The workers lured into oversold jobs

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Accepting a job is always a gamble. But some roles are oversold from the start, leaving disgruntled workers in a difficult position.

When May was recruited into a state-funded career-coaching role, she thought she would be able to achieve meaningful outcomes for clients. “The job suggested I would be able to coach people back into work,” says May, who is based in southwest England. “I've done a lot of coaching, and I thought my skills could really help people and make a difference to their lives.”

Yet the reality turned out to be quite different. Her day was divided up into 30-minute sessions and, of these, “the people I could help were maybe 10% of my workload”. The rest were candidates for whom a return to the workforce was unrealistic; instead of coaching, they required other support structures like healthcare or social services. “I just couldn't help them, and it was very soul destroying,” says May. Far from using her skills to create a positive impact, she felt her job was performative. “I was a tick-box exercise. I was just calling people to check what they were doing.”

Starting a new job always means taking a leap of faith – at best it’s an informed gamble – but sometimes roles can be oversold from the get-go. Recruiters and hiring managers might say a position comes with better working conditions, more responsibility or opportunities for progression that never materialise. They might make the role sound more meaningful or rewarding than is really the case. And new starters might only find out the reality of the job once they’ve already committed.

This is a more likely scenario in a tight labour market, where job openings are plentiful, and companies must compete to secure new hires. One 2022 survey of more than 2,500 workers from careers site The Muse showed that nearly three-quarters of respondents had started jobs, only to find that the position was very different to what they had been led to believe.

Workers in this position may well feel disappointed and demotivated – and want to leave. In the same survey, 80% of respondents said it was acceptable to leave a role that didn’t live up to expectations within six months. Yet this leaves candidates in an awkward position to explain in future interviews, and puts companies back to square one with a role to refill. Why, then, do companies oversell roles? And what can workers do to avoid landing a position that doesn’t live up to expectations?

In a scramble to fill positions, some recruiters may give candidates the best possible picture of a role that doesn't necessarily pan out in reality (Credit: Getty Images)

In a scramble to fill positions, some recruiters may give candidates the best possible picture of a role that doesn't necessarily pan out in reality (Credit: Getty Images)

The pressure to recruit

For recruiters and hiring managers, the pressure to act fast is immense, says Jan Tegze, recruitment expert and author of Job Search Guide, based in the Czech Republic. “When the company opens a role, they need to fill it as fast as possible. Speed is often the key to securing top talent, because if you are not fast enough, your competitors are,” he says. Keen to meet performance goals or to live up to management expectations, it can be tempting for recruiters to make promises that candidates want to hear to get them in the door.

This does not always mean completely reinventing an existing role or company. “It’s giving the best possible picture,” says Sue Ingram, a London-based HR consultant and coach at management-training provider Converse Well. Typically, it could include talking up the advantages of a role, and playing down or staying silent on any negatives, which to an extent is standard practice in any interview.

“Everyone is putting their best face forward, and HR is as bad at doing that as candidates,” says Ingram. But a focus on the advantages can sometimes stray into overselling, especially if the company is particularly keen to hire an applicant. “The hiring manager can, in their excitement of wanting a candidate, start telling them things that they want to implement or their vision for the company, when in actual fact, it's not there yet.”

Similarly, companies may make promises based on things that they expect to happen, rather than realities that unfold. A manager who makes specific promises at interview might leave shortly after the candidate joins, and the wider company might not honour those pledges, especially if they involve special treatment. And if an organisation’s fortunes change – as they may well do in a volatile economy – it may be impossible to keep promises made in good faith during the hiring process.

Everyone is putting their best face forward, and HR is as bad at doing that as candidates – Sue Ingram

This was the case for Priya, who started a sales and marketing role in London after an interview that promised a career-progression plan. In reality, large-scale changes in the business as a whole have meant that she has been shuffled from one project to another, and colleagues who are worried for their jobs have been reluctant to share knowledge and make themselves less valuable. “I’ve been expected to hit the ground running with limited training,” she says. “Nothing discussed in the interview actually panned out.”

