who have suffered countless rejections will likely be deterred by highly prescriptive job descriptions – especially people who have taken longer career breaks or those looking to pivot into a new industry.

When possible, employers should make it clear that a job opening welcomes unemployed applicants and those with much-valued transferrable skills.