As you are probably aware, the rate of unemployment for the “long-term” unemployed is at an all-time high; 40% of those currently unemployed have been out of work for six months or longer according to DOL statistics. In his column Hiring is Broken, HR professional Steve Gifford has an interesting take on why we need to reconsider the bias against the unemployed in general and this particular subset in particular. I’ve written on this topic before (Discrimination Against the Unemployed), so I was interested to see what he had to say.

A Boston Federal Reserve study reports that hiring managers are much less likely to interview people who have been out of work for six months or longer. Steve gives three reasons why people think this way:

  1. The longer you’re out of work, the more atrophied your skills are. You’re not current on technologies, and would have too much of a learning curve. Let’s just hire someone with current skills.
  2. Herd mentality. No other employer has picked this candidate up, so there must be something wrong with them!
  3. Unemployed people are just giving up and being lazy about applying.

I’m in complete agreement with him when he says this is nonsense. The idea of atrophy is really a myth and continuous employment is no guarantee that a candidate’s skills have remained relevant and sharp. That’s something that needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In the IT industry, where new technologies are always emerging, chasing the latest hot skill isn’t necessarily the best strategy. Hiring an experienced IT professional with a proven track record of learning throughout their career produces better results. Herd mentality is to be avoided at all costs, in every area of our lives. Make your own decisions based on what you think, not what others do. The unemployed are lazy? Shame on anyone who thinks this. There are bad apples in any group, but to generalize about millions of people is wrong, and as Steve points out, will hurt you in the long run.

What I think is interesting is the point Steve makes about hiring and the sales funnel. The idea is that both are similar in being a bit of a game where maximizing the number at each stage of the process can dramatically increase the end results. Steve references another column that promotes this view, HR: Like Sales But Without the Commission. Importantly, Steve also points out that if you are automatically ignoring the long-term unemployed, you are instantly reducing the talent pool (the numbers) at the top of the funnel. I also agree with him that the numbers are simply too big to not include the many very talented people who were perfectly employable just a short time ago. There are a lot of unemployed people out there and they aren’t all atrophied and lazy.

Far from it, there are most certainly plenty of jewels and they aren’t even hidden, you may just be ignoring them! Anyone who assumes that someone who already has a job is automatically a better candidate than anyone who has been out of work is misguided at best. The competition for talent is tough enough without needlessly and in a knee-jerk fashion reducing your talent pipeline.

I understand that hiring has become a scary prospect for many companies. I think too many also share the perception that the perfect candidate is out there and can be had at discount prices because of the economic turmoil of the past few years and its effect on the labor market. That is just not true, but combine the fear of hiring the wrong candidate with the fear of missing out on the perfect one and you have a situation where hiring is almost paralyzed in some instances. People are afraid to make the wrong decision and so make none and positions remain open. Productivity suffers and unemployment continues at unacceptably high rates.

I have written about this before as well (Hiring Requires Optimism), but it bears repeating:  hiring requires optimism. It also requires a solid business case and a good understanding of the ROI when you create a position. That should go without saying, but in the end, there is always a little leap of faith that both the employer and employee take in agreeing to work together. You can reduce some of the uncertainty by utilizing a contract-to-hire employment model, which allows you to evaluate the skills, experience, and cultural fit of a candidate before offering them a permanent position.

Like Steve, I encourage you to rethink your strategy if you have been overlooking candidates based on length of unemployment. There are so many good business reasons not to AND it’s the right thing to do. Don’t ignore these talented individuals – our friends and neighbors, families, and former colleagues – help them by helping yourself!

Tags: Advice, Boston Federal Reserve, Discrimination Against the Unemployed, Hiring is Broken, Hiring Requires Optimism, Jerry Brenholz, Steve Gifford