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In the job hunt, the stigma of being laid off is hard to erase

By Stephanie Chen, CNN
Erinn Height believes being labeled unemployed is preventing her from getting a job. She says being unemployed has caused her to endure a long-distance relationship with her husband and daughter, who are living abroad to save money.
Erinn Height believes being labeled unemployed is preventing her from getting a job. She says being unemployed has caused her to endure a long-distance relationship with her husband and daughter, who are living abroad to save money.
  • Unemployed individuals may have a tougher time getting hired, some recruiters say
  • Some employers perceive the unemployed as poor performers, experts say
  • There are 15 million Americans who are unemployed and 13 million are seeking full-time jobs
  • Unemployed should stay busy with temporary jobs and volunteering, say experts

(CNN) -- In a makeshift bedroom in her parents' house, Erinn Height applies for another job.

She's filled out 200 applications since being laid off from her senior manager position at Avis Budget Group in 2008. To avoid becoming homeless, the independent 36-year-old mother mustered the courage to do the unthinkable: move back to her family's home in Indiana.

More than 850 miles away in Boston, Massachusetts, Christine Lott, 47, is counting down the weeks -- about four she figures -- until her unemployment checks stop coming. Goldman Sachs eliminated her vice president position in February 2009. Even with her 30 years of financial experience, she's been rejected by dozens of banks -- unable to even land an interview.

These two women may be states apart, but they're bound together by the scarlet letter of unemployment in the worst economic downfall since the Great Depression. Height and Lott, both frustrated and disheartened, said they believe they are being shunned by potential employers and recruiters because of their unemployed status.

"I've heard people say, 'You're unemployed, so why bother,' " said Lott.

"You're in a lose-lose situation in a lot of ways."

As if securing work in a jobless recovery isn't tricky enough, being labeled unemployed brings additional obstacles. Some companies state explicitly that they don't want to consider people who don't currently have a job, a CNNMoney article reported this month.

It's not against the law, labor attorneys say, to discriminate against people who are unemployed.

Some recruiters interviewed say companies perceive the unemployed as weak performers or fickle workers. Or they worry that a person without a job has rusty work skills, especially if they haven't worked for more than six months. Or that an unemployed person will take a lower paying job out of desperation and then flee when a better job opportunity arises.

Overcoming the stigma of unemployment
Recruiter Peggy McKee offers five strategies for overcoming the stigma of being unemployed in a job interview.

1. Prepare an explanation: This should succinctly explain why you are unemployed. Avoid wasting time in the defensive position.
2. Focus on your results: Be sure to use plenty of numbers, dollars and percentages to quantify your achievement.
3. Wave your references: Whether it's having contact information of references ready or having your old boss write a favorable e-mail about you, any support counts.
4. Be creative: Use a 90-day business plan on how you would do the new job. Bring books or other documents to show how you will execute the position.
5. Close hard: Don't be passive. Ask for the job. If they won't hire you, find out why so it can be a lesson for next time.

"When you are unemployed, you are an in a defensive position and you have to defend why you are unemployed," said Peggy McKee, CEO of PHC Consulting, a national sales recruiting firm. "It's more difficult to be aggressive and positive."

Susan Joyce, editor at, explained a distinction hiring managers and recruiters make.

Unemployed applicants searching for jobs are sometimes viewed as "active job seekers," while employed individuals, who are not looking, are as "passive job seekers." Some companies prefer passive job seekers because they are perceived as more happy and secure in their current job and therefore more selective about any new position they accept, she said.

"I do believe there is a bias in the workplace against unemployed candidates," said Andrea Jennings, CEO of executive recruiting firm Lucas Group. Her recruiting firm has worked with a few clients who have discreetly avoided the resumes of the unemployed, she said.

Whether the stereotypes around the unemployed are true or false, it's not making the job hunting conditions any easier for the nearly 15 million jobless Americans. About one out of 10 people in the U.S. over the age of 16 were unemployed in May 2010, a slight increase from the same time period the year before, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And those who are jobless are already seeking new employment, which means competition is tough in a labor market where companies are still downsizing. About 13 million unemployed individuals are seeking full time employment, the BLS said.

Full economic recovery is expected to take at least five years and companies are being conservative when it comes to hiring, said Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist at the Economics Policy Institute, a non-partisan economic think tank. For every job opening, there are approximately five unemployed workers waiting to fill the gap, according to an analysis performed by EPI.

"This is the only thing we've seen that is this deep and this long," Shierholz said. "The recovery is going to be slow and rocky."

Many companies will consider hiring jobless applicants, said Harry Urschel, an independent recruiter at e-Executives for more than two decades. He thinks many employers have become more understanding because job cuts are so widespread.

With more than 2,400 e-mails corresponding with potential employers, Ethan Hirsch, 56 and unemployed in Massachusetts, said most companies have been understanding about his unemployment status. He lost his senior project manager job at a hospital in January 2009.

I do believe there is a bias in the workplace against unemployed candidates.
--Andrea Jennings, CEO of executive recruiting firm Lucas Group

But unemployment discrimination exists, he said. He recalled an incident this spring, when a hiring manager wrote him a rejection e-mail that cited his "long period of unemployment."

"I just kind of let it go," he said. "I believe the right opportunity will come around and you can't go with the highs and lows of this hiring process."

To overcome the stigma of unemployment, Michael Mazzeo, a professor of management and strategy at Northwestern University, suggests the unemployed find temporary jobs, earn degrees or volunteer to keep themselves active.

"I think unemployed people probably need to be busier than ever," he said. "In addition to looking for a job, they need to spend a lot of time building up their human capital."

The feedback was, 'You will jump ship,' or the other comments are related to challenging the boss' authority if I have more experience in that area.
--Erinn Height, unemployed mother

Erinn Height, who was a senior manager in human resources at Avis, said she's been taking an online MBA course to boost her resume. Her job was cut about two years ago to help the company cut costs. She harbors no bitterness toward her old company, saying Avis was a solid workplace. But she's upset that she still cannot find a new job to support her baby.

"I applied for lower level human resource jobs," Height said. "The feedback was, 'You will jump ship.' "

"Other comments are related to challenging the boss' authority if I have more experience in that area."

The strains of unemployment have taken a toll on her family. Her husband Christian Ehrich is German, and he is living with their baby daughter in Germany where he has a job. He is waiting until Height finds a job in the U.S. so they can afford raising a family together.

"As you can imagine, the longer it drags out, the more desperate we get," Ehrich wrote from Germany. "And hearing always the same excuse, 'You're out of job, so we won't give you one.' "

Some of the unemployed -- regardless of the new label they bear -- are hopeful they will one day get a full-time job. Christine Lott, who once worked at the vice president level Goldman Sachs, broadened her search in the dismal job market. She says she will search outside of Boston, where her husband and teenager live, and consider pursuing a job in New York. That means she will have to commute home each weekend.

She already applied to several banking jobs in New York City this month.

After all, she was once told that, "If you have Goldman Sachs on your resume, you can go anywhere. It's like going to Harvard. You can write your own ticket."