June 30, 2009

I used to be an executive recruiter and I can tell you: the worse a recession is, the more demanding the prospective employers become. I remember trying to fill high-level software sales positions after the dot com collapse for hiring managers who didn't want "any of those dot com people." (Apparently they showed too great an affinity for risk-taking.) And yet, all the experienced candidates worked for them, so they ended up hiring people who didn't know what they were doing.

So if you're a good, talented employee and you still have trouble getting a job, please don't take it personally. The people making the hiring decisions are often a little nuts, making off-the-wall demands based on their own crazy logic:

With unemployment at 9.4% and rising, it’s a buyer’s market for employers that are hiring. But many employers are bypassing the jobless to target those still working, reasoning that these survivors are the top performers.

“If they’re employed in today’s economy, they have to be first string,” says Ryan Ross, a partner with Kaye/Bassman International Corp., an executive recruiting firm in Dallas. Mr. Ross says more clients recently have indicated that they would prefer to fill positions with “passive candidates” who are working elsewhere and not actively seeking a job.


See, that's just sales speak. It may indicate that they're first string - or it may indicate that their brother-in-law is the department head, or that the person is really, really good at kissing butt.

The whole "passive candidate" thing is something recruiters like to push because that way, we get to bill a lot more hours. After all, it takes a lot longer than just searching the Monster resume file!

The bias extends from front-line workers to senior managers. Charlie Wilgus, managing partner of executive search for Lucas Group, based in Atlanta, says a manufacturing client looking for a division president recently refused to consider a former divisional president at Newell Rubbermaid Inc. whose department had been eliminated. The client doesn’t want candidates who have been laid off, Mr. Wilgus says.

Bobby Fitzgerald prefers to hire the already employed even though he gets two dozen or more unsolicited résumés each day at his White Chocolate Grill.

Employers’ preference for the employed adds another hurdle for those who have been laid off. Job seekers frequently are competing with dozens of other applicants for the few available positions.

Bobby Fitzgerald, a partner in five restaurants in three states, says these days he gets two dozen or more unsolicited résumés each day at one of his Phoenix restaurants, the White Chocolate Grill. But Mr. Fitzgerald says his top candidates, for jobs ranging from servers to management, usually are people who are employed elsewhere. He currently has 50 openings across his five restaurants and has told recruiters to bring in only people who are working.

Yes, the "unemployed" stigma is another huge hurdle. No matter how carefully you'd explain that a candidate was really top-notch, and that the circumstances surrounding their unemployment had nothing to do with them, employers just didn't want to hear it. (Oh, and they didn't want anyone who was older. We ignored that - and if they pushed, told them we didn't use illegal practices.)

I've tried to talk to these people. I'd say, "Look, if you hire some superstar away from another company, what you've hired is someone who's really in demand and will always be ready to leave you for a better offer. It's better to hire a good solid performer who will be loyal because you gave him a break." (Occasionally they would listen.)

The other annoying thing that happens during a recession is that employers start demanding all sorts of unrelated skill sets in one person (figuring they'll get them to do two jobs for the price of one). I'd advise you against taking a job like that even if it's offered - no matter how bad the economy is, it's not worth the heart attack you'll probably get.

Now, as a recruiter, I would never advise a candidate to do anything unethical or misleading. But as a human being, I can tell you: Remove any dates on your resume that indicate your age. Don't list every job you ever had, it only makes you look old. And don't put down "consultant" as your present employment (unless you work for a known consulting company) because most people will assume that means unemployed.

But if you're doing any part-time consulting for anyone, see if they'll agree to say you're working full-time, and list that job title instead. Do what you can to make it look like you're already employed.

It's a jungle out there, guys.

Can you help us out?

For nearly 20 years we have been exposing Washington lies and untangling media deceit, but now Facebook is drowning us in an ocean of right wing lies. Please give a one-time or recurring donation, or buy a year's subscription for an ad-free experience. Thank you.


We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Any comments that are sexist or in any other way deemed hateful by our staff will be deleted and constitute grounds for a ban from posting on the site. Please refer to our Terms of Service for information on our posting policy.