Do Unemployed Candidates Stink?

Holding your nose because the candidate your considering stinks or has a stigma attached to them

What’s your bias regarding unemployed candidates? Do they have a stink or have a stigma attached to them?

I’ve been doing executive search for 25 years and the bias of the vast majority of hiring managers/executives is to consider a candidate who has been out of work (especially one with long-term unemployment) to be “damaged goods”. Something must be wrong with them if they’ve been out of work for so long. Do you subscribe to this theory? Many of my clients who have been out of work for an extended period of time apply a different standard to the potential members of their team.

Why do we have this bias?

I’ll admit I have a pretty powerful biased and judgmental approach to candidates who have been out of work – even during a recession. Historically, I’ve always felt that a top caliber candidate should have an extraordinary network in place, and bring the same passion, initiative, and energy to their job search that they bring to work everyday. The last 3 plus years of this recession have rocked that assumption a little – and I’m trying to reconcile it (but I’m not being very successful changing my historical bias).

I’m always willing to make an exception to the rule. I try to be open and not run my search business on a series of “absolute” rules. Unfortunately, my bias toward out of work candidates – perhaps based on some tribal myth – is hard to overcome. For example, I recently placed a VP of Sales and Marketing with one of my clients where the specification for the job was so narrow, the very best candidate had been out of work for a year (by the way, I cannot remember the last time I placed a candidate that was not currently working). The big issue was if he can’t put the energy into finding a job, how can we expect him to bring a high level of energy to this role.

I spent an excessive amount of time validating the candidate’s energy, passion, focus, and initiative. He was clearly the best candidate for the job. However, I still have this nagging sensation at the back of my neck as to why he had been out of work for a year. When I dug really deep with him, I discovered that he conducted a terrible job search as if it was 1970 – which unfortunately is the strategy most executives apply when they’ve been forced to look for a job for the first time in 15-20 years. Is that an appropriate excuse or rationalization for conducting a terrible and ineffective job search?

That raised a number of other questions for me about the candidate. If he didn’t know how to conduct a job search, shouldn’t he have done research to discover current best practices, methods, tips, and techniques in this “new normal” of job searching in a digital age with tools like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter? 90% of this information is free on the internet on blogs (like the one we write for executive job search candidates), and wide range of other sites, such as I believe Steven Covey called this being “unconsciously incompetent.” We don’t know what we don’t know. Should my candidate have realized he was unconsciously incompetent in conducting a job search, and focused on learning everything he could about an effective executive job search?

The answer is YES!

Just attending a few networking meetings with other people who are up to speed on an effective job search should have given him a clue that he was not conducting a job search that would generate an abundance of leads and opportunities. Most executives and managers spend the vast majority of their job search applying to open positions advertised on job boards. This is the same technique as reading the want ads in the paper 30-40 years ago. The result is pretty much the same now as it was back then. The Florida unemployment office is helping out the people of its state by helping them live through their unemployed period by giving them the opportunity to apply for an unemployment insurance.

The vast majority of jobs are not advertised. They are buried in the hidden job market. Studies show that the hidden job market is probably 80% or more of all open managerial and executive roles. If that’s true, shouldn’t a job search candidate at this level conduct a search focused on the hidden job market and uncovering those opportunities vs. the passive approach of answering ads?

What does this say about my candidate? Can we extrapolate that he’s passive? Would a top caliber candidate bring a different level of energy and initiative to their job search vs. their on the job performance?

What do you think? I’d love to see your thoughts in the comments to this blog and the experiences if you’ve had being unemployed, and your experiences of interviewing or hiring candidates that were unemployed.

Barry Deutsch


P.S. Download a FREE version of our famous e-book You're NOT the Person I Hired if you would like to learn how to improve your hiring accuracy and success.

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Barry Deutsch

About the Author

Barry Deutsch is a founding Partner of IMPACT Hiring Solutions, co-author of "You're NOT the Person I Hired", and "This is NOT the Position I Accepted". Barry is an award-winning international speaker, retained executive recruiter, and expert on hiring and retaining top talent, and executive job search.


