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Corporate Provocateur

Not Working? Sorry, Not Interested

It started with my friend Dina, a search pro who told me about an e-mail she’d received from a client. “Your candidate is qualified for our opportunity,” said the message, “but our company does not consider candidates with gaps.”

Dina’s candidate had a two-year gap in her résumé. She’d taken time out of the paid workforce to stay home with her baby. That little fact was all Dina’s client organization needed to hear. The “gappy” candidate was out of the running.

I started to hear about organizations summarily rejecting unemployed job seekers about a year ago, and at that time I said, “No way. That can’t be true. It’s an urban myth.” An organizational policy to bar nonworking job seekers seemed so Scrooge-like, so patently mean and callous, that no employer would possibly own up to it. I tried to conjure up an image of the marketing vice-president who would say to his colleague, the human resources vice-president, “Sure, we’re trying to endear ourselves to consumers and business customers, and we spend millions of dollars on those branding efforts, but you go right ahead—alienate 10 percent of the working population by calling them unfit for employment with us. That’s fine. That shouldn’t hurt our sales a bit. It’s not like every family in the country has been affected by the economic downturn. I’m sure we have plenty of customers and prospects who wouldn’t bat an eye if they knew we lump all nonworking job seekers into the file called ‘Scum.’”

The “Not working? Get lost” screening policy is shocking, but it’s no myth. I’ve been hearing about examples of it for more than a year, from recruiters, job seekers, and even hiring managers. I’ve seen the job ads that specify “No unemployed applicants need apply.” It’s mind-meltingly brutal and brainless, but true. “Yeah, there are so many people on the market right now that you can just decline anyone who’s not working,” is the way I’ve heard the practice rationalized.


I marvel. When you put a policy like that in place during the worst recession in a generation, at a time when the vast majority of employers have laid off people, you have to expect to be hit with a punitive thunderbolt from heaven at any moment. It is hard for me to believe that a leadership team could sit around a table and conclude that it’s moral or ethical to reject a job candidate because that person isn’t working. Wouldn’t you have to plan on spending eternity in Hades for being so hard-hearted and random in your selection processes?

Consider: Joblessness has long since stopped being a sign (if it ever was one) that a person isn’t smart or hard-working or qualified. I’ve presided over corporate layoffs before, and performance is very often the last factor considered in the slash-and-burn process. Let’s face it, companies under the gun financially, making moderate to drastic cuts in payroll, aren’t spending a lot of time finely tuning their RIF (reduction in force) selection systems. Sometimes they shut down a plant, or a region, or a division in one fell swoop, and that’s that. Great people go out the door with so-so people. Job performance has nothing to do with it.

In other organizations, the most creative and able thinkers are the first to go in any downturn. My friend Todd Hudson, of the college-to-work consulting firm OnBoard Yourself, calls these types “internal predators.” Although the name sounds rather pejorative, it’s actually meant as a compliment. Internal predators benefit their employers.


“These are the people who call your company’s decisions and processes into question and always look at how things could work better,” says Todd. “It’s hard for some employers to keep these internal predators around, because they question the status quo, and that can be uncomfortable. Your internal predators may pick off your favorite projects and ask hard questions. But we need internal predators. It’s better for them to kill weak projects and products than for your competitors to eat your lunch.”

Sometimes these internal predators, well-versed in your business and confident enough to speak up even when their input may be provocative or controversial, are the first to leave an organization against their will. When we say, “If you’re not working, we don’t want to know you,” we cut ourselves off from ever talking to people like this—a shame for us, and for our customers.

Rejecting unemployed job candidates out of hand is really stupid business, on top of being shockingly rude and unprofessional. When we say, “We don’t hire unemployed people, period,” we’re sending a loud signal to the talent population, our employees, our customers, and our vendors that we don’t have a clue how to manage people. It’s pretty easy to separate the wheat from the chaff in a selection pipeline. No one has yet won a Nobel Prize for innovation in recruiting, because it’s just not that complicated a topic. We can devise very simple, logical gates (asking an editorial job seeker to comment on the last issue of your newsletter, for instance, or having a marketing job applicant suggest ideas for building buzz around your product launch, right in the first-screen application process) to weed out unsuitable applicants and keep great ones warm and willing to talk with us.


The bureaucratic and talent-repelling processes that most large and midsize employers use to sort and sift (and ignore and not communicate with) job seekers do a good enough job on their own of keeping talent out of our companies. We don’t need to exacerbate the problem with blanket policies against employing smart (but unemployed), creative (but unemployed), and accomplished (but, oh heck, now that I notice it, not currently attached to an employer) applicants. We have enough problems finding and keeping talent as it is. Could any conscious management team knowingly drive the best people in the job market away from their doors so mindlessly? Yup. They could. They do.

Consider any disaffected person sitting at his desk right now, hating his job and his manager and the company logo colors and everything about the vile place he calls work. This person hates the business he works for, but he’s biding time. He hasn’t been laid off, so he looks great to your HR screeners when his résumé sails over your transom. Do we seriously imagine there’s a huge qualitative gulf between people who are working now and people who aren’t, in an age when some surveys peg 70 percent of working people as ready to bolt when job-market conditions improve? Could we have that figure in mind and still delude ourselves into thinking employed people make better employees than unemployed people, as a whole?

We can be smarter than that. The average third-grader is smarter than that. We can ponder the question for two seconds and realize that using employment status as a hiring screen makes as much sense as using the Coke vs. Pepsi test to find job applicants. If we’re splitting job hunters into random groups for no reason at all or for our own amusement and allowing access to our hiring pipeline on whimsical grounds, we’ve lost forever the right to complain about any bad karma that comes our way.

Legislation is in the works to shut down employers’ ability to discriminate against job applicants on the basis of their employment status. Good news, certainly, but it is outrageous that a law should be required to keep employers from discriminating against people just because they took time off to have a baby or got laid off from a job or quit to take care of a family member or had the temerity to launch an entrepreneurial business and leave the W-2 workforce. I can’t think of any more hateful a message for a CEO to send the “talent community” than, “Oh, you’re not working right now? Drop dead.”

It would be great for big investors to ask leadership teams about their HR practices as they decide where to invest. With 10 percent of the working population unemployed, wouldn’t it be nice to know where employers stand on the question of who’s eligible to be interviewed? A fund manager should worry about the management savvy of any organization too dim or heartless to see that amazing people come in all shapes, sizes, and packages—and that plenty of them aren’t working at any given moment.

Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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