what employers owe job candidates — and what they don’t

As the tight job market drags on, job searchers are getting increasingly frustrated with what they often perceive as bad treatment from employers toward applicants. And it’s true that in a flooded job market, it’s become all too easy for employers to feel they don’t need to worry about treating applicants well. But at the same time, job seekers aren’t always clear about what employers do owe them when they apply for a job.

Here’s a breakdown of what job seekers should be able to expect from employers – as well as two items that aren’t reasonable to expect.

* Employers should provide a clear, honest description of the role. Employers who make the job sound more glamorous than it really is or who downplay less attractive aspects of the job, like long hours or a difficult boss, are guaranteeing they’ll end up with a resentful, unmotivated employee. Truth in advertising works to everyone’s advantage, because candidates who won’t thrive in the job or the culture can select out before they become disgruntled employees.

* Employers should provide a clear yes or no on your application, particularly if you took the time to interview. Too many employers don’t bother to get back to applicants at all, even after candidates have taken time off work to interview. This is rude and inconsiderate, and it’s simply not that hard to send a quick email letting applicants know where they stand.

* Employers should give job candidates same amount of consideration they’d show any other business contact. This means not canceling interviews at the last minute unless it’s truly an emergency, not insisting candidates to drop everything for an interview tomorrow, and not checking their email in the interview.

* Employers should provide an application process that respects the time of the people they want to hire. But increasingly, companies are asking candidates to complete endlessly long online application forms, often riddled with technical problems. Candidates shouldn’t need to spend an hour wrestling with an onerous application system simply to submit a resume.

* Employers should stop invading candidates’ privacy just because they can. Increasingly, companies are asking candidates to submit their social security number, references, and even driver’s license number with their initial application. There’s no reason to require this kind of information from candidates who haven’t even gone through an initial screening round yet.

* Employers do notowe you feedback on why you were rejected. Candidates often feel companies are acting unfairly by refusing to tell them why they didn’t get the job, or even an interview. But employers aren’t job coaches, and they don’t have time to provide thoughtful feedback to most applicants. (Heck, many of them don’t even do it for their employees, although they should.) While kind interviewers will provide feedback when they can, it’s unrealistic for candidates to expect it.

* Employers don’t owe you a fair chance at the job. Other than not discriminating based on race, sex, religion, or another protected class, hiring isn’t about giving everyone a fair shot at the job. Hiring decisions are made for all sorts of reasons: The job might go to a less qualified internal candidate who happens to be the CEO’s neighbor. You might be rejected because the hiring manager knows your former boss, who disliked you. You might even be rejected without anyone bothering to look at your resume. Expecting fairness from the process will set you up for disappointment.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 76 comments… read them below }

  1. twentymilehike*

    Increasingly, companies are asking candidates to submit their social security number, references, and even driver’s license number with their initial application.

    Good grief, yes! I recently filled out two applications–one was for US citizenship, the other for an administrative assistant position. They might as well have been the same application! In fact, for the background check for the job, they wanted TEN YEARS of residence history …. the application for naturalization only wanted FIVE. I still can’t figure out why a clothing company would want to do a background check so intensive for an admin position. My only guess is it was because it was for the CFO? But still, they really can’t need that info with the initial application, right?!

    I know a lot of job seekers are taking your advice to heart … I wish more employers would do the same!

    1. Sharon*

      The reason companies do this is because it’s easier to handle standardized policies and procedures than to have different ones for different employees. However, I would like Alison to chime in here on how much of this stuff is sheer laziness and how much is to defend from accusations of favoritism or discrimination. It seems obvious to me that you don’t need such a thorough background check for an admin position but probably DO want it for executive level.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Laziness, and a lack of thoughtfulness about what they really need, and a lack of appreciation for the fact that the best candidates — the ones they presumably really want to attract — often have options and won’t bother applying if the entrance barrier is such a pain in the ass.

