Employed or Unemployed: A Recruitment Dilemma

Unemployment continues to rise and job seekers are well aware that every day they have increasing competition fighting for the same, sparse number of jobs. But jobless workers' biggest challenge may not come from other unemployed, but from employees who already have a job.

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, many employers are skipping over those actively looking for a job and instead going to the people who are still working, the assumption being that they, the survivors of possibly several rounds of layoffs, are the highest performers.

It's an interesting approach, one that has both its merits and its faults.

Why should employers hire only the employed?

If a company is forced to lay off 20% of its workforce, some may cut entire product lines and divisions, hence cutting off large groups of employees with little compunction. The smartest organizations will treat this as an opportunity of sorts to review their employees and eliminate the low-performing ones - people who may have been satisfactory in times of boom but who really don't contribute a whole lot when increased productivity is essential.

The Most Common Reasons for Getting Laid Off

Research from an i4cp study conducted in October 2008 shows that layoffs are first and foremost based on job position, but performance reviews, skills and knowledge are also up for consideration. Companies may eliminate unnecessary positions, but the best organizations should be aware of who their strongest employees are - even if they're in areas heavily affected by reductions in force.

The bottom line: It's not unreasonable to presume that lower-performing employees make up a larger chunk of the 9.4% of people unemployed in the United States and that a larger percentage of those still working have a job because they earned it.

For organizations to take advantage of this assumption is not unreasonable, because they're looking to hire long-term, valuable employees. Targeting already-employed workers increases their odds of hiring a high-performing employee, and it also allows them to ignore the influx of unqualified résumés that are flowing into their mailboxes on a daily basis.

Why should employers avoid this tactic?

On the flip side, those high-performing employees who are still working require recruiter outreach, are more challenging to hire and are much more expensive. Furthermore, assuming that low-performing employees didn't escape the ax is a pretty big assumption. Most importantly, with companies chopping off entire product divisions or closing their doors for good, there are plenty of strong candidates on the market right now, and most are likely willing to make an immediate impact at a lower salary.

Clearly, weeding out a couple of strong candidates from the large percentage of less-desirable candidates can be a hassle, but by disregarding the unemployed, employers will pass up several very strong prospects.

So, what to do?

There's no obvious or clear-cut answer here. Both arguments are valid, to a point. There is some justification to the assumption that only exceptional employees remain employed, as logic dictates that more low-performing employees have been let go than high-performing ones. But there are also plenty of unemployed, high-performing employees out there (you probably know some yourself), and, if you don't mind the labor of panning for gold, they are ready to be hired. It all comes down to where employers want to spend their time: sifting through résumés or navigating a web of networks and recommendations. Rest assured that, either way, there is prime talent available for the discerning recruiter.
Erik Samdahl
Erik is the head of marketing at i4cp, and has nearly 20 years in the market research and human capital research industry.