Shedding the stain of joblessness

Below is an article from our Affirmative Action Media Monitoring Project. These articles represent a wide variety of views. These views do not necessarily represent the views of AAPF but instead are intended to provide you with an overview of the current affirmative action debate. April 29, 2011

By Maura Kelly

Recently, one of my closest friends – let's call him Franz – left a frustrating job. After five months with the company, his nerves were shot. His boss – the kind of monomaniacal entrepreneur who favours frenetic midnight phone calls to discuss matters of minor importance – had hired him for a management job, but Franz was consistently undercut by the head honcho's dictatorial machinations. He was having trouble keeping his cool but I repeated advice a friend had given to me once, long ago: finding a job is always easier when you have a job. Franz griped that he was working such long hours he wouldn't have the time or energy to look for a new position until he quit – and eventually, fed up beyond the point of patience, he gave a month's notice.

A new study out of UCLA has found that, unfortunately, sticking it out would have been wise: When making hiring decisions, prospective employers discriminate against the unemployed, even when they are essentially identical to employed applicants – and even when they've been out of work for only a few days. The UCLA researchers analysed three different studies in which participants were asked to rate jobseekers according to their resumes: half the participants were told an applicant was still employed, while the other half was told he or she had been unemployed for a few days. George Ho, lead researcher, told

"We were surprised to find that, all things being equal, unemployed applicants were viewed as less competent, warm and hirable than employed individuals. We were also surprised to see how little the terms of departure mattered. Job candidates who said they voluntarily left a position faced the same stigma as job candidates who said they had been laid off or terminated."

Does this mean we should start talking about affirmative action programmes for the unemployed? Not necessarily, but it does mean that employers should be aware of their propensity to make biased judgments – which could have serious consequences for the people they so easily dismiss. Prolonged joblessness is a vicious cycle, leading to increased melancholy and loss of confidence, which make it tougher to find work; and, of course, the longer one is unemployed, the less appealing one looks to people making hiring decisions. There are also real physical repercussions to unemployment: a wide-ranging McGill University study, for example, found that unemployment increased the risk of premature death by 63%. (It had nothing to do with no longer being able to afford adequate healthcare.)

You could argue – and I'm sure many employers do – that someone who's been unemployed for a long time has lost job skills that might be necessary, or hasn't, say, become proficient using newly-developed computer programs that are popular in the industry. But why assume the worst? Someone who's been unemployed for a while is likely to be very grateful for his or her new gig; to work harder than a peer who might be coming straight from another job; and even to accept a lower starting salary. It's also possible he or she has used the unpaid time to acquire new skills. In other words, there are plenty of reasons that an unemployed job applicant might actually be a better hire than an employed equivalent.

There are also things that the unemployed can do to make themselves more appealing: namely, get involved in a meaningful activity that willteach you new things, and feature it prominently on your cv. When I asked Ho, via email, if he thought that was good advice, he agreed with me.

"I would recommend that the unemployed fill the gaps on their resumes with activities such as volunteering, part-time or contract work, school, entrepreneurship, and so on because our research shows that even the most minimal gap (one month or less) can lead to devaluation. If a gap exists, and there is no activity to fill in the gap, our research findings suggest that providing a reason indicating the cause of unemployment was in no way attributable to them (eg, employer went out of business) would alleviate unemployment stigma."

Or, I suppose, you could do what Franz did.

Before he quit, he'd been steadily employed since graduating from college – and except for the most recent case, he'd always found a subsequent job before leaving the previous one. During the first few days of unemployment, he applied for three gigs. An outfit he was very interested in working for put him through a series of tests and interviews over the course of five weeks, including a day-long meeting with some of his potential co-workers. When the desirable company said, "No thanks", he was crushed; he'd put all of his eggs in that basket. Then leads that had seemed plentiful during his first few days of unemployment dried up.

So, he teamed up with a few friends, and went into business for himself.

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