        1. Rachel*

          ^^^ This

          I recently applied for a role where they spent two hours grilling me on my technical credentials. At the end of it, the interviewer said he was pretty impressed, and that I’d definitely be asked back for a second interview, at which time I could ask any questions I had about them. He also said that they’d had quite a bit of difficulty finding candidates of the right calibre. No shit Sherlock: we’re interested in more than just answering questions for two hours, followed by you not even making so much as five minutes of your time available to answer any questions we may have before deciding whether we even want to come back for round 2.

          I got a follow-up a week later, which was an invitation to interview, accompanied by an application form that asked for such riveting details as all the schools I’d attended since age 11. I’m forty years old, and what I do these days has little to do with what school I went to in 1983. I passed on the second interview. I figured there was probably someone more suited to the role they were recruiting for. Perhaps someone that had left school this decade.

          I’ve turned down one offer since then, and am starting a new job on Monday. They’re still looking for their candidate with hard-to-find technical skills. I wonder why?

    2. Not So NewReader*

      CFO? Yeah, this is meshing with other things I am seeing in the area of finance. They want to know everything. Grandmother’s maiden name, name of your previous dog, how many blades of grass are in your front yard. (wth?)

      The word paranoid comes to mind.

      Unfortunately, I do not see where all this heavy screening is helping that much. There are still many difficulties/challenges in the financial arena.

      1. twentymilehike*

        CFO? Yeah, this is meshing with other things I am seeing in the area of finance.

        I work with the CFO of my current company and I can see how maybe wanting all that info to apply for a CFO position would be possibly relevant, but for their admin? I’m not sure … Its been a really long time since I was job hunting, and when I applied here they didn’t ask for my resume or even references. My boss sort of operates on “feelings” …

        1. Not So NewReader*

          The laws regarding financials have gotten iron fisted. People affiliated with financial people have to be “cleared” on many checking points. Yes, it is as if you are the CFO. Think of Enron, the banks, insider trading, the mortgage market… There has just been too much stuff going on.
          Those days of operating on feelings are loooong gone.
          I am not sure if that is all good. Some times we need our gut feelings in addition to the facts we have collected up.

          Keep your dog’s birth date handy. You might need it somewhere along the lines.

          On the good side of things, you probably have your ducks in a row- so for you it is just a matter of filling out allll the forms.

          1. Anonymous*

            Besides, surely as the admin, you make the decisions so that your boss can go to the golf course? :-)

          2. JT*

            “The laws regarding financials have gotten iron fisted. People affiliated with financial people have to be “cleared” on many checking points.”

            New laws say this?

          3. some1*

            I got a job in the financial industry for the first time this year. My background check was the same as most places do, checking for convictions in my state in the last 7 years. No credit check or anything like that.

  2. Rob*

    The awful online application process is awful. I can’t believe how many companies – large and small – make this a ridiculously difficult time.

    I can’t even begin to count the number of companies I stopped applying to, just because it was impossible to complete the application process. Simultaneously I wonder how these companies hire anyone at all…

    1. BCW*

      This is true. For me to go complete one of those super long applications, it either has to be what I’d consider the “perfect job” for me, or something I think I’ll almost definitely get an interview for. Otherwise, they are ridiculous.

      The fact that they want me to essentially list everything thats on my resume, then attach a resume at the end, plus answer tons of ridiculous questions is awful. I can’t imagine getting all this is really any better on their end then getting a well written resume and cover letter.

    2. Suzanne*

      I filled out an online application for a job recently that required me to upload 3 (count ’em–3) resumes and also fill out a job history section with my past 4 jobs and what my duties were there, although that was on the 3 (count ’em–3) resumes that I uploaded.

      I did get an interview, but was mostly asked if I thought I could keep up in a fast paced environment (I am over 50, after all. Almost ancient)

      I’ve had online apps refuse to upload my resume in any form whatsoever, ask me for my high school GPA even though I have a BA and a Masters, ask me to write an essay but the system timed out before I could finish and wouldn’t save the previous pages making me start over (3 hours of my life I’ll never get back for a job from which I never even got a polite “No”), and often put in SS number and other personal information (I feel uncomfortable putting in references’ personal contact information in the initial app. I don’t know where this stuff is going).

