Should You Hire the Long-Term Unemployed?

It’s no secret that a company would rather hire someone who’s already working. If a person is out of a job, there must be something wrong with them, right?

That may have been somewhat true in boom times, but not today. According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Labor, 14 million Americans are now unemployed, and more than 6 million of them have been jobless for more than six months.

Still, managers have some serious reservations about people who have been out of work for a while, including the following beliefs:

  • They were laid off because they were less valuable employees.
  • They will have trouble readjusting to the daily grind.
  • Overqualified employees will be harder to manage.
  • Their skills will be rusty or outdated.
  • They’ll be discontented if their pay or prestige is less than before.

In addition, many business owners, faced with a flood of résumés like never before (there are four unemployed people for every job opening, according to the Department of Labor), use employment status as a quick and easy way to narrow the applicant pool. Many job listings actually specify that applicants must be currently employed.

This practice may soon be illegal. The Fair Employment Opportunity Act of 2011, making its way through House committees, prohibits employers and employment agencies from refusing to consider job applicants solely because they are unemployed.

But legal or not, arbitrarily tossing out résumés doesn’t make good business sense these days.

Hidden Gems

While some of the jobless may have been let go due to subpar performance, you’ll find many hidden gems among them, says Mark DeVerges, a recruiter for Kimmel & Associates, an executive search firm specializing in the construction industry.

In a recent search for an executive to manage the construction of an office tower, the winning candidate beat seven others, even though he had been out of work for almost three years. In fact, the company was so wowed by the new hire that it created a new position with more authority for him. “In the end, my client hired this person because he had the most extensive high-rise construction experience under his belt,” DeVerges says.

However, Kimmel did conduct extra research to allay the client’s fears that the candidate’s long-term unemployment wasn’t due to bad performance. “Rather than a standard round of three or four official reference checks per candidate, we conducted eight, including with individuals he knew during his period of unemployment. We had been highly referred to the candidate, so we were on comfortable footing from the beginning, but it was necessary that we overcame the unemployment objection,” says DeVerges.

Happy for a Change

Refugees from the corporate world may actually welcome the opportunity to downsize their responsibilities. One way you can tell whether a candidate is desperate for a paycheck or is truly interested in your company is to look at what they did during their downtime.

“Have they just been sitting on their butt, or have they been volunteering or getting some certifications? If they have an interesting story to tell about what they’ve been doing, all the better,” says Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs, a 16-employee company that helps people find jobs with scheduling or location flexibility.

Last year, Fell hired a former finance executive who had been laid off in 2009 and was unemployed for over a year. The woman and her husband had embraced the change and moved their family to a foreign country.

“They made it into an adventure for their family and a life experience,” says Fell. “I came to realize that this job fit with the new perspective she had embraced during her year-plus out of work.”

Shiny and Flexible

Excellent candidates will have made good use of their time out of the labor pool. You can expect these workers to meet challenges and setbacks on the job the same way they’ve handled unemployment.

“Being unemployed can be a very full-time job,” DeVerges notes. In addition to relentless interviewing and networking, the best candidates will have engaged in consulting or volunteer work that draws on their skills and expertise, he says.

Employers who have hired the long-term unemployed also say that these job candidates often make the best workers because they are so happy to have a job and so unwilling to lose another one.

Sonia Graham, owner of Your Place Pizza Sports Bar in Hemet, California, took a chance on a woman who walked in the door while she was scrubbing down the restaurant.

“She didn’t have a résumé and was walking around town looking for a job. I knew that we would have our choice of people to hire,” Graham recalls. But something about the woman struck her, so she hired her on the spot, handed her a T-shirt, and put her to work.

“She’s been a great worker,” Graham says. “She can’t sit still without working and has been doing a fantastic job.”

The bottom line: Hire the best person for the job. Even in a crazy-bad economic environment, that piece of managerial wisdom remains the same.