11/30/2011 04:38 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2012

If You're Not Working, We Won't Hire You

When I first heard about employers refusing to interview job-seekers because they (the job-seekers) were unemployed, I thought it was an urban myth. How could employers include a note in their job ads that unemployed people won't be considered for jobs, during the worst recession in a generation? Surely all of these employers have laid people off, themselves? But it's true. Some employers put the notice in their job ads and others use the working/not working sieve during a phone screen, before they schedule an interview.

Either way, it's evil. If you're the CEO, a hiring manager or an HR person in a company that refuses job-seekers just because they're currently not working, you have to expect to go to Hell when you die (if not to be struck with a thunderbolt every time you leave your office building).

How could you justify a policy like that? By now, everyone must know that people who get laid off aren't typically any less hard-working or smart or capable than the people who keep their jobs. I've presided over big corporate layoffs before, when I was a corporate HR chief. Here's what happens: you shut down a plant or a production line or a department, or a whole division if things are really going badly. You say "We're sorry, you guys." Everyone gets a pink slip. When that happens, you could be the best employee in the company's history. It's too bad -- you're out the door with everyone else in the "affected units."

My friend Dana was a web designer in New York. Her company had a layoff. They told her, "We looked at three criteria -- whether you're currently assigned to a project, whether you've upsold past clients on more web design work, and what kinds of ratings you've received. Dana, your ratings are the top of the charts. You've always upsold the clients, in every project you've had. But oh, look, you're not assigned to a project right now. See ya!" She was out. (She got a better job in three minutes.)

This time last year, Money magazine said that 84% of working people were trying to change jobs, hoping to bolt when job-market conditions improved. When employers callously say "If you're not working, you can't apply for a job here" they're saying to their own teams, "Go ahead and job-hunt while you're working here. After all, we'll only consider people who are currently working and job-hunting at the same time." As a career coach, I've advised people from time to time to quit their jobs, in order to focus their energies on a job search. These misguided employers who shun unemployed applicants are saying "Yes, we like people who job-hunt on the side! Whose loyalties are divided! Those are our kinds of workers!"

The worst part of this deal for me is that employers complain, "But there are so many job-seekers -- we only use the employed/not employed thing as a gate, because otherwise we'd be deluged with applications." Oh, spare me! That is on you, Mr. or Ms. HR leader, because if you're splashing your job ads on every available surface (Monster, Craigslist, etc.) you've got to expect to get creamed with applications. Good marketing is targeted. We shouldn't even have to run job ads for most of these ads, given how well user communities and other social media tools work at spreading the word about good companies with interesting opportunities.

On top of that, we can do a much better job of writing job ads that appeal to just the people who'd thrive in a given job. We need to think like marketers, when we're writing job ads and choosing channels for our messaging. The old "We have an immediate need for software testers..." is certainly not going to bring the industry's top talent rushing to your door. As my husband says, "People in Hell need ice water."