Thursday, 13 August 2009

Employer attitudes

Employer attitudes

Other issues on other pages

While many people like to blame the unemployed for not trying hard enough to find work, I've come to realise that employer attitudes are a serious problem. I discuss some aspects of the problem elsewhere, for example in my pages Too fussy?, Immigrant workers and Sexism and ageism, but there's more.

Job application quotas

I'm sure that the government's derisory comments about unemployed people and their insistence that unemployed people fulfil quotas for job applications are counter-productive. Unemployed people sometimes have to apply for jobs they aren't qualified for (or are over-qualified for) to make up the numbers, thereby annoying those very employers, who may then decide that it's best to ignore all applications from unemployed people.

Recruitment policies

As the BBC debate Should benefits be linked to community service? clearly showed, a significant proportion of the public, perhaps a majority, generally shares the government's negative attitude towards unemployed people. It is likely that many employers also share that negative attitude, and in that debate, some of them explained why they wouldn't take on unemployed people, but their recruitment policies compound the difficulties faced by unemployed people.

Automated recruitment

The automated recruitment methods now used to whittle down applicants are a major obstacle. Undoubtedly, these methods have their advantages to employers, but they eliminate people who could do the job but who do not have an exact match on the skill set. Just because somebody ticks all the right boxes (literally) doesn't necessarily make them the best candidate for the job anyway, but such methods obviously discriminate against unemployed people, whether deliberately or unwittingly.


This can be another problem. I can supply two names from my last job, but as that ended in 2002, it won't satisfy some employers. Here’s a street cleaning vacancy, one that doesn’t require a driving licence. I've inserted the bold red numbers to reference comments, which I've added below.

Reliable individuals are required for day-by-day street cleaning work within Leicester city centre. Shifts are assigned on a day-by-day basis and candidates wishing to apply should be able to report to a depot in Beaumont Leys for 7am for a 7.5 hour shift, or 7 hours on Fridays. Due to the nature of the work involved, this might suit individuals who are looking for permanent employment and need to take days off for interviews, as once fully registered, candidates are able to specify which days they are able to work. 1 This is an ideal job to provide supplementary income and would also suit anyone who is only looking for a part-time commitment. 2 No prior experience is required, but 3 candidates should be able to provide reference contact details to cover the past two years in full. 4 It is important that you are a reliable and responsible individual. 5

  • 1 sounds like a way back to work for unemployed people
  • 2 not if they want to work a few hours each day, rather than a few whole days
  • 3 here’s the catch
  • 4 so that rules out just about everybody who is unemployed
  • 5 indeed, but that’s true for all jobs.

If long-term unemployed people are expected to provide reference contact details to cover the past two years in full, it will be impossible for them to find work unless they have a continuous history of voluntary work. I never thought I was suited to voluntary work anyway, but while New Deal showed me that there is more to voluntary work than I originally imagined, it convinced me more than ever that it's completely unsuitable for me. Of course, the government can force me to do this type of work, but if I do it on a forced basis, the organisation using me is paid to put up with me and my incompetence. If I merely volunteer, they get nothing.


Employers have a distinct preference for employees with an outgoing personality. People with outgoing personalities generally (though not always) do better at interviews, because of their natural talent for getting on with complete strangers, and this could be one factor. Apart from that, the emphasis on personality appears to be partly due to a desire for flexibility and partly due to the excuse that you can't really tell much from an interview anyway, the latter being caused by poor training of human resource staff and/or an unwillingness to admit to a wish for flexibility. Yes, flexibility is legitimate up to a point. Somebody may be initially employed in a backroom job where personality is less important, but may later be expected to progress into other jobs where it is important. Even so, I do think that personality is over-rated.

While an outgoing personality is an essential requirement for some jobs and a desirable quality for others, it isn't an advantage in all jobs. In my programming days, I noticed that some outgoing people sometimes spent a lot of time chatting while the more introverted types were getting on with their work. As I don't like stereotyping, I'm certainly not going to suggest that all people with outgoing personalities are less productive than their quieter counterparts (some outgoing people make a point of resisting the distractions), but I do think that employers who place too much emphasis on personality may be missing out on the chance to employ some hard-working people.


Related to the above is the issue of looks. Now, while I can see that if you go to an interview dressed in sloppy manner, it suggests a bad attitude, the issue goes well beyond that. Susan Boyle unwittingly illustrated the point by her appearance on TV, when it became clear that she sings better than she looks. Why should somebody's appearance be related to their singing ability? It's the same with conventional jobs. From the debates immediately after Susan Boyle's appearance on TV, it is clear that conventional employers also place far too much importance on looks rather than ability. We come back to the excuse that you can't really tell much from an interview anyway, mentioned above.

Employers unable to fill vacancies

Employers sometimes claim that they are unable to fill vacancies that they have, one inference being that the vast number of unemployed people out there must fit one or more of the old Stereotypes. Before jumping to such conclusions, perhaps such employers should look at their own expectations. Maybe they are demanding too much in the way of skills and qualifications, or maybe they expect current references (see earlier), or maybe they are paying too little, or maybe their other terms and conditions are in some way unacceptable. Perhaps they should consider my comments on this page, together with my comments about Sexism and ageism. Indeed, while people often ask if unemployed people are Too fussy?, they should ask the same question of employers.

