There is growing interest in research that informs more effective practices in employment services across Europe, Australia and the USA. However, despite the ever-expanding amount of research on the implementation and efficacy of various policy programmes in practice, the knowledge on how to bring unemployed individuals closer to the labour market remains ambiguous and inconclusive. This is especially so in the context of the more vulnerable unemployed, who face physical, mental and social challenges in addition to unemployment. In this article, we examine the existing literature in terms of its potential to inform (the development of) effective employment policies. On this basis, we outline an alternative approach based on the concept of relational causality, and discuss the implications of such an approach for applied policy research.