A new research paper suggests potential employers think less of unemployed job candidates no matter how briefly they've been out of work. And it doesn't matter whether workers quit voluntarily or were laid off through no fault of their own.
"Although it has long been theorized that the simple fact of being unemployed carries a stigma, the idea has never really been tested outside some studies by economists who have focused on the duration issue," said Geoffrey C. Ho, a doctoral candidate at the UCLA Anderson School of Management who co-authored the article.
"We found bias against the jobless, among human-resource professionals as well as among the broader public, virtually from the outset of unemployment," Ho said.
More than 5 million Americans have been unemployed for six months or longer.
In one study, Ho and his team asked 47 experienced HR professionals to review resumes that were identical except for one detail: Half said the candidate was currently employed, and half said the person had been out of work for a month. The "currently employed" candidate received better marks for competence and hireability.
In another experiment, researchers asked a group of students to review identical resumes from "employed" and "unemployed" job candidates, with the latter group divided between people who'd left their jobs voluntary and people who'd been let go. The "laid off" crowd fared no better than the quitters.
"Those two words by themselves don't elicit any more sympathy than 'left voluntarily,'" Ho said.
He noted that a third experiment found that job candidates whose previous employer went under received more sympathy. "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," Ho said.
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Ho conducted the research with Margaret Shih and Daniel J. Walters of UCLA Anderson and Todd Lowell Pittinsky of Stony Brook University. Their article, titled "The Psychological Stigma of Unemployment: When Joblessness leads to Being Jobless," will be published among thousands of other papers at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management on Aug. 5.
Lawmakers in several states proposed prohibiting employers from discriminating against unemployed candidates in 2010, in response to news stories about job listings that specified candidates "must be currently employed." President Barack Obama proposed banning such discrimination in 2011.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the stigma of unemployment has boosted the national jobless rate by a quarter of a percentage point.
To illustrate "a psychological stigma against the unemployed," the new research paper's epigraph is a line from a piece Ben Stein wrote for the conservative American Spectator in 2010: "The people who have been laid off and cannot find work are generally people with poor work habits and poor personalities."