when a job ad doesn’t list the true qualifications the employer is seeking

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A reader writes:

I’ve been working for the same company for over 7 years, and recently I applied for a position posted on the company website. It was a training position and I met the qualifications that were listed and it seemed to me I would be a good fit for the job. However, the HR rep emailed me back a week after I applied to inform me that I didn’t meet the qualifications. She listed four qualifications that I did not meet, but none of these were listed on the original job posting.

Is it a common practice to vet prospective candidates based on undisclosed qualifications?

Sure, it’s not uncommon that a job posting doesn’t list every single thing that the employer is looking for. But it’s not typically because they’re deliberately keeping job requirements secret. Instead, it’s one of the following:

1. The person who created the job posting doesn’t know what they’re doing. They’re not clear on what skills and traits they really need, and therefore the posting isn’t either. This often results in postings that require, say, experience in a specific software even though what the employer really needs is someone who can learn that software quickly. Sometimes it results in the truly ridiculous, such as requiring five years of experience with a technology that’s only been around for two years. And sometimes it goes in the opposite direction too — being so vague about the requirements that almost anyone would qualify.

2. The person who created the job posting did know what they’re doing, but there’s some flexibility to the requirements so they just listed the most important things. There might be 10 things they’d love to find, but only 3 are essential and the necessity of the others will vary depending on the candidate’s overall package. For instance, they might be willing to forego requirements 4-10 if your skills and accomplishments in 1-3 are really impressive — in which case, they might just list 1-3 in the ad. And that could certainly lead to them telling a candidate who met requirements 1-3 but still didn’t blow them away that they’re hoping to find un-posted requirements 4 and 5 too (rather than saying, “meh, you just struck us as kind of mediocre”). And that would be true — and it would be reasonable that they didn’t list those requirements in the ad, because they’re not going to be requirements in every case.

3. It could also be that they didn’t list a particular qualification because they didn’t realize its importance until they talked to a candidate who lacked it. For instance, you might advertise for a communications director who has a track record of placing stories in major publications, an ability to craft compelling soundbites, and strong relationships with reporters. Then you might talk to a candidate who has all of that — but she’s always worked for high-profile issues that are easy to get reporters to cover, and you realize that you’re looking for someone with a track record getting coverage of duller, more challenging issues. Or you realize in talking to her that her aggressive, fairly confrontational approach will give your more soft-spoken industry fits. Or everything else is great, but her writing — which just needs to be decent, so you didn’t even address it in the job requirements — is truly terrible. And so forth.

Ultimately, I think your question is about feeling that you were somehow treated unfairly — that the employer is conducting their search process in a less than transparent way. But that way of thinking doesn’t really get you anywhere. Maybe they’re inept at hiring or maybe they’re not — but it can be hard to tell from the outside … and either way you’re better off simply accepting that they didn’t think you were quite the fit they’re looking for — for whatever reason — and moving on.

{ 10 comments… read them below }

  1. Mephistopheles

    Alison, could is also be that the HR Rep might have simply unknowingly contradicted whoever actually composed the job listing? Occasionally, when I am doing business a representative or some other customer service employee, they will tell me something different than what the supervisor or manager says (if I am able to get to said person). Since this person is an employee and is looking for an internal position (assuming), would it be appropriate for her to actually go to the hiring manager directly?

      1. Long Time Admin

        At our company, a potential candidate CANNOT talk to the hiring manager first, or at any time except during the formal interview. There is a rigid protocol for transferring to any other open positions, and going directly to the hiring manager is not it. (At least, that’s what they say – they do tend to break their own policies here. However, a candidate could be terminated for breaking that policy.)

        Make sure you know what your company’s policy is before doing that!

  2. AnonyCat

    Ahh, this is unfortunate. =\ I seem to be seeing a LOT of #1 with the government jobs I’m applying for — the person who writes the descriptions doesn’t seem to actually even work in the same office or even anywhere near the place where the job will be existing. That, or the description is generic for that job title in the entire organization, but the actual job that I’m applying for is basically nothing like what they’ve listed… and I don’t find out until they call me for an interview. Eep!

    I went on an interview for one of these government jobs that I absolutely qualified for on paper with what they listed in the job desc — but then about a third of the time I spent talking with the head boss (about 2 hours of a 6.5 hour interview) the focus was on my management style. D:

    Management style?! The job description didn’t even MENTION managing other people or being responsible for supervising and directing other people’s work! I got a tour of the office and started meeting a few people for about half an hour each — I thought to just get a more in-depth idea of what those people did at the office… but then it turned out I was learning about these people and what they did because my job would be to MANAGE their work! @_@ Surprise! It was really uncomfortable though because I wasn’t prepared at all to talk about my management style… especially considering I only have hypothetical ideas about solving people’s problems (which thank goodness I’ve been reading your blog, Alison! your posts and my common sense saved my butt!) because the only people I’ve “managed” are teachers who I’ve prodded to get their grades into me on time… but I didn’t even think to talk about that, because it didn’t occur to me.

    Nervewracking!

  3. Michael Law

    Great post, but I think you left out one potential alternative. Couldn’t it be that the hiring manager has a specific person in mind that they want to hire but due to company or union policy, they have to post the position publicly before filling it?

    I don’t think it does a candidate any good to dwell on jobs they didn’t get, especially when they were told clearly why they didn’t get the job. I think this is a great example of why it’s important to network.

    Had the candidate had a relationship with the hiring manager, he/she could have perhaps called them directly to find out what were the really important qualifications and if he/she was a good fit.

    1. Phideaux

      Or, such as in the case when I recently had an internal job posting for my department, there are the one who you specifically DON”T want to hire. There were a few people at my work who would regularly ask me about openings in my department and if I did ever have openings, let them know. I knew that there was no way these people would work out in this department, so when I did have an opening, this is what happened. The HR department even went so far as to highlight certain qualifications that they knew these people didn’t have to give themselves an out.

  4. Long Time Admin

    Sometimes even paranoid people are right. I’m not saying that the OP is paranoid, just that it’s possible that either the HR person or the hiring manager changed the requirements when they saw his or her application.

    It happens.

    If, however, you (the OP) do some research and find that comparable jobs *DO* normally have these requirements, you can always take whatever courses you need to qualify for that type of job.

  5. Eric Putkonen

    I’ve been a recruiter for over 10 years at several companies…and I can say most job descriptions suck. But the reader who asked this question got an exceptionally raw deal.

    This is a fairly severe technical error. Yes, some things slip through the cracks and sometimes the job description is not that accurate, BUT for an internal employee to get a rejection and the reason being four requirements not listed is pretty sad.

    I would speak with the hiring manager (unless policy totally forbids this).

  6. Annr

    I’m sure any of the reasons given above could explain why someone would find out there were hidden qualifications, but given that the person already works at the company I think questioning the recruiter further is in order.

    Something is happening that the applicant isn’t aware of and talking more with the recruiter about how/why this happened may be useful in the future.

  7. -

    I was a trainer for 3 years and feel sorry for you you got rejected. But some of the qualifications they maybe didn’t/couldn’t put in the job description were: ability to build rapport with new people or people you’d otherwise not socialize with (which includes the ability to make small talk without it seeming like small talk), ability to react to last-minute attendance/location/technology changes and issues, the ability to become and sound like an expert on something in limited amounts of times and know how to deal with the resultant questions you cannot answer at the time, and the fortitude to deal with feedback that sessions were not great, or that xxx division would rather use someone else next time, sometimes no explanation is given. All of this stuff is vague, and it’s really hard sometimes to guage whether you’re doing or would do good…

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