Why We Can No Longer Ignore Hidden Workers

The job market looks vastly different today than it did just one year ago; many companies are understaffed as droves of employees are voluntarily leaving their jobs as the demand for staff rises. As a result of COVID-19, we’ve seen a large number of employees reprioritize what matters most to them — some have opted for early retirement while others have decided not to return to the workforce at all. We also cannot forget the 40 million individuals who were laid off during the pandemic. 

Those unemployed or underemployed searching for jobs face multiple barriers that prevent them from being hired. Often, these individuals are pulled from the pile before they are even considered because of hiring practices that focus on what they don’t have (e.g., credentials) instead of what they bring (e.g.,  capabilities). As coined by Harvard Business Review and Accenture, these employees are recognized as “hidden workers.” 

Who Are Hidden Workers? 

Hidden workers are a non-homogenous group consisting of individuals with physical disabilities, relocating partners and spouses, and mental health or developmental/neurodiversity challenges. They also include less advantaged populations, racially underserved, people previously incarcerated, and those without traditional qualifications. 


Hidden workers want to work and are seeking work; however, they are discouraged and distressed because their efforts fail due to hiring policies and processes that consistently filter them out. Hiring technologies, which are used by 75% of US companies, often automatically filter applicants that have employment gaps or lack a degree, for example.

Even though many companies are not tapping into hidden talent, research shows that previously hidden workers performed better than non-hidden workers. According to Harvard Business and Accenture, “nearly two-thirds of business leaders reported that, once hired, previously hidden workers performed ‘better or significantly better’ in six key areas that matter most to employers: attitude and work ethic, productivity, quality of work, employee engagement, attendance, and innovation.” 

In the United States, there are approximately 27 million hidden workers divided into three categories

  1. Missing hours (63%): Individuals who are working one or more part-time jobs but are willing and able to work full-time.
  2. Missing from work (33%): Those who have been unemployed for a long time but are looking for employment.
  3. Missing from the workforce (4%): People who are not working or looking for work but are willing and able to work under certain circumstances.

How to Engage Hidden Workers 

Engaging hidden workers will take time and effort, but just like any other business proposition with the potential of a high return, we have to adapt to be successful. By doing so, your company can “build credibility with the hidden worker community, creating a permanent reservoir of talent.” (Harvard Business and Accenture)

Here are five ways you can engage hidden workers:

1. Create Broad Job Requirements

Create broader job requirements and qualifications that attract more hidden worker applicants and, in turn, bring in a larger pool of qualified talent. Understandably, companies want to hire candidates that match the job requirements, but they have to realize not all valuable candidates will check every box. 

Research supports that “business leaders report that only half or fewer of their middle-skill hires met all of the job requirements listed on their postings.” For high-skill hires, “only 21% say the hired employee actually met all the job requirements.”  

2. Simplify Job Descriptions 

No one wants to read through a long job description — job postings should be written with simplicity and brevity in mind. Leave out jargon, hone in on the most important skills instead of creating a long list, and use words like “prefer” instead of “require” for education requirements.

3. Focus on a Candidate’s Value vs. Qualifications 

When interviewing for a job, we’ve all probably heard, “you don’t meet the experience requirement we are looking for.” It’s discouraging. If someone isn’t given an opportunity, how can they be expected to have experience? Companies should consider ways in which they can assess candidates that may not check all the boxes but have the desire, passion, and work ethic to succeed. 

4. Lessen Filters on Automated Recruiting Systems 

Technology, such as automated recruiting systems, exacerbated the problem as hidden workers are often automatically removed if they don’t meet specific criteria. To avoid this, remove or lessen filters on automated recruiting systems to reach untapped talent. By doing so, hidden workers have the opportunity to be interviewed and ultimately be hired. 

Always be open-minded when you see an applicant with an employment gap, a shift in career paths, or less experience than other candidates. 

5. Be Inclusive 

In today’s climate, being inclusive is crucial. If possible, accommodate a broad range of job seekers by offering remote positions, flexible hours, mental health services, extra PTO, transportation reimbursement, and childcare support. Offering these benefits will allow companies to attract more hidden workers while also enhancing corporate culture.

Moving Beyond “Traditional” Hiring Practices

The existence of hidden employees isn’t new — it’s just more apparent now because of the labor challenges we’re all experiencing. We must look beyond the traditional hiring processes to sustain the competitive nature of our businesses. By doing so, we’ll be able to provide employment opportunities to hidden workers, solve ongoing problems in today’s job market, improve diversity, close skill gaps, and much more. It just takes a little bit of time, effort, and open-mindedness.