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A Fighting Chance: The Odds Against the Unemployed


by Alex Alusheff, for SIOP

Research shows employer bias may prevent the unemployed from obtaining jobs

By Alex Alusheff, for SIOP

With the unemployment rate hovering around 8%, anyone looking for a job in the current market may have slim chances. For the already unemployed, those chances may be dashed as soon as the employer’s eyes reach their resume.

Recent studies and press have shown a growing hiring bias against the unemployed by employers, who are increasingly tossing away resumes that lack recent work experience. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate as of May is 8.2% or roughly 13.4 million citizens, making the job search a daunting challenge for many. Of the total unemployed, 6.1 million, nearly 46%, have been so for 27 weeks or more, according to the bureau.

SIOP member Geoff Ho believes employers should give the unemployed a fighting chance, but his new research implies that they have an additional job search challenge—stigmatization.

“We found that in three studies, human resource professionals, and people in general, stigmatize the unemployed regardless of qualifications,” said Ho, a doctoral candidate in organizational behavior at UCLA who presented his research at the 27th Annual SIOP Conference in April.

In one of Ho’s studies, which were conducted with coauthors Professor Margaret Shih of UCLA: Daniel Walters, doctoral student at UCLA: and Professor Todd Pittinsky of Stony Brook University, 83 students read resumes of fictional job applicants and rated them. Half were given resumes of employed applicants while the other half rated identical resumes of unemployed applicants. Results showed that participants reviewing the unemployed resumes using the Likert scale rated them significantly lower than the employed in terms of perceived competence, friendliness, and hirability.

“The resumes were the exact same in qualifications,” Ho said. “They just differed in dates of employment.”

Current economic theories state that the longer someone is unemployed, the more their skills deteriorate, rationalizing the bias among employers, Ho said.

Employers look at the unemployed and automatically blame them for their status, making assumptions on their motivation or skill, not bothering to consider other possible factors out of their control, he explained.

In times of recession, like now, people tend to be more sympathetic toward the unemployed on an individual basis, Ho said. If a worker was laid off because their company went bankrupt, it is not their fault and an employer cannot make judgments on their skills. The Bureau of Labor statistics reports that as of April, out of the 13.2 million unemployed citizens, nearly 8 million were laid off.

However, with a recession comes more applications to sort through, increasing chances of the stigma, Ho said. Even if a worker was laid off, employers still can perceive it as lack of skills and competence on their part as reflected in the study. Regardless of whether an applicant was laid off or voluntarily left their job, they still paled in comparison to the employed.

Although these psychological stigmas cast a bleak outlook for the unemployed in terms of getting hired, there are some things they can do to bolster their resumes, Ho informed.

“Make sure while unemployed, you’re not just sitting around – fill in the gaps so HR sees you’ve been doing something,” Ho said.

Volunteering for nonprofit organizations and continuing education are good ways to avoid time gaps in resumes, he explained.

It’s understandable that HR professionals are under time pressures and have thousands of applications to sort through, but it isn’t fair to rule good resumes out based on time gaps, he said.
If HR is worried about skill, they should grant an interview. Ask why there was a gap, and don’t assume it’s because of lack of skills, motivation, and competence, Ho said.

By not optimizing their options, these employers are just harming themselves, missing out on the talent that is right in front of them, he said.

“The unemployed may be just as qualified as the employed,” he said. “Employers should give them a fighting chance.”

For more information on this topic contact Ho at 310-880-6754 or at Gho@anderson.ucla.edu.