When most people apply for jobs, they expect the job description on the postings to match the position that will be filled. However, our recently published study on hiring startups shows that this is not always the case. Sometimes the job a person is applying for may not be the same job they were hired for.
Jobs can evolve between the time a decision is made to hire someone and the hiring process itself. Hiring managers may change roles, hire someone for a different role than the one they’re applying for, or give up on the job search altogether. While this can be frustrating for job seekers, employers do it in response to uncertainty in the workplace.
At a time when employers are struggling to find employees and many people are changing careers, it is crucial to know and understand why this is happening both for those looking for new jobs and for those trying to fill some of the many jobs that have been vacated.
Why jobs change between posting and hiring
For our study on hiring startups, we interviewed over 100 startup founders, managers and their employees, job seekers, and startup community experts. We analyzed the interviews to understand how and why jobs changed over this period and found two main trends.
We have found that some employers deliberately use the hiring process to determine their organization’s needs and define their new positions accordingly. In cases like this, employers know they need to hire someone, but they don’t yet have a clear idea of what that job will look like.
One startup in our study used the recruiting process to define two new marketing positions. Instead of writing and posting a formal job description, the founders scoured their networks and put two marketing candidates through a non-traditional assessment process.
The founders described their current marketing challenges and asked job candidates to pitch their solutions. Based on the presentations, they designed two distinct marketing positions around the skills of the two candidates.
Unplanned job changes
In other cases, changes in job duties are not part of a planned process. Hiring managers can start with clear descriptions of the positions they want to fill, fail to find candidates with the skills they are looking for, and end up redefining and re-posting those positions.
One CEO we interviewed did so after receiving an overwhelming number of applications above the skill level required for a personal assistant opening. He reposted the office manager position, which required a higher degree, and quickly filled it.
Some managers also change their minds about what they want midway through the hiring process.
One startup in our study identified issues in its sales function midway through the hiring process and ended up changing jobs after applications came in. She offered a candidate — who had applied for the original full-cycle sales manager job — the new job as a lead generator. He was promised that he would eventually fill the initial salesman position he had applied for.
Finally, managers sometimes come across great candidates who fit different positions and fill those positions instead. One startup in our study went to a job fair hoping to find a mid-level developer, and ended up hiring an entry-level developer and marketing manager instead.
Positive and negative impacts
We have found that this evolution of job descriptions during the hiring process can have mixed consequences for both the hiring organizations themselves and new hires.
Some changes, such as the elimination and reassignment of jobs, can have positive consequences, such as more stable jobs and incumbents who remain in organizations. It can allow organizations to learn, create a better organizational structure, and even take on new work.
This finding is consistent with previous research that has found that changes in job descriptions can allow organizations to adapt to a variety of situations by developing structures and strategies that fit the circumstances.
However, we observed that most of the other types of job changes in our study resulted in negative consequences, such as job instability, prolonged dispute over employment territory, and incumbent exit and termination of employment.
For example, the previously mentioned candidate who was offered a different job than the one he had applied for ended up in conflict with the sales manager, and his job never progressed to the cycle sales job. package that had been promised to him when he was hired. He left in less than a year and his position has not been filled.
This finding is consistent with previous research that found that job switching around individual job holders can lead to bias, favoritism, low morale, and undesirable and unpredictable power struggles.
The dynamic nature of job descriptions has the potential to produce inequities in the hiring process, as not all job applicants understand that jobs can change between posting and hiring. Those who understand will have a distinct advantage over those who don’t, because they know how to apply for jobs even when their preferences and qualifications don’t match the job posting. This knowledge can align with individual demographics.
This can be particularly harmful for women and members of other underrepresented groups who are less comfortable applying for jobs for which they do not match the listed qualifications. Previous evidence has shown that women tend to apply for jobs they are already well qualified for while men apply for jobs they aspire to be qualified for.
Women may also be less likely than men to apply for jobs in the expectation that jobs will evolve according to their skills and preferences. If more women are aware of the results of our study, this could translate into more applications for jobs that seem outside their area of expertise.