The saying “the best way to find a job is to have a job” has held up in recent years.
Look no further than the monthly jobs report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, where the number of long-term unemployed — those who have been without work for more than 27 weeks — has been a talking point in evaluating the state of the economic recovery.
The longer those people remain unemployed, the thinking goes, the grimmer their job prospects become, as recruiters and hiring managers are traditionally skittish about hiring people with flaky job history or who are perhaps not up-to-date on their skills.
That tide may be turning. In January, President Barack Obama announced that companies including Procter & Gamble Co. and Xerox Corp. had adopted hiring policies that aim to end discrimination against long-term unemployed candidates.
Another proponent of hiring the long-term unemployed is Jody Greenstone Miller, co-founder and CEO of Business Talent Group, a firm that provides client organizations with independent professionals for special projects.
Miller thinks there are hidden skills and qualities the long-term unemployed might provide, and most of the old perceptions about unemployed job candidates simply don’t apply in the current talent economy.
Talent Management spoke with Miller on the subject. Edited excerpts follow.
How do you define “unemployed?”
Someone who’s not currently in a traditional full-time job. There are more and more people — and increasingly expect more people — who at least for a portion of their career will be independent, either as independent consultants or freelancers going project to project.
Why do hiring managers develop a bias against unemployed people?
Historically, people went into a job and might stay their whole career. If you look back to the world as it used to be, people who are unemployed may have had issues that would be a red flag.
But in today’s world, where average job tenure is about four and a half years, where we’re seeing predictions that 50 to 70 percent of the labor force will have some period of time as an independent professional, where you see lots of companies having layoffs, where you’re seeing mergers and acquisitions … all of these changes in the labor market should force hiring managers to reconsider a bias that may have made sense 20 years ago.
What questions should hiring managers ask in interviews to get a better picture of an unemployed candidate’s skills without recent relevant work experience?
The first question is why someone’s been out of the workforce. There are many legitimate reasons. Family matters come up. Industries have made massive structural changes where they’ve laid off entire divisions or departments that include good people.
Second is understanding what they’ve done with their time, because there’s a whole group of people who have used their time wisely to get smarter about a new industry, to refresh contacts or just to re-energize.
What kind of people should managers find by looking at the talent pool in this broader way?
One kind of person, who we in fact hired at Business Talent Group, had been out of the job force for six years because she had a family and chose to structure her life differently. When she decided to come back to work, she wasn’t burned out from a job and she was excited about the workforce. You get a level of energy, excitement, loyalty and can take those and apply them to a core set of skills that don’t atrophy.
Some of our clients use us when they have an unsuccessful permanent job search and they can no longer wait the extra six or seven months to find this permanent person. We put up people who never show up on a recruiter list, and the client finds out they are as good if not better than the people seen in their permanent search. What that tells you is there are great people in this market who are totally overlooked, and clients are really missing great talent if they don’t go into that market.
People in the independent project-based world are typically involved in more cutting-edge areas because that’s where clients need help. They have a variety of experience, they’re people who roll up their sleeves and most of them won’t take a permanent job unless they’re really blown away by the opportunity. Not only does the client get to try out the talent, but also the talent gets to try the client.
Describe a situation where an unemployed candidate might be a better hire than an employed applicant.
Speed matters. Just by definition it takes longer to recruit somebody who is in another job.
A second situation would be if you are interested in experimenting with a new set of credentials. A lot of times when companies need to hire, they don’t always know who the right person will be. If you bring on somebody who is not currently employed, often — but not always — they’re more willing to come in and try it.
I also think it’s a good way to bring in talent that you might not be able to afford. You can bring someone in who has more firepower than you would typically have on a recruited permanent basis. The flexibility that comes with the speed and different ways to structure work when dealing with someone who doesn’t have to give up a job to join you is a huge benefit to companies.
Myths and Facts of Hiring Long-Term Unemployed
To Jody Greenstone Miller, there are many misconceptions that taint recruiters’ view of hiring unemployed candidates. She dispels three myths that contribute to the bias.
Myth: Someone out of work for six months isn’t good at his or her job.
Fact: “I have personally hired most of my senior team from the pool of people considered unemployed and therefore not worth interviewing.”
Myth: If people have a job, they’re good at what they do.
Fact: “Just because someone’s in a job doesn’t mean they’re an A-player. … The fact that someone is willing to leave their job means that there’s something in that position that isn’t fully satisfying to them, and my own experience is that when people aren’t happy in a job, it’s usually mutual. … If someone’s willing to be recruited away to come work for you, you know they’ll be a candidate to be recruited away from you.”
Myth: A candidate out of work is behind on the latest industry developments.
Fact: “Talent that is out of the workforce and able to take advantage of all kinds of educational opportunities that allow them to learn about the newest things may in fact leapfrog current employees.”