While looking for a new job, out-of-work Americans (rather than still-employed job seekers) encounter discrimination completely unrelated to their abilities or the reasons for departure from their previous jobs, according to researchers from UCLA and the State University of New York-Stony Brook.

“We were surprised to find that, all things being equal, unemployed applicants were viewed as less competent, warm and hire-able than employed individuals,” said lead researcher Geoffrey Ho, a doctoral student in human resources and organizational behavior at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

“We were also surprised to see how little the terms of departure mattered. Job candidates who said they voluntarily left a position faced the same stigma as job candidates who said they had been laid off or terminated.”

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine the psychological stigma of unemployment,” said Dr. Margaret Shih, a co-author on the study with Ho and an associate professor of human resources and organizational behavior at UCLA Anderson.

“We found that individuals tend to make negative associations with those who are unemployed, which often leads to unfair discrimination.”

Prejudice against the unemployed is a well-known phenomenon, said the study authors, who also include Todd L. Pittinsky, an associate professor of technology and society at Stony Brook University in New York, and Daniel Walters, a UCLA Anderson M.B.A. student.

In fact, economists have found that the longer individuals stay unemployed, the worse their chances of finding a job. Until now, however, this has been attributed to real concerns over his or her skills set or a lack of diligence in seeking a job.

“Economists have tended to chalk up long-term unemployment to the probability of skill decay or discouragement, or employers’ perceptions of skill decay,” Shih said.

“But we’re finding that when there’s no evidence that skills have deteriorated, out-of-work job applicants are still at a disadvantage. The stigma may help explain why the unemployed may have systematically lower chances of reconnecting to work.”

For a series of studies, a random cross-section of Americans were recruited over the Internet and asked to evaluate fictitious job candidates. It was discovered that the unemployed applicant was at a disadvantage when compared with an employed applicant regardless of their similarities.

In one study, participants were presented with the same fictitious resume. Researchers told half of the volunteers that the resume belonged to an employed person and the other half that it belonged to a person who was out of work. Participants were then asked to rank the worker on certain qualities that have been shown by psychological research to be very important in projecting a desirable impression.

Although all volunteers reviewed the same exact resume, they perceived the “unemployed” resume as belonging to somebody who was less competent, warm and proactive than the “employed” resume. Furthermore, participants said that they would be less willing to interview or hire the unemployed person than the employed individual.

Ho and Shih got the same results when they presented participants with a short video of a job interview, which offered a broader well of information regarding the supposed job candidate. Still, participants who believed the job candidate to be employed perceived the interview as more impressive than participants who thought the interviewee was unemployed.

Furthermore, the bias persisted even when participants were given reasons for the unemployment.  For example, it made no difference whether the job applicant was unemployed because he left voluntarily or was laid off or terminated.

Unemployment stigma relaxed only when the job loss was in no way attributable to the individual — such as bankruptcy on the part of the employer.

Source:  University of California