In brief

In brief

  • As public service organizations face challenges attracting talent, there’s a pool of potential workers being overlooked, called "Hidden Workers".
  • Most Canadian hidden workers are eager to find work or increase their working hours. Many have skills that are in high demand in the public service.
  • We partnered with Harvard Business School’s Project "Managing the Future of Work" to find out more about what’s keeping these workers hidden.
  • Our survey shows how enhancing public service hiring processes can stop hidden workers being screened out of public service job opportunities.


Who are hidden workers?

This is a diverse group of individuals. It spans caregivers, veterans, immigrants, refugees, and people without traditional qualifications. Also included are persons with disabilities, mental health challenges, and from less advantaged or marginalized populations.

Our research shows how hidden workers can face enormous challenges finding work or increasing their hours. The reason? They’re often screened out early on by hiring processes that rely on recruitment management systems to automatically filter and rank candidates.

Ninety-percent of executives surveyed believe qualified candidates are vetted out of the process because they don’t match exact job criteria.

An opportunity hiding in plain sight

Hiring hidden workers is not just good for the individuals concerned, it also offers real benefits to the organizations they join. Nearly two-thirds of executives hiring hidden workers report that their new recruits perform "significantly better" than average across a range of key indicators including work ethic, productivity, work quality, attendance, and innovation.

We found that organizations that hire hidden workers are less likely to face challenges hiring talent with in-demand experience and skills. They are also more likely to benefit from workers with a positive work ethic and attitude.

What keeps hidden workers hidden?

A number of hurdles on the route to employment systematically exclude hidden workers. Among them? Excessively specific job descriptions, inflexible working practices, and difficult job application processes. All these contribute to the finding that just 7% of hidden workers manage to obtain a full-time job offer.

Around one in two hidden workers say that the job application experience stopped them applying for employment in public service.

Organizations also face barriers that prevent them from tapping into this pool of hidden talent. The three most critical are:

  • Recruiting systems that automatically screen out eligible candidates. Many employers use a recruitment management system (RMS) to filter and rank candidates. Because these systems are built to maximize efficiency, the parameters they use are highly prescriptive.
  • Recruitment functions that overlook the business case for hiring hidden workers. Most organizations that engage with hidden workers do so as a corporate social responsibility initiative, rather than as part of their strategic planning. It’s important to factor in the broader benefits hidden workers bring with them, notably improved performance, and innovation.
  • A widening training gap. Technology advances mean roles in public service organizations are changing fast. Evolving job requirements often outpace the ability of education systems and other workforce intermediaries to keep up. If they’re not already employed, this can make it very difficult for workers to obtain relevant skills.

How can public service organizations access hidden workers?

Public service-organizations have much to gain from accessing hidden talent. To do so, they’ll need to address five key issues:

1: Shift filters from negative to affirmative

Automated or semi-automated recruitment processes often filter out many high-potential candidates before they progress through the hiring process.

2: Refresh job descriptions to focus on skills

Refreshing job descriptions based on an analysis of performance skills would help both candidates and employers focus on relevant, critical skills.

3: Adopt an experience mindset for recruitment

Redesigning the application process with a user experience lens can help ensure that hidden workers feel comfortable in their journey back to work.

4: Undertake more targeted outreach

Focusing on select types of hidden workers allows employers to tailor experiences to the particular talent group.

5: Foster culture that supports hidden workers

The full potential of hidden workers can only be realized by providing a supportive workforce culture and environment.

View All

As the private sector begins to recognize and champion the case for hidden workers, Canadian government departments are prioritizing the integration of hidden workers successfully into the workforce through apprenticeship opportunities for Indigenous people, establishing a fair system for hiring temporary foreign workers and creating disability-inclusive spaces. Public sector leadership is key to establishing a model that facilitates the prosperity of hidden workers in Canada.

Rainer Binder

Managing Director – Public Service, Social Services Lead


Laura Clements

Managing Director – Consulting, Talent & Organization, Federal Public Service, Canada


Marcus Davies

Principal Director – Strategy and Consulting, Public Service, Canada

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