      I can’t believe these online systems work well for most businesses.

        1. A Bug!*

          I’m picturing an HR department that doesn’t understand the nature of electronic communications, and just wants to make sure they have three copies of the same resume to distribute to various people in the hiring process.

          A current equivalent of “I’m out of paper; can you please fax me over some”.

        2. Kou*

          No idea, but I’ve had many application systems make me upload my resume twice and also individually enter everything that’s on my resume into a million little blank fields.

      1. Cheryl*

        FWIW, when I see the essay writing thing on online apps – I do it in a word doc and then copy/paste just so I won’t lose my work. One application I completed didn’t have the questions until the very last screen- and wouldn’t save the application until it was complete – but I chose to exit and reenter all the basic information when I was ready with my essay answers rather than risk losing it all in a time-out.

        1. KayDay*

          ooh, I hate it when you can’t tell what is needed until you apply. Either give detailed instructions for the online system, or make it possible for people to review the form before they apply.

      2. Kelly O*

        Oh god I hate that.

        I’ve had to upload my resume as many as four times – same resume mind you, in addition to entering all the detailed information in the application form. Including SSN, drivers’ license, ten years worth of residence information, whole nine yards. Not for a government position or anything that would require a security clearance. Just the initial application to be considered.

        When it started timing out on me I got so frustrated. I went through the process twice before I gave up. It’s not worth it, no matter how much the Well Known Company might thing.

        One thing though – and I truly wish someone could get an ATS company to figure this one out – I wish there was a way to set it so you could say “I’m a US citizen who had never lived overseas” because on this one I’m thinking about in particular, I kept having to scroll down to the US listing for every address, employer, etc. I recognize international companies have to think of those sort of things, but if your job is in Houston, and you’re not doing a relocation for the position, and I have never lived farther west than Dallas, it’s aggravating to keep scrolling through.

        1. Rana*

          It doesn’t change the stupidity of what you describe, but sometimes you can save a small amount of time with those drop-down menus by typing the letter of the result you want (if you’re a really quick typist, then a string of 2-3 letters, even). Many menus will then jump down to the first result starting with that letter(s).

    3. Blinx*

      My favorite ones have the self-rated skills assessments and list software that was the industry standard 15 years ago, from a software manufacturer that is long since out of business. And nowhere to rate the software that is actually mentioned in the ad!!

  3. Job seeker*

    This is a wonderful article Alison wrote. Even though some companies may not always do the right thing, it is good to know you are not wrong to expect certain things.

  4. Sharon*

    I like the first one about providing clear, honest job descriptions. I fell into this one with my current job. It was advertised as a business analyst position, and my title is BA. In reality, the work is 95% project management and 5% analysis and documentation. It does feel a little bait-and-switchy. I don’t mind the PM work, I’m qualified for that too. But it’s frustrating that they discount all of my BA skills when I see they clearly need them. (I’ll be talking to my supervisor about this very soon.)

    I have a theory about how this works. I think my boss wanted an entry level PM, but for some reason we don’t hire entry level people and HR would not create a position for it. So they used the next-closest job title/description, which was BA. Has anybody else experienced this kind of thing, and do you think my theory has any basis?

    1. LL*

      I’ve seen something similar – companies creating hybrid positions but using the title, job description, and pay of the lower position.

    2. Joey*

      It has a lot of basis. The goal is to only have as many job descriptions as is necessary. Although lots of managers want to create their own job titles that are specific to the duties in their area. If they were left to their own devices there’d be multiple job titles doing essentially the same type of work. Usually the direction given is to try and make it work with an existing job title. This is why you see so many job titles that don’t accurately reflect the work. This is why you ask lots of questions before you accept a job.

    3. QuietMouse*

      Maybe they used “Business Analyst” as a catch-all title? In a previous position I was the department’s HR coordinator, and had the same job title as the assistant to the Executive Assistant, the coordinator of an external program, and a events coordinator. We were all officially titled as administrative assistants.

