Job Candidates Disqualified Because They're Unemployed?

Don Tennant

Scenario: You're an IT professional who was laid off during the darkest days of the recession and you've been unemployed for 10 months. You finally find an employer who's not only hiring, but is advertising job openings for which you are eminently qualified. You apply for one of the positions, but you're informed at the outset of the application process that you are ineligible for consideration. The reason: The employer will only consider candidates who are currently employed.

It seems almost unthinkable, but disqualifying applicants solely because they're unemployed is common enough to have compelled the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to convene a public hearing on Wednesday to investigate the practice. Particularly disturbing was the testimony of Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law project, a non-profit organization that provides education and advocacy on behalf of low-wage and unemployed workers. Here's an excerpt from that testimony:

While refusal to consider the unemployed is sometimes overtly noted in ads, at NELP we also hear regularly from unemployed workers-mostly older workers-who despite years in the labor force and significant directly relevant experience are nevertheless told they will not be referred or considered for employment, once recruiters or potential employers learn they are not currently working.

That happened to a 53-year-old woman from Illinois, who wrote us that after working successfully for 19 years as an IT help supervisor, she was laid off in 2008 due to the downturn. Many months into her job search, a headhunter contacted her, excited about her qualifications for a position he was retained to fill. The excitement faded, however, when he learned she had been unemployed for more than a year. As she put it, 'When he realized this, he was very apologetic, but had to admit to me that he would not be able to present me for an interview due to the ´┐Żover 6 month unemployed' policy that his client adhered to.' The headhunter, she told NELP, explained that his client expressly prohibited him from referring workers who had been unemployed for six months or more. When we last spoke to her, she was still unemployed, had exhausted all unemployment benefits, was restructuring her mortgage, and had applied for SNAP (food stamps) and welfare-a first for her.

Finally, there's a 55-year-old woman from California who wrote to tell us about receiving a call from a recruiter for a six-month contract position as a software systems engineer. The recruiter thought she was a good fit for the job but upon learning of her unemployment, told her she could not submit her resume because she had not worked in the past six months.

Still, how widespread the practice is remains unclear. Fernan Cepero, vice president of human resources at the YMCA of Greater Rochester, N.Y., testified in his capacity as a representative of the Society for Human Resource Management. His conclusion:

SHRM is unaware of a widespread practice or trend to exclude unemployed individuals from consideration for available jobs. Employers, in SHRM's experience, whether operating in the currently challenging economy or in more robust times, are focused on finding the right people for the job, regardless of whether or not they are currently employed.

Moreover, James Urban, an employment attorney and partner at Pittsburgh law firm Jones Day, suggested in his testimony that the practice is unlikely to be widespread because it would be self-defeating for employers:

My overall point is that there exists great motivation for the employer to identify the best candidate in the first instance. If the employer fails to do so, and the new hire does not work out, the employer will be starting over from scratch, and all that time and money spent the first time around was wasted. The common practice is to try to identify and hire the best candidate. In some circumstances, the best candidate may be currently employed. In others, the best candidate may be between jobs. Are periods when an applicant has been unemployed scrutinized? They most certainly are, but not with any intention of discriminating against any one person or any group of people.

In any case, I would very much like to hear from any readers who have experienced this practice, or know others who have experienced it. To whatever degree it's happening, it needs to be brought out into the open.

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