Read More

Why We Should Worry About “Phantom” Job Posts

Companies that advertise fake jobs are doing a huge disservice to themselves, their employees, and the economy.

Each month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) releases an estimate of the total number of open jobs in the United States. Since 2021, the BLS has consistently reported approximately 10 or 11 million open jobs at any given time. This is much higher than historical norms and equates to roughly two open jobs for every jobseeker.

This data has been used to support a widespread and years-long narrative of a great American labor shortage that has been promoted by many people, companies, and institutions. But what if the data they’re using isn’t entirely accurate?

Recent reporting by the Wall Street Journal has publicized a secret practice from within the world of hiring that could be dramatically distorting BLS figures: the systemic creation of fake job listings by thousands of employers. These listings are publicized in the same way that legitimate listings are, but no effort is made to evaluate applicants, conduct interviews, or actually hire for the roles in question. Instead, they linger in limbo for months on end, causing immense frustration for many jobseekers.

A certain number of these listings could simply be attributable to honest mistakes: for example, a manager may have genuinely intended to hire for a role, but their employer enacted a hiring freeze before a suitable candidate was found and the post was never removed. However, the problem is so pervasive and widespread that many commentators believe that the bulk of these phantom postings are the result of deliberate decision making rather than forgetfulness. As detailed in the article linked above and in other reporting, hiring managers and corporate executives are remarkably forthright about this deception, admitting to pollsters and reporters alike that many of their organizations’ job listings are insincere.

It's worth making a distinction between purely fraudulent job postings and the related problems of job post “inflation", where companies make duplicate posts for the same job in the hope of increasing their odds of success, and so-called “purple squirrel” listings, where companies advertise for extremely niche positions where suitable candidates may not even exist. While these practices are problematic in their own way, the remainder of this blog will focus on the issue of job posts that are entirely fictitious.

So what exactly motivates an employer to create fake job advertisements? Some of the most common reasons are listed below:

  1. To present an image of a successful, thriving company to the world, even when an organization may actually be struggling. This is particularly relevant to startups and publicly traded companies that rely on positive perceptions for capital inflow.
  2. To soothe the irritation of overworked employees and give them false hope that new hires will soon help to ease their workload. Unscrupulous employers may use fake listings as an easy way to reassure burnt-out staff without actually addressing their concerns.
  3. To cultivate a pool of potential replacements that can be drawn upon in the event of an unexpected departure. This is essentially an insurance policy that aims shorten the hiring timetable when somebody quits, which could be particularly valuable in industries with high turnover.

The Real-World Effects of Phantom Listings

The publication of these ghost posts arguably constitutes false advertising, but isn’t it essentially a victimless crime? Why, a reasonable person might wonder, are we dwelling on such a frivolous phenomenon?

But the truth is that phantom job postings aren’t frivolous or victimless, especially when done at a scale large enough to impact the job market as a whole. Organizations that engage in this practice are obviously doing a huge disservice to applicants, but they are also doing a disservice to themselves, their employees, and society in general. Each of these are explored in greater detail below:

Negative Impacts on Employers

Fake job postings create an extremely frustrating situation for applicants that, over time, can have a toxic effect on an employer’s brand. It takes time and energy to seek out job listings, compile application materials, and send follow-up communications to hiring managers. People who put effort into an application process only to receive no response or to discover that the position they applied for is fake will inevitably feel a sense of irritation and broken trust.

This evidence of an organization acting in bad faith creates poor word-of-mouth and deters bruised jobseekers from applying to the same company in the future. In the long run, any public relations benefits gained from ghost posts will be eroded by the negative effects of this disrespectful practice.

Negative Impacts on Employees

As mentioned above, one of the primary motives for creating phantom job listings is to placate overburdened employees with the promise that help is on the way. However, this tactic is not only manipulative and amoral, but also ineffective. Employers of an understaffed organization may temporarily take solace in the hope that new hires will be able to ease their workload, but it doesn’t take a genius to realize what’s going on after months pass with no news or updates about the supposedly open positions.

In addition to this, existing employees who try to refer qualified friends, family members, or other connections to said positions will understandably feel upset and embarrassed when they realize that they’ve been tricked by their employer. Employees will inevitably discuss this with each other, and news of the deception will spread internally. Attempting to boost workforce morale in this manner is simply unwise and counterproductive.

Negative Impacts on Society

The scale of phantom job postings is impossible to know with any degree of certitude. However, labor market experts believe that fake jobs are commonplace enough to create significant distorting effects on American economic data. This is a big deal: BLS figures, including the number of open positions nationwide, are used by influential policymakers and economists everywhere to assess the health of the country’s labor market as well as the general condition of the national economy.

These statistics play a role in the formulation of economic policies such as interest rates and stimulus bills, the creation of political narratives that determine the outcome of elections, and the investment and spending decisions of millions of people and corporations. If the true number of available jobs is significantly lower than believed, it means that crucial institutions and individuals are currently acting under incorrect assumptions, which hampers their ability to accurately understand and diagnose America’s economic situation.

For the sake of us all, it is best to ensure that an organization’s job listings are reflective of their true hiring intentions.

Does your organization have real job openings? If so, check out this podcast on Hiring for a Diverse Workforce.