Navigating job boards and searching for employment online can often be a difficult and nerve-racking experience. Not only are there a number of common scams to avoid, but even legitimate postings can have elements of deception that you must identify so that your job search doesn’t result in wasted effort. There are many tricks that employers use to downplay the negative attributes of their companies or the positions themselves. You may need to read between the lines to discern whether an opportunity is worth pursuing, but being familiar with some of the common red flags will save you valuable time and minimize your chances of getting fooled.
1. The posting is old or the position is constantly reposted.
This is a classic red flag and tops many lists that have been created on the subject. If you notice that the job ad you’re reviewing was posted six months or a year ago, it’s safe to assume that particular position has already been filled and the hiring manager/recruiter simply neglected to take down the ad.
Another possibility is that the company keeps the opening up because they are just collecting resumes. There are some exceptions, of course. If the posting is for a high-turnover position like a retail or customer service role, it may be a “permapost” job, which means it is always open (translation: the company is always looking for warm bodies). On the other hand, jobs that get reposted over and over again typically indicate that the company has a hard time keeping employees. There may be a rational explanation for why this is the case, or it may just be a horrible place to work. Do you need the paycheck bad enough to find out?
2. Information about company culture is hard to come by or consistently negative.
It’s fairly commonplace for employers to tout their unique identity in job ads nowadays. The reason for this is two-fold: 1) studies have shown that new hires stay longer if they “fit in” with the office’s culture and 2) it’s an easy way to weed out potential applicants. For instance, if a job ad mentions that the company “welcomes dogs in the office,” odds are good that people who don’t like dogs won’t apply.
With this in mind, if you come across a job and aren’t able to uncover anything about what it’s like to work for that business via the ad or the company’s website, take that as a warning sign that they’re trying to hide something or they don’t see the value in cultivating a positive culture. Attempt to find reviews from current and former employees on sites like Glassdoor. You may need to take these criticisms with a grain of salt – it’s very easy for a disgruntled worker to submit a negative appraisal – but if you see the same sentiments expressed by many different individuals, it’s safe to assume there’s at least some validity to their opinions. Do a little extra research so you don’t end up wasting your time trying to get a job at a place you’ll hate.
3. The posting uses a variety of clichés and loaded phrases.
Certain job descriptions include things like “sense of humor preferred,” “must be comfortable performing other tasks,” “autonomous/self-reliant role,” or “often under pressure.” Unless there is a logical reason for any of these requirements – say you’re answering an ad for a comedy writer, a Jack (or Jane)-of-all-trades, a lighthouse keeper, or a neurosurgeon – you should be wary of ads that only employ vague language.
When you decode these phrases, more often than not they are attempting to hide a job’s more unsavory elements. “Sense of humor preferred” means “staff make inappropriate jokes.” “Must be comfortable performing other tasks” could translate to “your job description is only the tip of the iceberg.” “Autonomous/self-reliant role” stands for “don’t expect much help – this is a one-person team.” Finally, “often under pressure” may be interpreted as “we’re really understaffed; you’re being hired to do the work of three people.”
4. The company advertises “earning potential” rather than a specific salary.
Reading the words “make upward of $750K per year” may sound enticing, but remember the old adage: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Unless the position in question is a C-level role (or similarly lucrative job), the only way you will come close to reaching three quarters of a million dollars is by meeting a variety of very specific (and most likely very difficult) objectives. Listing earning potential is also common for sales positions that are commission-based, so if you are looking for something with a fixed base salary, steer clear of these ads. The devil’s in the details. Make sure to dig a little deeper before you get too excited by those dollar signs.
5. The posting mentions a long period of unpaid/low-paid training.
If you come across an ad that offers on-the-job training, you must find out as soon as possible whether you will be compensated during this instructional period. Some less-than-scrupulous employers attempt to get free or low-cost labor by requiring an extended training period for rather simple positions. This is also a trick used by companies that suffer from high turnover or toxic cultures. By mandating an initial learning phase for new employees, they’re really creating a de facto probation period to find out if you’ll “last” or if you won’t be able to put up with the rigors of the position or the personalities in the department.