The biggest mistake people make when searching for a job is not acting like they already have one

Fake it til you make it.
Fake it til you make it.
Image: AP Photo/Mike Groll
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

As the maxim goes, it’s easier to get a job when you already have one. New research shows just how much harder unemployed people have to work to land open positions than their employed competitors—and offers clues on how they can leverage that disparity to their advantage.

Economists from Columbia University and the Federal Reserve banks of New York and Chicago examined the job-seeking activities of 2,900 people ages 18 to 64 (excluding the self-employed), and found that employed people get all the breaks. They were more likely to receive an unsolicited contact from a potential employer or a referral from a contact. Their response rate from employers was four times that of unemployed applicants. They got more than twice the interviews and three times as many offers per application.

That matters because a surprising number of currently employed people are looking to jump ship. Using data compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 2013 to 2015, the economists found that while 99.5% of unemployed respondents were actively seeking work, so were 23.3% of those with jobs. (They weren’t all planning to quit their current gigs: one in five wanted a second job.)

Worse news for the unemployed: employed people didn’t even have to be actively seeking work to get preferential recruiting. Almost half of job offers (48.7%) in a given four-week period went to people who already had jobs but were actively looking for others. But 26% of offers went to employed people who hadn’t even been looking for work. Another 8.5% went to students, retired people, or others out of the labor force.

Unemployed people got just 16% of job offers, despite making 40% of the applications, and those offers came with lower pay and fewer hours and benefits than those extended to people already working. Candidates hired from another full-time job were offered, on average, an hourly wage of $27.11, versus $15.68 for those unemployed.

Those statistics may look extremely frustrating to an unemployed person struggling for work. One solution for someone seeking a job is to adopt the mindset of someone who already has one, according to the recruiting consultant Harry Urschel.

Employers are rarely suspicious of a candidate simply because he or she is unemployed, Urschel writes—there are plenty of legitimate reasons why a qualified individual may be without work. More often, the issue is that unemployed candidates undermine their chances by failing to ask probing questions during job interviews, overselling their strengths, looking past reasons why the position’s a bad fit, and other mistakes of the over-eager. It may be hard to remember during a long, tough search, but playing it cool can go a long way.