Employment agencies

In the BBC debate Should benefits be linked to community service?, some people pointed to the employment agencies that are to be seen in every town and city. These agencies appear to have plenty of jobs to offer and the critics contrast this with the number of people signing on at jobcentres. The critics also point out that some of these agencies say that they can't get the staff to fill these vacancies, but you have to interpret correctly what those agencies are saying.

My experience shows that what the agencies really mean is that they can't get people that employers will offer those jobs to. Ultimately, agencies are paid commission by employers and they act accordingly, so their attitude reflects those of the employers they deal with. If the employers who pay the agencies are hostile towards unemployed people, especially long-term unemployed people, or if those employers are demanding too much in the way of skills and qualifications, or if they are paying too little, or if their other terms and conditions are in some way unacceptable, it's hardly surprising that those agencies can't fill the vacancies from the vast pool of unemployed people.


Generally, British employers have never been keen to invest in training although, as with everything else in life, there are exceptions. Cost is often cited as a reason especially as a trained employee is suddenly worth a lot more money to other employers. Those employers who invest in training want a return on their money before raising the pay of the newly-trained employee. Thus, employers are vulnerable to the temptations offered to their recently-trained employees by rivals in the job market. In these circumstances, it is easy to see why a lot of employers are reluctant to invest in training.

So much has changed

When I look at jobs that are advertised as "junior" or "trainee" these days, I often see a long list of things that job applicants are expected to know already. Back in the sixties, a trainee was somebody who didn't necessarily know anything that was specifically relevant to the job in question at the time they applied. Qualifications such as GCEs were considered important even then, but they've become far more important in the years since. For office jobs, employers required applicants to do aptitude tests to show that they had the potential. For skilled manual jobs, there were apprenticeships. It appears to me that employers now expect people to do all their learning at school, college and university, after which they are supposed to know it all. This works against older people, who generally had less education. In my case, I left school when I did because I had a job offer, so didn't take GCE A levels. To get the equivalent trainee job today, I'd require a degree as well as GCE A levels, all because employers are reluctant to train their own staff.

For an unemployed person to get all that experience (just to become a trainee, remember) is almost impossible, because government subsidised training is limited to say the least and better quality courses are unaffordable. The old aptitude tests have themselves developed a life of their own (we now have a variety of Psychometric tests, which is a whole separate issue) but still the employers insist on all those other things.

A possible solution

One way round this problem (which would help employers, employees and unemployed people alike) would be to allow employers to claim compensation from their employees or the subsequent employer of those employees, should those employees change jobs (or simply quit) within a certain period of time after being sent on a training course. The actual compensation paid would depend on the cost and value of the training and the time elapsed since the training occurred. It looks a bit like the transfer system operating in some professional sports, but the detail would be very different. And of course, the compensation paid would be modest by comparison. But such compensation would be set at a level that would encourage employers to train their staff properly while still allowing people to change jobs if they are so determined that they are willing to buy their way out of their old job. As people who follow professional team sports know, it is better to allow a discontented employee a way out than force them to stay and risk disrupting the team spirit.

I suspect that under such a scheme, the vast majority of employees would actually stay longer in their existing jobs, not wanting to pay compensation for an early change and knowing that any prospective employer would only be willing to pay compensation if they are having difficulties in recruiting staff who don't need compensation payments. For employers, the prospect of having to pay compensation might in any case make them consider training their existing staff instead. Employees would have the right to decline the chance to go on training courses if they wish; this would prevent employers abusing the system by sending their employees on meaningless courses just to stop them leaving. If such a scheme needs to be sanctioned by the European Union, so be it. We must encourage employers to invest in training and to encourage staff loyalty.

Of course, the devil is in the detail because, rather like New Deal, if a compensation scheme is badly set up, the consequences will be very different from the desired effects. Any scheme would have to allow for job terminations. Obviously, if an employer dispenses with an employee's services, they shouldn't be entitled to compensation, except possibly if the employee is sacked for gross misconduct. I say possibly; this would have to be looked at. Another problem occurs if an employer goes into administration and is saved by another employer, who didn't pay for the original training costs. What then? Another hazard is that employers might be more tempted to recruit Immigrant workers, though as this scheme would mainly affect highly skilled workers, the problem is different from issues involving low-grade work. Yes, the devil is in the detail.

Knowledge is power

I can understand that employers want to know about people who they are considering as prospective employees, but there are limits, as this disturbing story of the company that sold workers' secret data illustrates. Apart from the story itself, it says a lot about what employers really want to know about their employees and prospective employees. Now you see why I didn't register with the agency mentioned in my Data protection page.

Employer incentives

These only serve to illustrate how clueless politicians are and how they want to be seen to be doing something without actually spending the money that would make a difference. Of course, we live in times where public spending is out of control and needs to be reined in, but it would be better to have no incentives at all (thus saving the administrative costs involved) than to provide ineffective incentives.