  1. Barry Mermelstein says:


    Over a 40 year employment career that included some major professional transitions I faced the dreaded external position search about 4 times. Each was stressful, each was demeaning as regardless of your credentials, experience, personality etc. those on the opposite side of the desk could find fault with something as inane as the color of your suit, or the fact that you were a Giant not a Jet fan.

    I can honestly say that I have ha d a long history of success though in many different type of positions. Once I reached whatever I felt was a pinacle I got bored and looked for some new oats to sow. However, as with many others who were out of work at some time in their lives, I found that I was often the victim of being perceived as perhaps a “threat” to the individual I might be working for. Most people in the work force are “C’ students. Not many stars out there. They don’t ascribe to the philosophy of growing their staff to move them along up the track. They’d rather keep them under them to make up for their own deficiencies or perhaps make them appear to be stronger than they really are.

    Face it most people aren’t fair, could care less about the careers of others, and are selfish. I love to develop young people, empower them, and give them opportunities to learn from success and mistakes (we all make them do’t we?). I love to see people once junior to me working as senior execs. I can honestly say that perhaps what I did for them had a positive impact on their careers,

    Instead of viewing dinosaurs who don’t know the ropes in navigating twitter and facebook, perhaps publish articles to show them the way. I don’t hava e a facebook or twitter account. There are schools of thought that they are hacked regularly and I have no interest in having any personal information misused due to my own stupidity. Of course I’m not looking (I’m a COO of a successful firm), but I feel for those who have skills, are willing to learn new ones, and have loads of potential. The “losers” in this “new social networking game” are competent people over 35 or 40 years old. My wife is a school teacher. She has moderate computer skills. Junior teachers with little judgement, and no track record are viewed as more valuable if they can quickly put together a spreadsheet or power point doc. Nonsense. They are wonderful at reporting to administrators who were often dysfunctional in the classroom themselves, and are viewed as stars. If this trend keep up good luck to our grandchildren!

    Bottom line is, focusing on a skill set of how to find a job as a criteria for actual success in any position is quite narrow and perhaps off base. If the world wants the best candidates we shouldn’t make the search a game where the winners are the best at uncovering the hidden job market. I’d want to see the experts who know how to navigate these social networks spend some time publishing “how to’s.” All of the sudden the hidden gems who have the skill sets desired to succeed in the posted positions will be out there in full force, and a lot of the incompetents that are skilled at resumes, searches and interviewing, with marginal professional skills, little loyalty and staying power will be the ones on the unemployment line.

    Get the nest candidate, not the one who knows how to break the system. Let those people play poker.

    I don’t have a personal website or twitter or face book account, so perhaps you will eliminate my commentary as I don’t fall into your desired criteria. Hopefully not.


  2. In Sweden they had(not sure of now) a policy of ensuring everyone was reemployed within a year as their experience showed that people lost their desire or ability to work after being unemployed for more than 12 months. The government heavyily subsidized training and coop style programs for people trying to get back into the workforce.
    A serious issue is trying to employ someone from the corporate world in a small business as it seems to be a very difficult transition for most people. We have tried and failed several times as the adjustments seem too great for many people in many level of jobs.

    • Carole,

      I like that idea since I do agree with you that a lot of candidates get lost after 6 months to a year of being unemployed. Some lose all motivation and get quite depressed – it’s hard to stay positive after being unemployed for that length of time.

      You raise a completely different issue in your comments – the one about making an adjustment from a big company to a small company – we call this adaptability and it’s one of the areas that usually doesn’t get measured and leads to hiring mistakes and errors.

      Thanks for your comment.


  3. I am an enterpreneur and plan to expand my business in couple of months. The information shared by you is quite important while we think of employing new candidates in an organisation.

    Just was thinking what if there is a candidate with excellent track record for a decade but has been out of job due to a personal reasons like a calamity in the family. I came across a candidate who is apt for my business but he had taken a break for one and a half year to take care of his wife who was suffering from Cancer. She is said to be fit now and so he is looking for a job again. He was working in a Fortune 500 company but does not mind from working in any company now due to recession. I have not received any other candidate with a calibre like him yet. Can you please advice me with your suggestions in this matter?

    Secondly can you kindly give me some inputs about how I should do the reference checks of new employees before hiring them.

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