In brief

In brief

  • As public service agencies face challenges attracting talent, there’s a pool of potential workers being overlooked, called "Hidden Workers".
  • Most hidden workers are eager to find work or increase their working hours. Many have skills that are in high demand in 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 and military spouses, immigrants, refugees and people without traditional qualifications. Also included are those with physical disabilities, mental health challenges, and from less-advantaged 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. Most 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 agencies 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 agencies access hidden workers?

Public services agencies 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 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, government agencies have a responsibility not only to do the same, but also to take the lead and provide a model of how to integrate hidden workers successfully into the workforce.

Rainer Binder

Managing Director – Public Service, Social Services Lead

Marni Poropat

Director – Consulting, Public Service, Australia and New Zealand

Adan Hernandez

Senior Manager – Public Service, North America


Hidden workers: a deep new talent pool for defence
Delivering responsible skilling for a digital future
Curious about returning to work? You're not alone

Subscription Center
Visit our Subscription and Preference Center Visit our Subscription and Preference Center