Corporate Eye

Cut on the Bias? Race and (Un)employment . . .

Scissors 1

A recent article on the Workforce Management website points out that job openings in America have decreased by 36% since May of 2008.  There are a lot of obvious consequences related to this fact.  But the article goes on to consider a couple of the less obvious by-products.

The first is concerned with race:

The recession is replicating racial disparities documented in earlier downturns. In June [2009], the official unemployment rate hit 14.7 percent for blacks and 12.2 percent for Hispanics, compared with 8.7 percent for whites.  Racial disparities in the unemployment rates appear across all levels of educational attainment. When employers can generate large numbers of applicants from limited outreach or even a single source, the pool of candidates becomes increasingly homogeneous.

The second is about perception:

“The concept of passive candidates is fiction,” [says John Younger, CEO of recruiting firm Accolo]. “We’re all temporaries. In normal times, if a candidate has been out of work for six months, there might be an assumption that something is wrong with the candidate. Today, there are world-class experts in every function who are not working, but there is still a preference for employed candidates.”

I added the italics in both these quotes to emphasize what I think are important points.  While it might make sense to reduce the volume of applications when there are too few people to review them, the way that’s done can reflect personal and/or institutional biases toward (or away from) particular groups.  Bias can affect choices regardless of intention, and may remain invisible when busy people are just trying to function effectively under challenging circumstances.

Still another problem is surfaced in the Workflow Management article.  Accolo—which is a pretty big operation—aggressively pursues diversity among the applicants it presents to its clients.  However, according to the examples offered by Younger, that isn’t doing much good.  He reports using both broad-reach sites (Monster, Yahoo, Craigslist, etc.) and also niche boards (targeted toward minorities, older candidates, and women) in an attempt to achieve a more diverse candidate pool, yet the percentage of black and Hispanic applicants is still very low.

The article offers no speculation on this point, but I’d be very curious to understand why the groups that are disproportionately unemployed are also the groups that are disproportionately not applying for jobs.  There could be a skewing effect based on the types of jobs being offered in the Accolo examples—but there could also be other factors at work . . .   A higher level of discouragement among minorities?  A higher rate of migration from employment to self-employment?  Subtle disincentives from employers/recruiters?

Obviously, the article raises more questions than it answers.  But I’ll add one more query to the mix:  Are some companies changing their websites and/or their messaging to discourage applicants, and thereby reduce the quantity of candidates to be managed?  I have no idea, but it seems like something worth wondering about.

(Thanks to DrBacchus for the excellent image of scissors “at work.”)

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Cynthia Giles has followed a serpentine career path from academia to publishing to marketing and design to information technology and corporate communications. There’s plenty of detail about this journey at, but briefly--the common theme has been ideas, and how to present them effectively. Along the way, she became an accidental expert on data warehousing and business intelligence, and for the past ten years she has combined corporate contracting with an independent consulting practice that focuses on marketing strategy for smaller businesses and non-profits. Having spent quite a bit of time looking for work, and anywhere from two weeks to two years inside a wide variety of American companies—she has given much thought to what works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to creating a great employment fit.