When most people apply for jobs, they expect the job description on postings to match the job that will be filled. But our recently published study examining startup hiring shows that this isn’t always the case: sometimes the job someone applies for might not end up being the same job they are hired for.
Jobs can evolve between the time a decision is made to hire someone, and the actual hiring process itself. Hiring managers might change job duties, hire someone for a different job than the one they are applying for, or abandon the job search altogether. While this might be frustrating for job hunters, employers do this in response to uncertainties in the workplace.
At a time when employers are struggling to find employees and many people are making career changes, knowing and understanding why this happens is crucial both to those hunting for new jobs and for people trying to fill some of the many jobs that have been vacated.
For our study on startup hiring, we interviewed more than 100 startup founders, managers and their employees, job seekers and experts from the startup community. We analyzed the interviews to understand how and why jobs changed in this period and found two main patterns.
We found that some employers deliberately use the hiring process to figure out the needs of their organization 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 hiring process to define two new marketing positions. Instead of writing and posting a formal job description, the founders scoured their networks and brought two marketing candidates in for a non-traditional evaluation process.
The founders described their current marketing challenges and asked the job candidates to present their solutions. Based on the presentations, they designed two distinct marketing positions around the skills of the two candidates.
In other cases, changes in job duties are not part of a planned process. Hiring managers might start with clear descriptions of the jobs they want to fill, fail to find candidates with the skills they’re looking for and end up redefining and reposting those jobs.
One CEO we interviewed did this after he received an overwhelming number of applications above the skill level needed for a personal assistant opening. He reposted the job as an office manager position, which required a higher credential, and quickly filled it.
Some managers also change their minds about what they want in the midst of the hiring process.
One startup in our study identified problems in their sales function in the middle of the hiring process, and ended up changing the job after applications had come in. They offered one candidate—who had applied for the original full-cycle sales manager position—the new job as a lead generator. He was promised that eventually he would move into the original sales job he had applied for.
Lastly, managers sometimes stumble across great candidates who fit different positions and fill those jobs instead. One startup in our study went to a job fair hoping to find a mid-level developer—then ended up hiring an entry-level developer and a marketing director instead.
We 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, like taking down and reposting jobs, can lead to positive consequences, like more stable jobs and incumbents who remain in the organizations. It can allow the organizations to learn, create a better organizational structure and even undertake new work.
This finding is consistent with past research that found 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, like job instability, protracted conflict over job territory and the exit of the incumbent and dissolution of the job.
For example, the job candidate mentioned earlier who was offered a job different from the one he applied for ended up in a conflict with the sales director, and his job never transitioned to the full-cycle sales job he had been promised at hiring. He was gone within a year, and his position was not filled.
This finding matches past research that found that changing jobs around individual job holders can result in bias, favoritism, low morale, and undesirable and unpredictable power struggles.
The dynamic nature of job descriptions has the potential to produce inequality in the hiring process, since not all job applicants understand that jobs can change between posting and hiring. Those who do understand will have a distinct advantage over those who don’t because they know to apply for jobs even when their preferences and qualifications don’t line up with the job posting. This knowledge may align with individual demographics.
This may be particularly bad for women and members of other under-represented groups who are less comfortable applying for jobs where they do not fit the stated qualifications. Prior evidence has shown that women tend to apply for the jobs they are already well-qualified for, while men apply to the jobs they aspire to be qualified for.
Women also may be less likely than men to apply for jobs with the expectation that the jobs will evolve to fit their skills and preferences. If more women are aware of the results from our study, it could result in more applying for jobs that seem outside their area of expertise.
Lisa Cohen is an associate professor of business administration at McGill University and Sara Mahabadi is an assistant professor at the University of Alberta School of Business. This article originally appeared on The Conversation.