The unhappy impact of overselling

The pressure on companies to fill roles is only increasing. In the US, the number of new job openings added each month has been higher than average since 2021. In the UK, the “tightest labour market in years” has led to a shortage of workers that is impeding company growth, the British Chambers of Commerce said in October.

Yet both Tegze and Ingram agree that overselling is a poor long-term strategy. Even if a candidate is not lied to outright, a mismatch between what was advertised and what was delivered in terms of the role can breed mistrust, and damage the relationship between company and candidate. The impact of working in an oversold role can also be painful for employees.

Healthcare worker Julie, based in Dorset, UK, was pleased when she got a job as a care coordinator in September 2021. She had previously been working as a live-in carer, and her new office-based role would mean she could spend evenings at home. The role was sold to her as “an office job, five minutes from home, with a little bit of on-call visiting”, she says. “But on day three, I was asked to fill in [as a carer] the whole night until 10 a.m. That continued for six months.”

When role expectations don't meet reality, workers can be stuck in jobs they would have never taken in the first place (Credit: Getty Images)

When role expectations don't meet reality, workers can be stuck in jobs they would have never taken in the first place (Credit: Getty Images)

A lack of staff, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, meant that she ended up working 70-hour weeks as she fulfilled her office duties and also provided in-person patient care. Far from being able to spend evenings at home, as she had hoped, “I was doing ridiculous hours and I did not have a social life. I was a zombie,” she says.

Some of the issues with oversold jobs stem from inherent flaws in the hiring process. “You always accept a job offer with limited knowledge about the role,” says Tegze, “because you won’t be able to cover everything during an hour or two in an interview.” To mitigate this, one thing candidates can do is try to gather as much information as possible before accepting an offer.

Ingram suggests asking plenty of questions, speaking to former employees, and even asking to spend a day with the team to see how things work in practice. Doing so can reveal aspects about culture and internal processes that can have a big impact day-to-day, but might not come across clearly during interviews. “Before you accept the job, you've got the power,” says Ingram. “You as a candidate need to interview the company, and don't be pushed into accepting a job offer without having the information for you to make the decision.”

If, despite this, a candidate still ends up in an oversold role, it may not be too late to act. During the probation period, “good HR departments follow up, good recruiters follow up, a good manager will hold conversations to see how it’s going”, says Ingram. “Hopefully, there is enough of a rapport that the individual can say if they’re disappointed.” In some cases, course correction or an honest conversation about what the role does offer may be possible.

But it is unlikely an oversold role will morph into a dream job, and many candidates in this position may find they have to restart their job searches.

Despite promises from the CEO that the system would change, Julie knew there was no long-term solution for staff shortages (a dynamic which in itself might make a company more prone to overselling its roles). So, she left her job after six months – something that was possible because of all the overtime pay she had built up working long hours – and has now returned to her original job as a live-in carer. “I wanted to take control of the hours that I was doing,” says Julie. 

Not all workers can afford to leave a role that doesn’t live up to expectations. Despite feeling “a lot of doubt and anxiety” about a job that was oversold to her, Priya feels she has to stay, for the foreseeable future, for financial reasons and because she lacks qualifications and experience in her role. “I’m keeping my eyes peeled for a new role, but I would need some luck,” she says.

May, meanwhile, tried hard to improve her prospects from inside the organisation. “I'm an optimist,” she says. “I thought I could find a way up through the ranks to somewhere else within the organisation where I could use my talents and skills.” She and her colleagues worked together to implement new training programmes which, she says, had an impact. “We had a huge amount of success, but our reward for that was having it taken off us and given to someone else.”

She was put back in her original role and was relieved when, after 18 months, her contract came to an end. She is now in the process of opening her own company providing corporate wellness sessions. The whole experience, overall, left her feeling disheartened, she says. “I was worn out.”