SI Review: October 2010

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Recruiting Laid Off Candidates, Si Review October 2010

Take Your Pick -- 10 Tips For Finding Excellent Candidates Among The Unemployed
Conventional wisdom says that if a job candidate is unemployed, there is probably a good reason -- and your staffing firm shouldn't be trying to place that candidate.

But the current recession, with the highest unemployment rates seen in decades, has made the situation less clear.

"Right now, in this current economy, there are some excellent candidates" who are unemployed, said Barbara J. Bruno, CEO of Good as Gold Training, who trains recruiters and runs her own staffing agency.

In the past, for example, "you almost never believed that a real quality sales person would ever get let go," said Glenn Davis, president of the Next Step Group, a technology sales recruiting firm in Westminster CO. "That has kind of gone out the window a little bit in these 
economic times."

Still, staffing firms should proceed with caution. Some of the unemployed are undoubtedly unemployed for a reason.

"Yes, there are a lot of people on the street," said Scott Wintrip, founder and president of StaffingU, which provides training, coaching and consulting for staffing and recruiting firms.

"Not all of them are the people you want to hire."

Wintrip suggests working "under the assumption that there is an issue," an approach he calls "eyes wide open." It's true that, in some cases, an entire division or company may have shut down, or massive layoffs meant a company cut into its core of good workers. But in general, Wintrip said, "smart companies are not going to let go of their best people."

Keep in mind, too, that a particular staffing firm can't place everyone -- even if they are good employees with good skills. So an unemployed worker may be able to find a job, just not through you.

"Even in a normal economy, we place less than 5% of the people who send us a resume or go to our Website," Bruno said. "The ability for a recruiter to determine early on who they can or cannot place really impacts their ability to succeed in our profession."

Whether you can place an unemployed candidate depends on the job as well as on the candidate. Companies are more likely to expect employed candidates for permanent positions.

"It's really tough for recruiters to present candidates who are out of work, because companies tend to think, 'Well, if this person is out of work, we could have found them on our own,'" said Valerie Frederickson, founder and CEO of Valerie Frederickson & Co., which focuses on human resources consulting, executive search and corporate outplacement.

For contract assignments, of course, companies will be more receptive to candidates who are unemployed.

But any time you present an unemployed candidate, you need to be certain you have addressed a key concern: Why is this person out of work? Here are 10 questions that can help separate the good workers with bad luck from those who are just plain bad news:

  1. How does the candidate explain being out of work?
    Despite the economy, there is still a perception that as long as a company still has employees, there must be a reason this candidate is not one of them.

    "Companies need to hire winners," Frederickson said. "So candidates need to make sure they're coming across as winners."

    When you ask the candidate about the layoff, you want to hear a story that puts the candidate in a good light -- but also shows honesty and self-awareness.

    In some cases, the answer will be straightforward: The company went out of business, or an entire division was eliminated. Or perhaps the company had a clear policy that the last workers hired would be the first let go. Candidates should be able to explain that clearly, with no defensiveness.

    But that's not always the case. "A lot of people get laid off really not because they're innocent victims, but because they were selected for a reason," Frederickson said. "That's what candidates don't like to admit."

    Of course, layoffs are a complicated issue, and many workers may honestly not know whether they lost their job because of their performance or due to bad luck. But Frederickson said candidates should try to figure out if they contributed to their layoff -- and do something about it, if possible.

    For example, if it was clear that the company needed workers with certain skills that the candidate didn't have, the candidate should acknowledge that -- and explain how he or she is working to learn those skills.

    Or perhaps the candidate took a risk, taking a position that would provide valuable experience but was also viewed as expendable. The candidate should "talk about the elephant in the room and then put a good spin on it," Frederickson said. "American culture loves people who take risks, even if they take risks and fail."

  2. What is the candidate doing while unemployed?
    A person who doesn't take any initiative when presented with a lot of free time will likely not be a go-getter on the job, either.

    Frederickson asks candidates, "What do you do to keep from going crazy?" It's a question that helps separate the more motivated candidates from the less motivated ones.

    "The good ones will tell me immediately, because they have a plan and they're doing it," she said.

    If the plan involves work-related activities, such as volunteering for a professional organization or taking classes to learn new skills, that's a plus. But even people who are taking care of a backlog of work around their house, or helping care for an elderly parent, are still being productive.

  3. In which round of layoffs was the person let go?
    This is not a foolproof question, but it can be helpful. The first round of layoffs often consists of people the company really wanted to get rid of, Bruno said. The second round may be for people who are on the fence. But by the third and fourth rounds, companies are "cutting some excellent people," she said.

