What to Consider When Hiring Unemployed Workers

If you’re evaluating candidates with employment gaps, here’s what you can do to understand their work history and situation.

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Close up interviewer interview candidate apply for job at meeting room in office.

Investing in hiring, training, and retaining an employee is a major expense for any company, especially small businesses that often rely on a small but mighty team to get them off the ground.

Because work experience is just as vast and varied as people themselves, you’ll see all kinds of things on resumes including the hair-raising, ever dreaded employment gap — especially one that’s happening right now.

While anything out of what’s traditionally considered to be ordinary can quickly seem like a risk not worth taking, here’s a measured way to consider an applicant’s employment gap. Certainly a gap could be a warning sign that you should pay attention to, but it could also be a paper tiger that is keeping the talent you need from making it through your hiring process.

Believe it or not, there are benefits to hiring unemployed people

As Deloitte’s Guide to Recruiting and Hiring the Long-Term Unemployed notes, the unemployed applicant pool is full of opportunities. “The long-term unemployed can bring real value to your company — they are a qualified and motivated talent pool that you may be inadvertently overlooking,” the guide reads. What’s more, they explain that “you can reduce sourcing costs by utilizing government and non-profit organizations that work with the long-term unemployed to find capable, pre-screened candidates.”

Beyond easily expanding your applicant pool, hiring unemployed people can help companies meet corporate social responsibility goals like investing in local communities and increasing the diversity of your hires — and ultimately your workforce.

Check your bias

Many people have long assumed that a gap in employment means that an applicant is unreliable, unstable, and potentially hard to retain. The thing is, though, those assumptions are exactly that — assumptions.

Further, those assumptions are more prevalent here in the United States than other places. In countries like Australia, nations across Europe, and particularly in Israel after young adults finish their required army service, taking time off of work to travel and otherwise live life in the form of a gap year is not only accepted, it’s practically expected.

“Taking a gap year after high school is becoming an increasingly popular decision among graduates and more universities are supporting students who choose to do so,” explains Mikael Mulugeta in Best Colleges. “Some proponents have even argued that gap years, or a year of national service, should be mandatory.” The idea behind a gap year is that it helps young people have and learn from actual life experiences rather than just move straight through academia right into employment with little opportunity to question or consider who they are or what they want.

Evaluate the context

As gap years illustrate, considering the context of each individual application is important in general, but especially so when evaluating an employment gap on a resume. Imagine an international applicant from Germany applying to a U.S. company that’s unfamiliar with the increasingly common practice of gap years. An employer might take them out of consideration because of a lack of familiarity with traditions in other countries.

That’s why it’s essential to consider the unique context of each employment gap. Perhaps someone had a sick parent to tend to. Or, maybe they were dealing with health issues themselves that they don’t feel comfortable disclosing in a cover letter. Maybe they’re a parent who chose to stay at home for a while. There could be a myriad of reasons why someone has taken time off from traditional employment, including economic downturns. Many people find themselves unemployed thanks to no fault of their own such as the wave of layoffs that followed the pandemic.

The takeaway here is to not just zero in on the fact that someone is currently unemployed, but to consider the entire applicant picture. Plus, at this point you’re not offering them a job, just an interview and an opportunity for them to explain their situation.

Ask the applicant

Which brings us to the final point — when in doubt (or even just as a general rule of thumb in the name of fairness), give the applicant an opportunity in an interview or otherwise to explain why they had a gap in employment either in the past or currently.

As mentioned above, be sensitive to the fact that the employment gap could tie to an emotional or otherwise triggering event. While you should give them the opportunity to explain themselves, avoid pushing for answers that an applicant doesn’t want to give.

Finally, remember that an employment gap is just one — often small — portion of someone’s work history. Of course, you’ll naturally be curious as to why someone has gone a length of time without employment, but don’t forget to treat an applicant or interviewee with a gap in their employment history like any other candidate.

You’ll want to evaluate them for skills, work experience, life experience, and the like — just as you would for anyone else. It is more than entirely possible that what they have to offer will outshine any perceived setback that comes with a current lack of employment.

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