Thursday, June 20, 2013

Help Wanted

Unless you’re unemployed?

For a bit over a year now, there has been a fair amount of noise out there claiming that businesses are discriminating against applicants that are currently unemployed. The most strident of the articles I’ve seen is one that appeared in the Huffington Post, titled Unemployment Discrimination Puts Long-Term Jobless At Huge Disadvantage: Study

The article starts with the statement: "Businesses would rather hire somebody with no relevant experience than hire a person who has been unemployed for a long time, according to new research by Rand Ghayad at Northeastern University." The study involved creating fake resumes and applications and submitting them to online job postings. However, later in the article, results from this study are revealed, and say "Using an online job board, Ghayad sent 4,800 resumes to 600 job openings across the country. The end date of a fake candidate's previous job showed how long a person had been unemployed. Candidates with relevant experience who were unemployed for a short time had a callback rate of roughly 16 percent. Recently unemployed candidates with no relevant experience had a callback rate of roughly 9 percent, while candidates with good experience who had been unemployed for a long time had a callback rate of roughly 3 percent."

Another recent study, along the same lines, from HR Executive, Is There Really Discrimination Against the Unemployed? showed similar, and interesting, results. (This study also used a much larger sample than the study cited by the Huffington Post and had a decidedly different bent.) "As for the question of how unemployed status affected the likelihood of getting that positive response, surprisingly, the call-back rate was slightly higher for those who had just been laid off than for those who currently had a job." 

This study further indicates what happens after one is unemployed for more than a month. After this period of time, the probability of getting any positive response from employers falls sharply and declines further with each month, hitting a plateau after about eight months. Those people are about half as likely to get a positive response, compared to a person who was just recently laid off, for instance.

What does say about discrimination against the unemployed? It may tell us that there isn’t a red flag about being unemployed so much as a possible stigma to being unemployed for long periods of time. Simply another reason for job seekers to take some sort of job, or engage in activities to keep their skills fresh, than simply to wait for what they believe is the best job to come along.

One issue I have with these, and other earlier studies, is they really all looked at a very small sample of the literally hundreds of thousands of online job postings that appear every week. It also appears to me that they cherry picked those ads that fit their perception. Only a relative few of the ads actually stated that the currently unemployed would not be considered. Some of the ads cited included language that was designed to attract the "passive" applicant. Passive applicants are those who are currently employed, but not actively looking for a new position. For many businesses, those are often the most desirable candidates.

The important point here, I believe, is to understand why any business might shy away from considering the long-term unemployed for hire. The simplest and most direct is that the longer someone is unemployed, the larger the likelihood is that the applicant’s skills have eroded, or are not up to date. Why would you hire someone who is going to take far longer to ramp up in the position over someone who has more recent skills? Another reason is just what the HR Executive article states, that those who are still unemployed after a long period of time, may be so for a very good reason.

Of course, that’s not always the case, is it? Hiring managers and HR professionals look at all this information when considering a candidate. Has the candidate made efforts to productively fill his time while unemployed (this is just plain common sense, and critical)? Maybe taking courses (even online courses) and other activities that show an employer he’s kept up in his field. What was the reason the person became unemployed? Yes, we do take into consideration the current state of the economy and the job market. We know, better than most, that it’s tough to get a job during recessions, and it can actually be even tougher to fill many jobs during a recession. And the reason for that is that many of the unemployed do not have the skill sets we need. That may be why they were the ones to be laid off to begin with.

Many, many businesses have absolutely no issue with unemployed candidates at all. In fact, that can be an advantage simply because the business can hire someone quicker, without having to wait for the candidate to give notice to their current employer. Saving that time can be an important motivator, all else being equal. If I’m faced with two comparably qualified candidates and one can be ready to start this week, while I may have to wait up to a month for the other, chances are I’m going with the person who can start now.

According to an article by Jeffrey Lax writing for SHRM, in 2011, a significant part of President Obama’s proposed job stimulus plan involved federal legislation that would have provided broad protection from discrimination for unemployed job seekers. When the law failed in Congress, more than 15 states submitted bills to provide protection for unemployed job seekers.

Unemployment-discrimination laws have now been enacted in New Jersey, Oregon, the District of Columbia and New York City.

Concerning the New York City law, which is particularly wide-reaching and restrictive, Mr. Lax offers "Although well-intentioned, New York City’s unemployment discrimination law fails to provide enough guidance to employers and is so broadly worded and far-reaching that it may lead to even more inefficiencies in the workplace from employers who may feel unable to collect legitimate and relevant information about unemployed applicants regarding employment gaps or the circumstances regarding terminations from previous jobs. It also may prevent an employer --even in rapidly changing industries-- from hiring an applicant with more recent experience where he or she is competing with an unemployed applicant with less recent, but more overall, experience."

Wow. Way to hamstring businesses in their right to find the best person for the job. It may also open up other liabilities. If we can’t ask why someone was separated from a previous job, or even ask if they were separated, how can we perform adequate due diligence in background screenings? Are employers opening themselves (as a result of these laws) to claims of negligent hiring if we can’t find out the applicant engaged in dangerous behavior? Or just to simply find out if they have the skills to perform the job?

At Congress’ request, the EEOC held a public meeting in February 2011, which included testimony from a wide range of speakers. During the hearing employment attorney James Urban and Society for Human Resource Management representative Fernan Cepero said they were unaware of any widespread recruiting practices that involved excluding the jobless.

All in all, I think the hue and cry, and the legislative "fixes" are simply solutions looking for a problem. And, creating yet another protected class and basis for legal claims of discrimination is not the way to grow jobs and our economy. Is it not wiser to focus governmental efforts on finding ways to make it easier and more affordable for out of work job seekers to gain new and probably more marketable skills? To me, this seems a better path than making villains out of employers trying to find the best people for the job.

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