Forced Broader Job Search Can be Counter Productive, Study Says

By | March 9, 2024
Broader Job Search
Broader job search was an experimental program aimed at pushing long-term unemployed individuals to expand their horizons.

A study by the Dutch government showed that while implementing a broader job search on unemployed individuals may have a positive effect in them getting a job, a forced one on the other hand is counter-productive.

If you have been unemployed before, you would know firsthand how disheartening the job search process could be.

Sending out resumes day after day, only to be met with rejection after rejection – it’s enough to make even the most hopeful job seeker start questioning their methods.

Policymakers have taken note of this struggle, with an increasing number of countries now requiring unemployed workers to look beyond their previous occupation when applying for jobs.

The thinking is that the unemployed may be spending too much time searching for that perfect replica of their last position and missing out on great opportunities in other fields.

The Dutch government was one of the pioneers of this “broader job search” approach.

In 2015, they launched an experimental program aimed at pushing long-term unemployed individuals to expand their horizons.

The question is did it actually help speed up their journeys back into the workforce?

In this post, we’ll dive into the inner workings of the Dutch broader search program, explore the massive randomized experiment used to test its effectiveness, and unpack the surprising results.

Was forcing the unemployed to go broader the miracle solution or did it accidentally make an already tough situation even tougher? Let’s find out.

The Dutch Broader Search Shake-Up

The Dutch program, implemented in 2015 by the national unemployment insurance (UI) administration, took a multi-pronged approach to pushing unemployed workers towards broader job searching.

First, it started with an official letter.

After someone had been collecting UI benefits for 6 months, they received an ominous piece of mail emphasizing that their job search scope was about to be widened whether they liked it or not.

No more hunting solely for that perfect job replicating their previous role and salary.

From now on, they’d need to start applying to jobs in different sectors, with longer commute times, lower education requirements, and yes – even lower wages.

As if that warning letter wasn’t enough to get the unemployed shaking in their job search boots, it was followed up by a mandatory meeting with a caseworker.

During this sit-down, the caseworker reviewed the unemployed person’s recent job applications to assess just how “narrow” their search efforts had been.

If the caseworker deemed they weren’t being broad enough, it was time for the biggest gut punch of all – being assigned an official “broader search task.”

This task was no joke.

The caseworker would identify specific “broader” job postings that the unemployed worker had to apply for, sometimes even printing them out on the spot.

Taking the task was obligatory, and compliance was strictly monitored. No following through? Potential loss of UI benefits.

So in essence, the Dutch program emotionally battered the unemployed into going broader through mild threats, paper trails, and the looming possibility of caseworker-directed job applications across totally different fields.

Harsh, perhaps – but the policymakers likely felt these tough-love tactics were a necessary evil to overcome job search inertia and short-sightedness.

Putting Broader Search to the Test

To scientifically evaluate whether this new tough-love approach actually improved employment outcomes, the Dutch UI administration got experimental.

Between 2015 and 2017, they conducted a massive randomized controlled trial – the gold standard in research designs.

The experiment targeted around 130,000 unemployed individuals who had been collecting UI benefits for at least 6 months.

This group was randomly split into two – a treatment group that received the full broader search program (intimidating letter, mandatory caseworker meeting, and possibility of a broader search task), and a control group that avoided the entire shake-up.

Using comprehensive administrative data on UI durations, employment status, earnings, and more, the researchers could then compare outcomes between the two groups.

If the treatment group was finding higher quality jobs faster, it would support the broader search program’s effectiveness.

But if the control group fared better, it could mean the program backfired.

To further dissect the program’s components, the researchers also leveraged a clever statistical trick.

You see, despite the random assignment, not all case workers imposed the broader search task at the same rate when meeting with unemployed individuals.

Some were apparently more hard-nosed “stringent” enforcers of the new policy than others.

By using this variation in caseworker stringency as an instrumental variable, the researchers could isolate the unique impact of just receiving a compulsory broader search task, separate from the other program elements like meetings and warning letters.

This is fancy quantitative wizardry, but incredibly insightful.

So was broader the way to go for these unemployed Dutch workers? The results were certainly…unexpected.

When Broader Goes Too Far

At first glance, the Dutch program seemed to be having its intended effect.

Compared to the control group, those assigned to the broader search treatment spent significantly less time collecting unemployment benefits during the first year.

Employment rates also ticked upwards for the treatment group right after their mandatory caseworker meeting.

“See, pushing people out of their narrow rut works!” the policymakers likely thought. Time to roll this out for all the unemployed!

But once the researchers started digging deeper into the isolating effects of the broader search task itself (thanks to that caseworker stringency instrument), a more concerning picture emerged.

It turned out that individuals who had broader search requirements forcibly imposed on them by their caseworkers were actually less likely to find employment. 

The reasons became clear when looking at the types of jobs they did manage to land.

Those compelled into broader search ended up with lower quality positions – fewer permanent contracts, less weekly hours, and an unfortunate inability to simply stay employed as long as their narrowly-searching peers.

In essence, the program strong-armed them into accepting inferior jobs that led to quicker career stagnation down the line.

So, while pushing unemployed workers into broader search may have initially perked up their efforts and placement rates, it came at the cost of lowering their standards in an ultimately self-defeating way.

The permanent dream job they hopefully aspired to was being sacrificed for short-term fix jobs unlikely to provide long-lasting career stability and satisfaction.

The findings seemingly contrasted with previous academic studies that suggested encouragement towards broader search could be beneficial, especially for the long-term unemployed.

But those studies simply provided extra vacancy information – not outright mandatory search requirements that legally forced acceptance of pretty much any vaguely relevant role.

The Limits of Forced Broader Search

The Dutch experiment reveals the potential pitfalls of taking a broader job search approach too far towards compulsory requirements and punitive enforcement.

While well-intentioned, the program’s methods may have paradoxically undermined its goals of improving long-term employment outcomes.

Pushing unemployed individuals to reluctantly apply for jobs they never would have considered otherwise meant many likely ended up in ill-fitting roles.

And once entrenched in those short-term positions of last resort, it became harder to transition back towards finding a genuinely sustainable career match down the line.

There’s an important nuance here: Previous research suggesting benefits from broader search took a much lighter, optional approach of simply providing additional vacancy information across fields.

To allow job seekers to expansively browse opportunities, but still exercise choice seems key.

Forcibly assigning applications and requiring acceptance is a bridge too far.

The Dutch results indicate policies surrounding the unemployed’s job search may be more effective when allowing some individualized flexibility and counseling, rather than blanket harsh requirements.

Not every person’s journey back to employment will look the same.

As the researchers themselves noted, tactics like mandating applications outside someone’s core qualifications could be better targeted towards more disadvantaged groups without obvious specializations, rather than applied so universally.

A one-size-fits-all broader search diktat made little sense for unemployed professionals with deep experience in a particular field.


So, while looking beyond the obvious is undoubtedly wise advice for any job seeker, policies that take that approach to severe extremes could do more harm than good.

When it comes to reemployment, freedom of choice may be an underrated catalyst for success – forced marches off the beaten career path, not so much.

Author: Team

We are a team of career experts and hiring professionals with many years of experience who are passionate about creating quality and helpful content for job seekers, recruiters, and all those interested in career-related information, including job description samples, resume and resume objective examples, etc. Learn more about us and how we create our articles: About US.