WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) — There’s nothing to excite a job seeker like seeing the perfect job advertised. The problem is: The position noted in that ad may not be available.

It might be an ad for a spot that’s already been filled, or the funding for that position evaporated since the ad was posted. But some of the most galling job ads may be those that companies run even though a top contender is already a shoo-in for the position. Despite the shoo-in, employers will interview other candidates with slim-to-zero chance of winning the position.

“If you had such an interview in good times and got another job that was equivalent soon after, you probably would not think twice about it,” said Larry Katz, a labor economist at Harvard University. But, “if such a position is your only ‘good’ interview over weeks in a deep recession, it will certainly be more salient.”

Bureaucratic rules often drive these types of job postings. Employers aim to appear open-minded about an employee search — but the openings aren’t real because the positions essentially are filled, Katz said.

“They don’t want people to think that jobs are pre-selected for folks,” said Gerald Maatman Jr., an employment lawyer at Seyfarth Shaw. “HR departments will follow the mantra that we need to have a transparent and open system. In practice, there may be situations when a manager wants ‘candidate A,’ and it doesn’t really matter who else applies to the position. Sometimes you have a battle between HR and the executive who wants to fill the slot.”

Did we mention this is a volunteer position?

Here’s another type of irksome job ad: those that are for real positions, but the ads are profoundly misleading.

“I’ve gone on several interviews recently only to be told after the interview that the positions are unpaid,” one poster to a Washington-community forum recently wrote. “It would help if they advertise the positions as unpaid. [By the way] the positions call for an advanced degree and years of experience.”

Sometimes employers simply change their mind about an advertised spot.

“A manager is rewarded for being under budget. If a manager has two spots that are open and they haven’t found the perfect fit and they can still get along without those two people, they are not going to compromise on hiring, so you are seeing long openings for a job,” said Jeffrey Joerres, chief executive of ManpowerGroup, a Milwaukee-based staffing services firm.

Evolving circumstances can also mean that employers change their minds after posting a job ad.

“It might be that someone else in the department steps up and wants that job; it might be a hiring freeze,” said John Challenger, chief executive of outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas in Chicago. “Sometimes they only like people that they can’t get because the money is not good enough. They look at a lot of candidates and keep selecting someone who rejects the job.”

Whatever the reason for posting a lame job ad, an employer’s reputation may be at stake. After all, job seekers talk to each other. Going a step further, it takes just a few seconds for a disgruntled worker to publicly shame a company in 140 characters or less.

“Companies have to be careful because their employer brand can be injured without them knowing it,” Joerres said.

Red flags

Competition is fierce to land a spot, with government data indicating that there are almost five unemployed workers for each opening.

While many job ads are legitimate — companies want to fill an opening — some of the challenges that job seekers face may be due to misleading ads. Unfortunately, it’s unclear how many job posts are iffy as employers aren’t forthcoming about their misleading ads. But experts say job seekers can watch out for some red flags.

  • Ads that are much too specific about desired worker characteristics. “That’s when you know they already know who the candidate is. Sometimes when there are odd requirements, that’s a way to justify hiring the person they want. They are just generating applications to satisfy some bureaucratic process,” Katz said.
  • Quickly approaching deadlines for applications. “If it’s a super-short deadline, then they are kind of going through the motions,” Maatman said.
  • Older posts on job sites. “The Web is a wonderful thing but it also can pull dated information. It might pull jobs that are several months old, or jobs that have already been filled,” said Jason Levin, a Washington-based career coach. “You really have to do your extra diligence to make sure the job hasn’t already been filled. Call HR and ask if it’s been filled yet. You can be that direct because if you have the skills and ability and the right mind-set, they are going to want to take you on”.


By Ruth Mantell, MarketWatch