      However, the company did spell out the actual duties in each position’s job description. Did your company use some sort of generic description that turned out to be wildly inaccurate?

      1. Sharon*

        Yes, the job description is very clearly business analyst with only one bullet being to help coordinate project schedules for the team. If I showed it to you and wrote down the percentage of my time over the last year I spent on each bullet point, that one project sheduling bullet would get 95% and everything else together would add up to 5%. That’s why I commented that it feels bait-and-switch. It pretty much is.

    4. KarenT*

      Very interesting. I’ve often wondered if it comes from plain laziness. Like the description matching what the position was, but the position evolving and the company not bothering to update the job description. I’ve seen this at my job (very large company) where we frequently hire for the same type of job over and over again. Sometimes when HR circulates a posting we all laugh because it’s clearly a recycled one—it will do things like have familiarity with a particular computer program that we no longer use listed as a desired skill, or say something like “be able to hire and manage freelancers” when we’ve actually created an inhouse department and no longer use freelancers.

    5. Kimmie Sue*

      “for some reason we don’t hire entry level people and HR would not create a position for it”.

      I had to respond. That is another myth. Many employees and candidates believe that HR owns headcount forecasting and approval. HR probably owns the process of recruiting for open headcount and filling jobs. They probably own the talent management of those workers once hired. They may own the benefit and compensation programs for those employees (not the funding of the programs, but the execution of them). As far as the headcount forecasting and approval, this is typically owned by Finance and driven by the business. HR becomes a scape goat for workers and managers too often. In my experience, its a hiring manager who wants a specific worker or new requisition who doesn’t get the approval FROM their line of business and blames HR.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        I interpreted the comment differently. I took it that Sharon meant create the position title in the system (peoplesoft or whatever), not create an open position. Hence, rather than create a title Project Manager Associate, they hire someone to act as a Project Manager Associate and give them the title Business Analyst, which is an existing title in the system that fits within the paygrade and experience level.

        I too have this problem, and it’s not a problem until we hit annual review time and I have to evaluate myself against a skillset that I’ve never been trained on because it’s not really part of my job.

        1. Kimmie Sue*

          Aww okay, AnotherAlison you caused me to re-read. I think you may be right. Many times, a manager will think they “need” a true PM, but only have approved headcount for a BA. They use the BA headcount but assign work as if the person was a PM. It does create many complications. Mostly for the person that was hired to do the job. I see your point and Sharon’s point (I think). :-)

          1. Sharon*

            Yes, this is what I was thinking of. Not that HR requisitioned the position, just that BA was the only available title already existing in the system, so they used it.

            Another possibility is that my boss wanted a PM, but dept managers are not allowed to have pm’s dedicated to their depts. (We have lots of PM’s but they work cross-dept.).

  5. Anonymous*

    For some jobs, such as with the government, references and DL numbers are needed up front. I process applications for local government, and before we even interview an applicant, we complete a thorough criminal and driver history on them. The applicant does, of course, know this, as they have to give written consent. So in *some* areas, the information is asked to be provided for a valid reason.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’m going to dispute that this is a valid reason! Isn’t doing that before someone is even interviewed a huge waste of time (and taxpayer money), as well as an unnecessary invasion of applicants’ privacy? Why not wait until you know if you have serious interest in a candidate before asking them to turn over that information?

      1. Omne*

        Depends on the government. The state I work for doesn’t do any of the background checks until after we decide to offer a job. However, we do get the relevant information in the initial application process. Realistically we already have the information available if we wanted to research our own records but it’s easier to have it in one place.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          That’s problematic, though, since many people understandably don’t want to give out that information not knowing how securely it will be stored. Identity theft is a serious concern for people, and it’s not reasonable to ask them to take that risk when chances are far higher than not that they won’t even be called for an interview.

          1. Kelly O*

            This exactly.

            It’s the same complaint I have about temporary agencies, hiring for a temp-to-hire position or direct placement. I’m not jumping on your first two-day temp assignment. I don’t understand why you’re going to run all your background checks, call my references, and then let me sit in your filing cabinet.

