• People believe in unemployment bias: 77% of job seekers and 83% of employers agree that it’s easier to get a job when you have a job.
  • Among people in hiring roles, 70% believe unemployment can mean a candidate will be less productive if hired.
  • Hiring decision makers say candidates should address job gaps, but don’t go overboard: 74% suggest explaining current unemployment briefly.

We’ve all heard the saying, “It’s easier to get a job when you have a job,” but is it true? While employers are attuned to the dangers of unconscious bias due to other factors, such as gender or race, the role of past and present employment gaps is discussed far less. 

Yet unemployment can strike at any time through outside circumstances that are completely unrelated to a worker’s job performance. We saw this firsthand during the COVID-19 lockdown in the spring of 2020, when furloughs, layoffs and a sudden lack of child care for some workers pushed unemployment in the U.S. to an all-time high. But what might past or current unemployment mean for job seekers in general? 

To better understand unemployment bias, Indeed surveyed 500 job seekers and 559 employers, drawing from diverse sectors across the U.S. We looked at what job seekers have experienced firsthand and how they address employment gaps, as well as what employers think about candidates who have been unemployed. Read on to discover what this means for hiring today and how employers can help reduce the biases facing unemployed job seekers.

Most job seekers and employers say it’s easier to get a job when you have one

First things first: A stunning 77% of job seekers and 83% of employers agree that it’s easier to get a job when you have a job. Nonetheless, unemployment is an incredibly widespread experience. Most of us have been, or will be, unemployed at some point. Among job seekers surveyed, a mere 12% say they have never been unemployed since starting their careers, while 20% were unemployed at the time of the survey itself.

77% of job seekers and 83% of employers agree that it’s easier to get a job when you have a job.

Unemployment comes in many shapes and sizes. Among job seekers who’ve been unemployed, their periods without work ranged from less than a month (15%) to 1-3 months (26%), 4-6 months (20%), 6-12 months (15%) and over a year (13%). For those currently unemployed, 54% lost their jobs in COVID-19 layoffs, while another 15% opted to leave due to general pandemic concerns; half have been out of the workforce for 12 months or more, which can take both a personal and financial toll (see the Indeed Hiring Lab’s report on long-term unemployment for more details). 

Unemployment leaves a mark on employers, too. In fact, 75% of the people in hiring roles we surveyed have been out of work at some point in their career, and our findings show that this makes them more sympathetic to job seekers in the same boat. While 56% of hiring professionals who’ve never been unemployed have a negative view of candidates with employment gaps, the figure drops to 36% for employers who have. Overall, 71% of people in hiring roles who have experienced unemployment say this makes them more empathetic with job seekers.

Employers think gaps can make candidates less prepared, productive

It’s clear that most employers and job seekers believe unemployment affects candidates, but not all work gaps are created equal.

70% of employers believe unemployment might mean a candidate will be less productive if hired.

While only 5% of job seekers think being unemployed for less than a month negatively impacts their chances of being considered, after the four-week mark things change considerably. When asked what length of a gap can turn the tide against them, most job seekers say 4-6 months (24%), followed by 6-12 months (20%), 1-4 months (19%) and one year or more (14%). Only 2% think unemployment has no impact on whether a job seeker will be considered for a role. 

How does this compare with employer perspectives? The largest percentage of people in hiring roles (29%) say unemployment negatively impacts a candidate’s chances after 4-6 months, followed by 6-12 months (25%), one year (18%) and 1-4 months (16%). A scant 3% say problems emerge for candidates who are out of work for less than one month, while 9% don’t believe unemployment gaps are an issue at all.

While 41% of employers say employment gaps negatively impact candidates, many more believe that unemployment can signify red flags about a person — suggesting unconscious bias may come into play.

First, let’s consider what job seekers think unemployment might convey to employers: 64% of job seekers think unemployment can suggest their skills are out of date, making this the top concern among workers. In addition, 63% believe they might look less accomplished than their employed peers, while the same number believe employers might think they would need more training or support if hired. 

Attitudes among hiring decision makers echo some of these concerns. Leading the list, 77% say that employment gaps can signal a candidate will require more training or support on the job; 74% believe it could mean their skills aren’t as current; and 72% worry that unemployment might make it harder for candidates to provide strong references. Perhaps the strongest indicator of bias, we find that 70% believe unemployment might mean a candidate will be less productive if hired. 

Overall, many employers worry that job seekers with employment gaps are less prepared to hit the ground running. 

How to talk about unemployment

It’s one thing to suspect that unemployment can impact a job search but another to know what to do about it.

48% of employers suggest job candidates proactively bring up their unemployment.

We asked job seekers how they approached resume gaps during their last successful job searches. The largest share (38%) recall discussing their unemployment proactively, while 37% talked about it only when prompted. Meanwhile, 15% did not address the subject because they simply weren’t asked. 

This fits generally with what employers say candidates should do. For out-of-work job seekers, 48% of respondents in hiring roles suggest proactively bringing up their unemployment; 27% say to do so only when asked; and 14% don’t believe candidates should feel obligated to address unemployment at all. Curiously, 12% of employers are unsure about the best path.

When it comes to how much to divulge, less is often more. Employers recommend explaining current unemployment briefly (74%) rather than going into detail (26%). Meanwhile, 77% of job seekers feel confident in their ability to explain their unemployment history, while over half (51%) are worried about the general stigma attached to being out of work. 

So how can job seekers improve their chances of being considered despite current or past unemployment? Employers suggest providing documentation of relevant skills (47%); offering references (45%); and giving clear explanations of employment gaps (44%) as the top three ways to offset any negative impact. 

Employers can fight bias by building awareness, empathy around unemployment

To create a positive candidate experience, employers can put themselves in the applicant’s shoes.

79% of job seekers wish employers were more sympathetic to the challenges of finding work while out of work.

Seventy-nine percent of job seekers wish employers were more sympathetic to the challenges of finding work while out of work. What’s more, 78% of job seekers wish they weren’t judged so harshly for gaps on their resumes — and 76% of employers agree. So how can employers push back against unemployment bias?

As a first step, they can acknowledge this problem and raise awareness about it: 69% of those in hiring roles agree that unemployment bias is comparable to other forms of bias, and 82% agree that raising awareness about unemployment bias can help reduce it. This can start internally: 76% say it’s an organization’s responsibility to raise awareness among people in hiring roles, and 77% say their own employers should start now. 

Awareness and empathy are a powerful combination. Rather than judging unemployed candidates negatively, such an approach will help employers see the unique challenges facing these job seekers. Anyone can become unemployed, as we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, and preconceived notions about employment gaps can derail potentially great hires. 

Unemployment bias is real, but that doesn’t make it right

Although other types of bias in hiring are widely known, the challenges facing unemployed job seekers deserve a closer look. This is especially important in the wake of COVID-19, which gave rise to the highest unemployment on record. More than ever, job seekers who’ve experienced unemployment need empathy and understanding — and employers need to recognize the biases facing these candidates.

Our data show that the vast majority of job seekers and employers believe that it’s easier to get a job when employed. Employment gaps can send the unfortunate signal that an applicant is less prepared, qualified or current than their peers. However, job seekers can counter these negative assumptions by providing documentation of their skills and strong references, as well as by discussing their unemployment proactively (but without too much detail).

At the end of the day, both employers and job seekers lament the stigma attached to unemployment, so why take action? No one is immune from unemployment, and it’s time to get more people back to work.


Methodology:

In April 2021, Indeed surveyed 559 people in hiring roles (“employers”), as well as 509 job seekers, from diverse sectors across the U.S.