How to Land a Job as an Unemployed Applicant

If you're out of work, your job search may have you feeling a lot like a dusty castoff in the bargain bin. While you're probably a perfectly good candidate, it's easy to feel like your value is marked down simply by virtue of your joblessness.

Turns out, it's not your imagination.

Researchers have documented a bias against unemployed job seekers, particularly those who have  been out of work for a longer period of time. Candidates who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more are half as likely to get a call back for an interview and must apply for 3.5 times as many jobs as people who have been out of work for less time, according to a report published by theWhite House. A 2011 study came to a similar conclusion, determining that employers do tend to favor candidates with jobs over those without. Sometimes this discrimination is as blatant as "unemployed need not apply," statements in job listings, says Jean Bauer, a speaker, author and career coach. This is despite the fact that discriminating against the unemployed is illegal in many states, including New Jersey, which was the first to ban discrimination against the unemployed in 2011, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But that doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

"Rightly or wrongly, some hiring managers will take unemployment as a red flag, worrying that you got fired from your last job or that there's a reason that no one has snatched you up yet," said Alison Green, a blogger who provides advice on workplace issues at Ask a Manager. The longer your unemployment stretches on, the worse it may be.

"To be clear, in most cases this is silly and unfair," she said. "So this isn't about logic; it's more about an indefensible gut reaction that some hiring managers have. But unfortunately the burden of that stigma falls on job hunters to contend with."

But while out-of-work job seekers may face a little more of a struggle in landing that next job, the good news is it's far from impossible. So how do you do it? By using strategies that will get you out of the bargain bin mentality and put your appeal back on the top shelf.

Establish your message.

"Whether you're working or not working you've got to have a good reason why you're looking for a new job," said Bauer. Create a simple, clean explanation to use in interviews. Laid off? Describe why the company went in a different direction and that you were one of many let go when it took that new turn. Fired for poor performance? "I don't believe in lying, but I do believe in being strategic," says Bauer. A simple reply that your skills and what the company needed weren't really in line is appropriate. Don't offer information until the interviewer asks, and understand that you're under no obligation to reveal details. In either case be prepared. "Don't wing it. Answers to why you are in transition or why you aren't working are critical pieces to have ready ahead of time," says Bauer.

Clean up your resume.

"I talk to people all the time who say 'I don't understand why I'm not getting interviews. My resume and cover letter are great and I'm well qualified.' Then I look at their résumé and cover letter and they do a terrible job of presenting the person's skills and experience," says Green, "A really great cover letter—one that makes a compelling, personalized case for why you'd excel at the job—and résumés that shows a track record of achievement are very hard to ignore, even in this job market."

Get your head together.

Being laid off, or worse, terminated, can give an individual's self-esteem a big knock. One study showed that even 10 years after being laid off, workers were still less trusting of other people, even when the situation was long behind them. If you can, take some time off before you start your job search to get past that initial sting, said Bauer, and do whatever you need to: meditate, punch your pillow or workout like a fiend to get yourself ready to move forward.

Improve yourself for the hunt.

Don't just sit around waiting for that new job, keep yourself busy doing other things, such as taking courses, getting a new certification or even volunteering your time to continue to build your resume. "If you've been out of work for a while, the more you can engage in work-like activities, the better," says Green, "Volunteer, serve on committees, be active in your professional association, try to take on some freelance work in your field—anything you can do that's similar to working."

Network, network, network.

Many people make the mistake of sticking only to online job listings when looking for work, said Bauer. But that means they're not tapping into the vast number of unpublished job opportunities out there. Some experts estimate that 70 to 80 percent of open jobs aren't ever publicized. "I won't say don't use online listings, but I will say don't only use them," says Bauer. Network not only with those you know, but join online networking groups. "I'm also a big fan of targeting," said Bauer. That means finding a company you want to work for and pitching yourself directly to the hiring manager.

Stay positive. "So many people believe you can't get a job if you don't have a job, which is ridiculous," says Bauer. It may be a little more of a challenge, but stick with it and your efforts will pay off.

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