          2. Omne*

            I should clarify, we get the info when they come in for the interview but before the actual interview. We do a lot of interviewing…

            1. Joey*

              Yes, lots do it so they can just make an offer an start the background stuff without prolonging the process by having people come back to fill out paperwork. But, why can’t you email it, have them sign and fax, scan or take a picture of the docs with their phone and email it back to you? Easy, peasy- no more unnecessary paperwork or delays.

        2. De Minimis*

          The federal agency for which I work doesn’t do background checks until after a tentative offer is made–I know the same goes for a municipal job for which I once applied.

      2. SC in SC*

        Although I agree that intrusive background checks and the like should take place towards the end of the cycle, another way to look at may be where you want to feel your pain. For instance, say you get a very large number of applicants but it’s very easy and inexpensive to run DL and background checks for criminal history (ie the government), you may eliminate enough unqualified candidates as to save time and money since you have fewer candidates to review. I don’t know if this is the case but theoretically it’s possible.

        1. Ariancita*

          Yeah, but convenience for employer doesn’t outweigh privacy concerns for candidates. Narrowing the applicant pool is the employer’s problem and time cost of doing business. It shouldn’t take precedent over a candidate’s right to privacy.

          1. Anonymous*

            Agreed! Before reading this site, I never realized that “land of the free” USA would have let these kind of practices become commonplace

          1. Victoria*

            A candidate can’t be disqualified simply because they have a felony or misdemeanor, but an employer doesn’t have to offer a fair chance to every applicant, and if they have a choice between an applicant with a conviction and an applicant who has a squeaky clean record, they’re going to take the path of least resistance.

            I review online apps all day every day, and when someone puts in “See resume” in the fields of the app, yes it’s frustrating and it makes me less likely to review their resume at all. Laziness works both ways. I just got a job offer for a new position after a long 6+ month job search, and I jumped through all of the hoops for all of my applications. It does indeed suck.

            1. Jamie*

              Is it a federal law that you can’t dismiss a candidate based on criminal record, or does that vary state to state?

              And I do think you can always be disqualified if the crime in question was relevant to the job. I.e. someone who had done time for a crime against children can be refused consideration at a school/daycare, you don’t have to consider an ex-embezzler for your CFO, etc.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                The EEOC prohibits employers from having a blanket ban on hiring anyone with a criminal conviction unless they can show the policy is truly job-related and rooted in business necessity. Employers are allowed to consider criminal convictions in hiring decisions, but this has to be done through individual assessments that consider the nature of the crime, how long ago it was, and how it relates (or doesn’t relate) to the job.

    2. Joey*

      I’ll dispute that also and I’ve worked in govt. That’s probably your process because that’s the way it’s always been done, you use it to screen through the mountains of apps, or you have excessively risk averse HR or legal staff. And Alison is right. I’d think hard about why its being done that way and whether its some type of legal requirement or not. Because if its not actually required you truly are unnecessarily living up to the bureaucratic red tape stereotype.

      1. jennie*

        In total agreement. This does save some time for recruiters who don’t have to arrange to get paperwork and releases from finalists who’ve been through the process but you’ll lose so many quality candidates who don’t want to jump through hoops and release personal info, it’s totally not worth it.

        1. Ariancita*

          Yep, the employer will lose a ton of the most qualified candidates because of this. Additionally, it really exploits the people who are in desperate need of a job.

        2. Victoria*

          Ultimately, though, it’s the candidate’s choice whether or not to apply for the position. I don’t know that I’d want to hire someone who was all “Meh, I don’t want to take the time to do what this employer has asked of me,” regardless of how qualified/experienced he/she is. Do you (general you) want the job, or don’t you? If you want it, jump through the hoops.

          1. Sabrina*

            You’re missing the point. It’s not about candidates not wanting a job bad enough to jump through hoops. It’s about candidates not wanting to give up personal information like their SSN, DL #, etc. just to apply for a job that they will likely never even get a rejection email for. How is that data being stored? Who sees it? Who has access to it? Is it secure. THAT is the point. If you want to give your SSN out willy nilly then be my guest but don’t call people lazy just because they are trying to protect themselves.

