Corporate Eye

By the Numbers: The Psychology of Unemployment

Number Swirl

It seems like every day begins with some news report on jobs and employment.  It all runs together after a while, but the statistics fall into two categories:  Jobs lost/created, and People finding/not finding jobs.  There’s a big difference in the two perspectives.

Plus, each category has several different flavors.  Here’s a super-speedy example of the kind of real-life information that’s aggregated into statistical statements:

Acme is making fewer widgets, so it needs fewer widget-makers, so those jobs are lost—but only until or unless Acme needs more widgets.  Acme’s competitor A-Plus decides to make only automatic widgets from now on, so manual widget-maker jobs are gone forever there.  However Acme decides to make special Fourth of July widgets this year, so there are some temporary manual widget-making jobs for the employees laid off by A-Plus.  But there are many widget-maker wannabes in the unemployment line who will be happy to work for less than the experienced Acme personnel.  Meanwhile, A-Plus needs robotics-nerds, pronto, and there aren’t enough to go around, so headhunters are burning up their cell phones . . .

And if you are a laid-off English teacher or a downsized stock broker, the whole widget thing is fantastically irrelevant anyway.  Aggregate numbers are next to meaningless for real job-hunters–but they contribute to the serious psychological effects of being unemployed.  The worse the news sounds, the more hopeless things may seem if you’re one of the statistics.

In the run-up to Christmas 2009, it was easy to miss this important New York Times story on the effects of unemployment, but it’s message is summarized in the title:  Poll reveals depth and trauma of joblessness.

More than half of the poll respondents reported depression, anxiety, and insomnia along with their more practical problems such as the threat of foreclosure and the loss of health insurance.  So not only is the volume of applicants steeply increasing at many companies, more than a few of those job-seekers may be struggling not only to make ends meet but also to cope with the psychological repercussions of unemployment.

What does that mean in terms of recruiting and the corporate Careers site?  Big unemployment numbers are made up of real people who go to company sites because they really need jobs.  Which seems worth thinking about.  I can’t point to experts or examples of best practices in this area—unfortunately there don’t seem to be any.  But here are some possibilities I thought up:

  • What if companies put an encouraging message on their site, noting that while there may not be a lot of jobs right now, there are some–and they really want you to apply?
  • What if companies provided extra information on their sites about preparing for interviews, improving resumes, and making the most of your application?
  • What if companies reviewed their rejection letters and made them more friendly and supportive?  (There’s a great set of suggestions at Careerbuilder.)
  • In fact—what if more companies actually sent rejection letters?  Or even followed up on applications?  These days, a lot of people are putting a lot of hope into their applications, and most would appreciate being nicely told (sooner rather than later) that their application really was considered, even if they won’t be getting the job.
  • And here’s my most radical idea:  What if companies took some energy away from the hunt for “passive candidates” and put it into looking for well-qualified applicants that really need a job?

I’d love to hear opinions and idea!

(Thanks to Iragerich for the cunning number swirl.)

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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.
Rolando Ramirez

Cynthia – Great post. I agree 100%. Aggregate unemployment numbers mean nothing to the unemployed. If you are unemployed, the unemplyment rate is 100%. I am currently “in transition” and can tell you that the suggestions you made would go a long way in making job seekers feel as though there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I fear that we are seeing the death of the professional corporate recruiter. The over abundance of candidates and the over reliance on technology has resulted in applicants becoming nothing more than a series of keywords on a resume. There are many talented people in the job market today whose resumes never see the light of day because they didn’t make the keyword search cut.

Thanks so much for the insightful comment, Rolando–and I’m really glad you liked the post. I think many people share a frustration with the current state of affairs, but it’s very difficult to see where improvement will come from. There may be some ideas surfacing, though, so I want to do a follow-up on this topic soon.

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