Out of work? Out of luck

April 19, 2011
People unconsciously look at unemployed job applicants as less competent and less hireable than applicants trying to move from one job to another
UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment

People unconsciously look at unemployed job applicants as less competent and less hireable than applicants trying to move from one job to another.

So say researchers from UCLA and the State University of New York – Stony Brook. They also found that the terms of the departure didn’t matter: people who voluntarily left positions faced the same attitude as those who had been laid off or terminated.

In one regard, the results aren’t anything new. Economists long ago determined that the longer individuals remain unemployed, the lower their chances of finding work. But they attributed this situation to concerns over the unemployed worker’s skills set or a lack of persistence in looking for work.

Researchers concluded this reasoning wasn’t true when they recruited a random cross section of Americans over the Internet who then appraised fictitious job candidates. The researchers found that even when study participants were evaluating the same evidence about a job applicant, the unemployed applicant was judged more harshly than the employed applicant.

In one study, researchers presented a fictitious resume to participants, then told half of them the resume belonged to an employed person. The other half were told it belonged to a person out of work. Participants then had to rank the worker on qualities that have been shown by psychological research to be paramount in forming a desirable impression of an individual.

Participants generally perceived the “unemployed” resume as describing somebody who was less competent, warm, and proactive than the “employed” resume. And participants were less willing to interview or hire the individual who was out of work.

The same results emerged when participants watched a short video of a job interview. Participants who thought the job candidate was employed perceived the interview to be more impressive than participants who thought the job candidate was unemployed.

Providing different reasons for unemployment did not alleviate the stigma. It made no difference whether the job applicant was unemployed voluntarily or was terminated or laid off. Only when the job loss was in no way attributable to the individual — such as bankruptcy on the part of the employer — did the disadvantage of being unemployed disappear.

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