            1. Victoria*

              Not all of the comments here have been referring to the SSN issue, some of the posters have been referring to not wanting to fill out the fields that ask about job experience, etc, that is already listed on their resume. That’s what I was responding to.

              1. Susie*

                If you read the comments again, the issue is not having to duplicate information from the resume. It’s understood that one person likely reviews the info from the online system but the hiring manager wants a formatted resume in-hand. it makes sense to ask for both in that context. When your app also wants a lot of additional info that is not needed in the initial stages of the hiring process or is completely irrelevant yet required in order to submit the application, that’s where the issues come in.

  6. Not So NewReader*

    Thank you for this article, Alison.

    It should be mandatory reading for all working people. Really.

    My two favorite parts:

    1) “Employers who make the job sound more glamorous than it really is or who downplay less attractive aspects of the job, like long hours or a difficult boss, are guaranteeing they’ll end up with a resentful, unmotivated employee. ”

    (Hello. Is anyone out there in hiring land?) Why isn’t this obvious to employers?

    2) ” Expecting fairness from the process will set you up for disappointment.”
    This is empowering advice.
    Forewarned is forearmed. Lower the bar and be grateful for what goes right.

    Good stuff. Keeps me reading along.

  7. Rob*

    With regard to putting in the SSN in the application, is it worth trying to contact the company directly and seeing if it is possible to apply without filling that information in, even if the ATS refuses to continue without that information? Or would that be a red flag to them?

  8. AG*

    In addition to being honest about the job description, how about writing it in clear, plain English with full sentences and minimal jargon?

    1. Mike*

      Depending on the field jargon can be a useful filter. If you don’t know what a LAMP stack is then you probably aren’t the person I’m looking for to do web server administration.

  9. A New Reader*

    Thank you for this post! It has many helpful insights for job applicants and employers. I spend so much time tailoring my resume and cover letter, thoughtfully considering job descriptions, and researching organizations only to have my application sent into a black hole. I don’t expect very much from the employers I apply to (certainly not fairness!), but I do expect a confirmation my application was received and a rejection email if I’m not selected for the next hiring phase. I think too many employers have forgotten that every professional contact matters and sends a message into the community. I certainly remember every time a company does not contact me after an interview and how unprofessional their organization appears.

  10. Blinx*

    Every once in a while I run across a beautiful online application system. They tell you up front how many steps it takes and have a progress bar. The let you know you can upload your resume and cover letter at the end, in what format and file size. They let you save your progress on each page, and you can go back and forth if you forgot something. There may be a lonnnnng list of items to fill out, but you only have to fill out the asterisked ones. You can log back in later to check your progress.

    Sometimes I want to send a link of the nice systems to the companies who have the awful systems, and say “See, THIS is how it’s supposed to work!.”

    1. Ariancita*

      There’s an international company I applied to that had this kind of online system. They also let you save your info so that the areas were pre-populated (and still editable) when you applied for another position, let you know the status of your application throughout the entire process, and even recommended other opening that were similar to that one (which you could easily unsubscribe from). It was like a dream come true!

  11. JT*

    Great article. To me, this is the meta-advice: “Employers should give job candidates the same amount of consideration they’d show any other business contact. “

  12. Hari*

    “Candidates shouldn’t need to spend an hour wrestling with an onerous application system simply to submit a resume.”

    THIS. Let me just say that Taleo was the bane of my job seeking experiences and I cried a little inside every time a prospective employer used it.

    I also hate any system that wants you to fill out a form that is essentially your resume but require you to also upload your resume.

    1. Mimi*

      There are a ton of people with really bad resumes out there. The application is a nice, uniform way to get a candidate’s basic info/experience.

        1. Not neccessarily "the best of them"...*

          …but I might get lost now: I was asked to complete a 12 page application after submitting a tailored letter and resume directly to the company (as requested in the position announcement) . Ugh…

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