A job fair in Hauppauge in May. As of that month, more...

A job fair in Hauppauge in May. As of that month, more than 6 million people were seeking employment in the U.S., and that doesn’t include employed people looking for something new. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Kathryn Anne Edwards is a labor economist and independent policy consultant.

Everyone has a job-search horror story or knows someone who does. After flying my husband to Chicago for a day-long interview, one company told him the position had been filled the day before — but that they’d interview him anyway to be “nice.” Another relative was retrieved an hour late from a 60-minute computer test in an empty conference room — and flunked because the company couldn’t verify that she finished on time. Other bad experiences are far too common: Job applications elicit zero response; companies ghost applicants after multiple rounds of hourslong interviews.

Employers, it seems, aren’t as motivated as they should be to respect job applicants’ time, effort and dignity. Hence, a proposal: Set minimum federal standards for the treatment of people looking for work.

As of May, more than 6 million people were seeking employment in the U.S., and that doesn’t include employed people looking for something new. It’s a costly endeavor. On average, job seekers (including the employed) spend almost three hours a day on the task, and often send out 80 or more applications before landing even an interview. Then there’s the psychological toll of repeated rejection and, for those without a job, financial insecurity.

It should be in employers’ interests to make the process as pleasant and efficient as possible. They want good people to apply, hiring costs money, and treating people poorly can tarnish a company’s reputation as an employer. Yet their actual behavior suggests such incentives aren’t sufficient to guarantee minimum standards. Companies generally value and respect their employees, too, yet rules are still required to counter practices ranging from wage theft to child exploitation.

How, then, to set minimum standards for the treatment of job seekers? Require communication and compensation. Job ads should provide some disclosure on the timeline for hiring and the exigencies of the interview process (how many rounds, what kinds of tests). Companies should keep people informed: When their applications were received, whether they advanced to the next round. Granted, companies might not want to turn away candidates whom they might revisit later — but there’s nothing preventing them from saying so in an email.

Also, companies need to recognize the value of applicants’ time. Beyond some reasonable threshold of hours spent on interviews or tests, applicants should be compensated at a rate proportional to the position’s salary — or at a piece rate for intellectual property that companies can use (such as coding assignments). Employers who rescind job offers should pay a penalty. Costly as this might seem, it’s trivial compared with the expense of all the employees engaged in the hiring process.

The rules wouldn’t be unduly difficult to put into practice. They would merely expand existing protections — such as against discrimination and harassment — administered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Enforcement would be challenging, particularly on compensation. Yet even if an applicant lacks the wherewithal to file a complaint or demand $100 for a five-hour interview, the mere knowledge that a potential employer doesn’t respect federal law that protects workers could be invaluable.

The rules wouldn’t make anyone more likely to get a job, or force companies to hire anyone they didn’t want. They would, however, benefit job seekers and the broader economy, by discouraging potential employers from wasting people’s time and energy and giving more information to applicants. Both could reduce search frictions and produce better job matches, a win for the labor market.

Creating standards is a way to declare that an activity is deserving. Workers without a job are still workers. Ensuring their dignity would be a real victory.

Kathryn Anne Edwards is a labor economist and independent policy consultant.

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