Ask Annie

Will being unemployed wreck your job hunt?

February 24, 2011: 11:40 AM ET

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is investigating whether employers routinely screen out jobless applicants. While some might, here are a few ways to get around that.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

Dear Annie: Do most employers these days automatically reject job candidates who aren't already working? I hope not because, if so, I'm sunk. I've been out of work since being laid off a year ago. Recently I applied for a job I thought I'd be perfect for, at a company where two friends of mine have been working for a while. One of them told me in confidence that the reason my application was tossed in the circular file is that the company has a policy of considering only applicants who are currently employed. Please tell me this isn't a widespread practice. If it is, what can I do about it? —Out in the Cold

Dear O.C.: As you may already know, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held a hearing last week on this very subject. Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said NELP sees "a disturbing and growing trend among employers and staffing firms to refuse to even consider the unemployed for available job openings, regardless of their qualifications."

As examples, Owens mentioned a global phone manufacturer whose announcement of a marketing position stated that "no unemployed candidates will be considered"; a Texas electronics company whose online job posting said it would "not consider/review anyone who is not currently employed regardless of the reason" (ouch); and an ad for restaurant managers in New Jersey that said all applicants "must be currently employed."

Moreover, Owens noted, even when companies' help-wanted ads don't specify "employed applicants only," hiring managers can simply rule out jobless candidates without telling them why.

Anecdotal evidence aside, no one knows for sure how widespread anti-jobless bias really is. According to Fernan R. Ceparo, who testified at the hearing on behalf of the 250,000-member Society for Human Resource Management, "Employers are focused on finding the right people for the job, regardless of whether they are currently employed."

Ceparo added that, in SHRM's view, "screening out the unemployed is not an effective practice." It also, obviously, could contribute to continued sky-high unemployment rates, slowing the currently sluggish economic recovery even further.

The eventual outcome of the EEOC's investigation is a big question mark and, incidentally, it isn't clear what the agency can legally do about the problem even if they could prove it's endemic. Meanwhile, you need to concentrate on practical strategies.

It may help to keep in mind, first, that every job hunter faces some tough hurdles. "I've never seen a job search with no obstacles," says Jean Baur, a senior consultant at global outplacement firm Lee Hecht Harrison. "Everyone has something to overcome, whether it's that they made too much money in their last job, never graduated from college, or fill in the blank. The essential thing is not to get hung up on it. Focus on what you have to offer, not on what's 'wrong' with your resume."

Baur, who is the author of a smart, down-to-earth new book, Eliminated! Now What?: Finding Your Way from Job-Loss Crisis to Career Resilience, suggests three steps you can take right now to overcome the stigma (assuming there is one) of being out of work:

1. Look for contracting or consulting work. Depending on what field you're in, you may be able to find short-term projects that will help you keep your skills sharp, while also introducing you to new people. "Companies are running so lean now that they are relying more and more on outside contractors," Baur says. "Taking on a consulting or project role, even part-time, keeps you working." Then, on your resume, you can truthfully describe what you're currently doing: "No one needs to know right up front that you aren't technically an employee."

2. Get active in volunteer work. "Everyone knows this is a really good idea, but very few people actually do it," Baur observes. That's unfortunate, because helping out a nonprofit can yield unexpected dividends. Baur had one outplacement client who had been laid off from a marketing job at a big company and started volunteering at the American Cancer Society one day a week. "She did a great marketing campaign for them," says Baur. "She also made some terrific contacts, which led directly to her next 'real' job."

3. Build your reputation on LinkedIn. Answering questions in your areas of expertise, joining discussion groups, and asking contacts from your contract or volunteer work to write recommendations for your profile are all good ways to raise your visibility in your field, Baur notes. Likewise, the more active and involved you can get in professional and trade associations, the better.

"The point is to get to know people outside a formal job application or interview process," she says. "A person you meet informally who is looking to hire someone with your skills and qualifications, and who is impressed with you, will often want to bring you on board" -- even if they do happen to work for a company with a policy of hiring the already employed.

Talkback: Does your company prefer to hire people who currentlyhave jobs? Have you recently found a job despite having been out of work for a while? If so, what worked for you? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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