In July 2009, I was given some forms with accompanying explanations, so that an employer could claim 500 pounds from the government merely for employing me, with a further 500 pounds if I were still there six months later. Employers may additionally be able to reclaim some re-training costs. Really, the government cannot be serious. Employers aren't going to be swayed by that kind of money to take on anybody who has been out of work for as long as I have. The same option is available for employers to take on anybody who has been claiming benefits for six months or more. Everybody who knows anything about these issues knows that the longer somebody has been out of work, the more resistant employers become. While The nineties job quest proved that circumstances can occasionally force employers to consider those who have been out of work for a very long time, such circumstances don't happen very often. In those rare circumstances, market forces mean that other incentives are unnecessary. Sorry, but if incentives of this kind are to be effective, there needs to be a sliding scale. 10,000 pounds might tempt an employer to take a chance on me but 1,000 pounds won't. I'm not convinced that 1,000 pounds will tempt them to take on any unemployed people anyway if they have an inherent suspicion of them, given the costs of recruitment and subsequent employment.

So while the government urges me to mention the incentive in my covering letter or application form when I apply for jobs, I won't bother although I would if I thought it would improve my chances. Being only a token gesture, I am mindful that some employers may in any case think that mentioning it up front is an act of desperation. Of course, if I get as far as an interview, I'll mention it at that stage, but I'll only mention it up front if the incentive rises to a minimum of 5,000 pounds.

The scheme as outlined above is the latest variation on employer incentives, which have also included work trials. They all suffer from the same problem that the money involved is insufficient to tempt employers. If and when politicians learn that employer attitudes are the main problem, rather than the unemployed people, things will begin to change, but that won't happen before I'm pensioned off, if it happens at all.

Proof of unemployment

I noticed one employer offering to consider unemployed people, but with a twist. Anybody with gaps in their CV was expected to provide proof, saying where they'd signed on for benefits and giving the dates. I'm assuming that this was intended to sort out law-abiding people from the criminals. Of course, it's not as simple as that. I didn't sign on for several years during The nineties job quest because I didn't perceive that there would be any worthwhile benefits, since I couldn't claim benefits initially. I am therefore unable to provide the evidence required by the aforementioned employer, although I can provide full details for my current period of work and any employer who wishes can read about the earlier period in The nineties job quest. If the employer reads it and still thinks that the gaps in my CV are due to criminal activity, that's not my problem.

Of course, there are other categories of people who are out of work but don't sign on, including people whose partners have jobs as well as self-employed contractors who don't have continuous work (and there are gaps in my CV during the eighties for that reason), so there's plenty of other people with the same problem when it comes to providing evidence. This is another arbitrary obstacle that employers sometimes put in the way of unemployed people, whether deliberately or not, but this particular obstacle is also a problem for formerly unemployed people who are currently employed if they seek another job.


Because employers are instinctively suspicious of long-term unemployed people, they have a tendency to be particularly tough when interviewing them. Since many of these candidates are lower on confidence than those in jobs who are given more lenient interviews, this is a huge obstacle to overcome. It may be difficult to persuade employers to interview long-term unemployed people anyway, but if they only do so reluctantly and treat them harshly at interviews, it won't help. I was pleasantly surprised at the sympathetic attitude shown to me by Social Care Recruitment, but most employers are not like that.

Ambition or lack of it

I don't know about other types of work, but one problem that I found in the days when I had work was that managers expected all their staff to aspire to management. Computer programming was seen as a step along the way to a managerial career. This always struck me as illogical, because management skills are very different from programming skills. My belief was reinforced by the evidence I saw, with great programmers being promoted into managerial jobs to which they were ill-suited. Sure, some good programmers later became good managers, but there was no pattern to it.

Those who follow team sports may have noticed a similar phenomenon. The best players don't necessarily make the best managers. As with programming, the skills required to play are very different from the skills required to manage. Indeed, it is rare for a top footballer to become a top manager. A look at the top football managers of any era shows they weren't normally great players. The same principle applies in computer programming and I would expect the same to be true in most jobs.

I happened to be particularly good at programming and never had any ambition to do anything else. (In my periods out of work, I've looked for alternative careers without success.) I certainly didn't have any interest in management. I could probably have done an adequate job in a managerial capacity, but I would not have shone in such a role. Occasionally, I was able to have a constructive discussion about the issue, explaining that I would be less effective as a manager even if I could do the job. The employer generally pointed out that if I didn't want promotion, it removed an incentive to do well and also removed a stick to beat me with if I didn't, though I'm not sure it was put in quite that way. Motivation is a whole other subject, but employers who treated me well never had any problem there.

The ambition problem may appear to be one for those who have work, but of course, it is also a problem for unemployed people when asked about their ambition at interviews. Ambition can also be used as an excuse for ageism. Anybody who has not reached the level that a prospective employer thinks they should have reached at their age either lacks ambition or lacks the ability to attain that ambition, so is ignored. At my age, there is in any case the problem that if I start at the bottom, I won't have many years ahead of me before I come up for retirement at 65 in 2016. (Of course, if I don't find a job, I'll be officially pensioned off in 2013, though I would continue looking for work.) Employers looking for ambitious people aren't likely to consider anybody in their fifties except for very senior jobs.

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