Skip to main content

Jupiterimages/Getty Images

The moment you're out of the rat race, potential employers start seeing caution flags, a new study has found.

"Previous research has shown that the longer you are unemployed, the worse your chances of getting hired in a new role. We found a bias by potential employers starts the instant you leave a job," said Geoffrey Ho, a Canadian who is lead author of the study and a doctoral student at the University of California Los Angeles.

The researchers asked human resources managers to review fictitious résumés that described candidates for a marketing manager position. All had comparable training, skills and work experience and the only real difference was that half of the résumés identified the candidates as currently employed while the other half indicated they had left a job a month earlier.

In an initial experiment, 47 human resources people with experience in hiring consistently scored the recently unemployed candidates lower – an average of 9 per cent lower on competence and three-quarters of a point lower on a seven-point scale in their hireability – than those who were working.

In a follow-up experiment, similar résumés were used but explanations for the job loss were added. The researchers were surprised that the scores for competence and hireability were not significantly different for the half of the unemployed described as "left voluntarily" and the other half described as "laid off."

"Simply saying you were laid off doesn't lessen the stigma. Those two words by themselves don't elicit any more sympathy than 'left voluntarily,'" Mr. Ho said.

In a final study, the investigators probed the blame issue further. Research subjects were shown a series of video excerpts of applicant's job interviews. Of the jobless half, some had an explanation that they left voluntarily and others that their employer went out of business.

This time, with the applicant's unemployment clearly the fault of the employer, the involuntarily laid-off group suffered no stigma. They were rated as highly as employed applicants for competence and hireability than unemployed candidates who left voluntarily.

"What does allay people's bias is some explicit indication that losing your job was not your fault – for example, that the company went bankrupt or suffered some specific setbacks that made layoffs inevitable," said Mr. Ho, whose team presented the paper at this week's annual meeting of the Academy of Management in Boston. The research was done with Prof. Margaret Shih and doctoral student Daniel J. Walters of UCLA's Anderson School of Management and Todd Lowell Pittinsky, an associate professor at Stony Brook University in New York.

The study points to the need for recruiters to adjust their assumptions, because they may be missing out on good prospects because of their bias, said Mr. Ho, a former HR professional himself.

"Granted, if recruiters have to process a large volume of résumés, it may be natural for them to seek shortcuts. But at a time of high unemployment, employers would do well to reflect on whether the bias we have identified in this paper may be compromising their efforts to recruit the best people."

For job seekers, there are strategies to head off potential bias, said Lou Clements, managing director of career transition consulting firm Clements United Inc. in Toronto.

"The 'reason I left' story is extremely important. The study suggests that you should spell out specific reasons based on the marketplace about why you left," he said. These might include: There was a restructuring, the company was closed, the executive in my role at the acquiring company kept his or her role and I was out, or that a new president came in and wanted a new team in place.

A limitation of the study is that very few executives get their jobs by just sending in a résumé, Mr. Clements noted. "With any luck, you're dealing with a recruiter or being introduced through someone in your network."

In fact, just 7 per cent of 46,000 new hires in Canada and the United States this year got their job offer by directly approaching an employer with a résumé, according to a new survey by staffing service Right Management. Networking led 46 per cent to their jobs, and agencies or recruiters led 14 per cent to new jobs. The rest applied for jobs that had been posted online or in newspapers.

In terms of dealing with the bias that may be out there, "nothing beats visibility," he said. "Getting in front of someone and being able to show that you're capable and intelligent and have experiences that could help them solve their problems should overcome any underlying cautions they may have about your unemployment."