The Stigma of Being “Unemployed”

When the current recession began, I recall brainstorming with many other career professionals about whether the huge round of job cuts would lay to rest any stigma associated with being laid off.  The majority agreed that, in light of the unprecedented economic conditions resulting from financial market collapses, employers would likely view layoffs as beyond the control of most candidates.  A year and a half later, two recent articles made me want to re-examine the issue of stigmas laid off job seekers face.  The first addressed job seekers describing how they feel such stigma now, while the second documents where some employers flat out instruct the unemployed not to apply.

Since I deal with both job seeker and employer points of view, I’m inclined to believe this may reflect more of a labor market struggling with unprecedented numbers than a growing discrimination against unemployed people. Three factors to consider:

The increasing lengths of unemployment periods. I know from tracking Bureau of Labor Statistics that currently nearly half of those drawing unemployment benefits have exceeded the initial 27-week period. As recently as 2007, only seventeen percent reached this length. Employers reviewing résumés and applications are not accustomed to seeing such long gaps in unemployment. During normal times, such long periods have been viewed as a red flag for employers and many may be falling back on such biases since they have no other baseline. It will take successful performances by employees hired after long gaps to erase such long held biases.

Unprecedented volume.  Yes, the current economic conditions favor employers. But they now receive unprecedented levels of résumés and applications. It’s not only high unemployment numbers driving this. The Internet allows so much more access to company web pages, local announcements etc., making applying for jobs just a mouse click away. Evaluation methods employers previously used to reduce the résumé pile down to manageable levels barely scratch the surface today. Additional criteria must be applied. While one article cited cases where unemployed candidates were told not to bother applying, such cases appear isolated. More commonly, employers may increase the level of qualifications or factor in previous or salary requirements to whittle the pile down.  

There must SOMETHING wrong! We all struggle with reconciling misfortunes that happen to us. Some tend to want to blame things outside of themselves, certain that employers are discriminating against them due to age, gender, race, ethnicity, unemployed status-you name it. Others assume they must be a making a mistake or have a flaw somewhere in their search strategy.  I want to share with you the experience of a C-level executive I recently worked with I’ll call Gil. A few months ago, Gil landed after a search that lasted more than two years. Countless times, we reviewed his approach to opportunities that had not resulted in an offer. Based on everything he read and was told about job search, Gil believed he was doing all the right things, but could not understand why no offers had come.

Shortly after he accepted his position, the company authorized filling two new positions in his department. During his extended search, Gil built a very strong network, even going as far as facilitating his own semi-monthly professional networking meetings. In addition to the standard company recruiting channels, he put the opportunities out to his network as well. The response amazed him in terms of both the volume and quality of the candidates expressing interest. As he proceeded through the hiring process, he was impressed at how each candidate followed all the protocols he had both read about and encouraged in his group meetings.  Having gone through such a search himself not only gave him a special empathy for those he did not select, but a better understanding of how tough a labor market we face today. He witnessed several dozen talented people present themselves very well and do all the correct protocols, but had to select the one best suited for his needs and company. Gil made sure he reflected how difficult a decision he had while offering encouragement to those not selected. Plus he also realized the volume and quality of candidates forced him to clarify more about what he believed was most important for the position rather than introduce arbitrary criteria just to cut down the numbers.


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