    There are some caveats to using this question as a guide, however. First, it may be difficult to get the answer, since companies don't like to talk about layoffs. And some companies do their layoffs quietly, or a few at a time, making it difficult to determine which "round" someone was in.

    Bruno suggests asking the candidate how many people were laid off -- being part of a small layoff is more problematic than being part of a larger one -- as well as how many rounds of layoffs the company has had.

    The second issue is that there may be times when the first round of layoffs cuts heavily into one department but leaves another untouched. This could be a reflection of the business' direction rather than skills of the people in those groups. Also, sometimes companies will cut more senior people because they make more money.

  4. What does the candidate's employment pattern show?
    Being out of work right now, given the economic meltdown, is not as much of a problem as a pattern of unemployment.

    Previous gaps in employment, as well as short stints at previous jobs, require an explanation. By contrast, if a candidate has in the past spent several years at each position and has moved voluntarily, the current unemployment may be simply bad luck.

    "I believe that looking at a person's past is a window into their future," Bruno said. "If someone has been stable for their whole work history -- six years at one company, five at another -- and is now unemployed, that's a very good candidate."

    A series of short-term jobs or repeated gaps between jobs, however, could signal a problem. "You start probing and you question their decision-making," Davis said. "Is there a pattern, or is it an isolated incident that they're out of work right now?"

    A candidate could have a reasonable explanation for the short-term jobs -- they may have been startups that failed, or the candidate may have left one job to follow a spouse's job to a new city. But it's important to hear what the reason is, and how well the candidate can articulate it.

    "If you can't sell that to me, you're never going to get past the hiring manager," Davis said.

  5. Where has the candidate worked in the past?
    Some companies have reputations for recruiting top-notch people. If the person was hired -- and kept on for a significant time -- at one of these companies, that's a plus.

    "If they have been at companies where people have to be really at the top of their profession to be hired, then that's a positive thing," said Marianne Adoradio, a career consultant in Silicon Valley.

  6. Was the candidate referred to you?
     "If I get a referral, I'm always going to give it another look," Adoradio said.

    One caveat: The referral needs to come from someone whose opinion you respect -- and it needs to include a recommendation. It's not a strong point in the candidate's favor if the referral came from someone who was simply passing on a resume but didn't know the person.

  7. Does the candidate have the right skills?
    Your customers are looking for specific skills and abilities. If the candidate has them, it's worth following up to be sure the person's unemployment doesn't signal problems.

    If the skills aren't what your customers are looking for, it doesn't matter why the candidate is unemployed.

    Wintrip suggests asking: "Is this better than my customers are going to find on their own?"

  8. Are there subtle red flags?
    Recruiters develop their own systems for detecting problems in resumes. For example, Wintrip said he looks for "things that are not consistent with the talent I normally see."

    One example: combinations of skills that would be difficult for one person to develop.

    Davis reads resumes from the bottom up, looking at the moves the candidate has made. This gives him a sense of how fast they moved up in their profession, as well as how stable their employment has been. A red flag for Davis: sales professionals who have a history of leaving jobs every couple of years.

  9. What do you learn from an extensive reference check?
    Most employers won't tell you why a person was laid off. In companies that have been hit hard by layoffs, the people who know the real story may not even be there anymore. And large companies, especially, have rules that discourage employees from being candid.

    However, there are often ways to find out why a layoff happened: Were the candidate's colleagues shocked that this candidate was let go, or were they not surprised at all?

    Bruno suggests asking for personal reference. "Talking to a person's best friend, it just reveals so much," she said. "They have no filter" and may say things like, "'He just has a hard time keeping a job.' They don't know what they can and can't say, so they tell you the truth."

    Another trick, Wintrip said, is to ask references for more references. "Smart people are not going to give bad references," he said. But the people the good references suggest talking with might paint a different picture.

    Each time you speak with a reference, ask about the layoff and if they knew why it happened. Wintrip suggests using an open-ended question, such as, "Why did he leave?" or "What happened over there?" Then see if the references tell consistent stories -- and how well that matches what the candidate has told you.

  10. What does the candidate's body language tell you?
    When you're talking about uncomfortable subjects such as losing a job and being unemployed, how does the candidate react?

    "Really look at their behaviors during the interview," Frederickson said. "How do they come across? Do they have that polished, socially aware, self-disciplined style where they would just be excellent to work with and would drive things forward?"

    A candidate who comes across that way would likely impress a customer enough that it wouldn't matter that he or she didn't have a job.

There's no way to know absolutely if an unemployed candidate is worth pursuing. But asking the right questions can help you find the answer.

Margaret Steen is a freelance writer in Los Altos CA, who writes about business and the workplace.

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