when a job description keeps changing during the hiring process

A reader writes:

I am currently interviewing for a job and I think I may get the offer. I just finished up my third and final interview and expect to be notified soon.

However, I am struggling because the position has been described differently by different interviewers and does not seem to match the job description. The job description states that the position is primarily administrative. It was made clear to me, when I met with the executive director, that actually it is a fundraising position, including grantwriting and soliciting major gifts. But in my second and third interview (with a board member and the organization’s founder, respectively) they stated that it was less focused on fundraising, more on administration, with some overlap. When, in my last interview, I asked the founder for clarity, he said he would have to speak to the executive director.

If the job description says one thing, the executive director says another, and other staff say something else – what do I do? I need more clarity before I accept the role (I’d be happy with it either way, as I enjoy and am good at both administration and fundraising, but I want to know what I’m getting into.) How should I ask for this clarification? Should I ask for an updated job description? Or for something written into my contract? I would appreciate any tips!

You’re absolutely right that you need to get this clarified before you accept the role, if it’s offered to you. Too often, people spot conflicting information like this in the interview but don’t resolve it before taking the job, and then end up frustrated when the job turns out to be something different than they thought they were signing up for.

If you’re offered the job, I’d just be direct about this: “I’ve heard differing perspectives on the role from Jane, Bob, and Apollo, and it sounds like they were still ironing out whether the role would be fundraising or administrative. Where does that stand?” And if you’re not already talking to the executive director, I’d ask if you can schedule a phone conversation with her — or with the manager for the role, if that’s a different person — to hash it out (they should understand why you’d want this; if they resist, that’s a red flag).

And yes, I’d ask if you can look at an updated job description as part of that conversation, saying something like, “Since the role has gone through some changes, could I get an updated copy of the job description, to make sure that I’m clear on what you’re envisioning?”

There’s also another piece of this that you shouldn’t neglect: the question of what was behind the differing perspectives in the first place. There could be a perfectly reasonable explanation (such as a simple miscommunication between the executive director and the other two people), but it could be something more worrisome (such as an ongoing battle for control between those parties, or a sharp disagreement about the role that will continue even after you start). If it’s the latter, that’s information that you want to find out about now — not after you start.

Moreover, having that conversation will give you some valuable insight into how the organization operates, aside from the question of this specific job. Are there communication issues? Fuzzy thinking or lack of planning? Confusion over goals and structure? Or was this just a fluke that doesn’t reflect deeper issues? All of that will be helpful information as you evaluate the offer as well.

(And to be clear, if you do conclude that they’re fuzzy thinkers or poor internal communicators, that doesn’t mean you must reject their offer. It’s more about you getting a better understanding of the landscape there so that you can make a better decision for yourself about whether it’s the right fit for you or not. Some people can work just fine in that type of context, and others don’t. So this is about making as informed a decision as possible.)

{ 39 comments… read them below }

  1. Anon*

    Good time to contact AAM – before you officially accept! I wish I had done this.


    Would you consider doing a post on how to navigate the situation if you do make the mistake of accepting a job where it’s drastically different from what you were led to initially believe?

    1. JM*

      I second this, I’d like to know what the best to approach this is other than sucking it up and start job searching again.

    2. Felicia*

      I accepted a job offer that was vastly different than what I was originally led to believe, and that was a horrible mistake. Definitely the OP should get as many details as possible if they get an offer…there’s nothing wrong or suspicious with wanting to know what job they expect you to do. I find often with jobs that encompass two different functions, the balance between those functions is often hard to nail down. Maybe they do need someone to do administration and fundraising, and they can’t figure out which one is more important to that role

      1. LMW*

        This just happened to a friend of mine and she ended up being let go for not being a good fit (they hired her as a recruiter and she ended up being an admin – which made her unhappy too).

        I think in situations like this, it’s even more important to establish 30-60-90 day goals and keep in close contact with the boss as to your progress and if those goals stay accurate over the course of your first quarter with the company.
        I was hired for a job where there was a lot of debate over what the job should be before they started looking for someone. So I was hired a clear job description, but when I started there was some lingering confusion that I had to work hard to clear up. Having very clear goals and some repeated discussions with the confused people (in my case differentiating between what a “content marketing” role was versus a “content management” role) was critical. It took me longer than I wanted to get up and running because of the confusion, but the little bit of waffling that was happening also meant that I had a larger part in defining what I wanted my role to be and where I thought I should concentrate my efforts.

        1. voluptuousfire*

          This just happened to a friend of mine and she ended up being let go for not being a good fit (they hired her as a recruiter and she ended up being an admin – which made her unhappy too).

          Been there! Only mine was reverse: I was hired as an admin but was expected to function in more of a recruitment role. This wasn’t relayed to me until I was a week into the position, even after specifically stating that I was much more comfortable with the admin side of the role than the recruitment side. Long story short, the entire experience was a hot mess!

          1. Anonymous*

            In this case, if they let you go because you weren’t a good recruiter, how might you best explain the firing to a prospective employer?

            1. voluptuousfire*

              It was a temp job. I asked how I would explain why I was let go and they said that the job ended. I got a good reference from them. It just was bad fit between me, the employer and the recruiter who got me the job.

    3. ChristineSW*

      My husband and I were in a similar situation at the EXACT same time! Literally…we’d both started new jobs on the same day (on our first wedding anniversary, of all days!). I think I’ve told this story before: My job was described to me as data entry with some phone work. Turned out I was the front desk receptionist! Lasted all of 2.5 miserable weeks.

      My husband’s job was even more vastly different from what he was led to believe, complete with a bully manager. He stuck with it for a couple of years until he eventually found something in a different unit of the same company.

  2. CTO*

    Even if you’d be happy with either set of job duties, you need clarification about what the highest priorities for the position are. If your performance will be judged by how well you meet these goals, you need a clear list of what they are.

    Who will actually be supervising and assessing your performance? I would assume that the ED has a better idea of day-to-day operations and staff duties than a founder and board member do.

    1. fposte*

      Definitely agreeing here. If this is the result of two groups of people saying they have needs, it could really be two jobs’ worth of expectations.

    2. Zelos*

      Jumping in to add if the answer is “both jobs need to be done by the new hire”, ask them if you’ll be reporting to both of them, who has final say in your priority list, how they want to be notified of (inevitable) conflicts, and/or how they want to resolve said conflicts.

      I’m lucky in that my bosses will talk to each other during the rare times when they’ve overflowed my desk and then sort out the priorities themselves, but a lot of people are just told to “figure it out” when two bosses hand them things on similar deadlines. Only 24 hours in a given day, after all.

    3. ChristineSW*

      Totally agree with your second paragraph. Boards, from my understanding, tend to look at the bigger, longer-term picture whereas the ED and other staff, obviously, deal with day-to-day needs. Sounds like there might be a difference between the two as to what needs the new hire is to fill.

    4. Fiona*

      Yes! It’s less about allocation of time and more about priorities and outcome measures.

      I accepted a position that was “only” 15% executive support – and while yes, only 15% of my time was spent on that role, it was by far and away the top priority in terms of evaluating success in that position, and not being good at it was not nearly offset by excelling at the other 85%.

      1. Felicia*

        I accepted a position that was described as 20% graphic design, and it was more like 85% graphic design, both in terms of priorities and how I was evaluated. I didn’t want to be a graphic designer and I’m not wonderful at it (the job title was Communications Assistant). I didn’t mind doing it 20% of the time, but it was too much

  3. Katie*

    I was in a similar situation when I was interviewing for my current job. Each person I interviewed with had a different idea of what the job duties entailed even though the job description didn’t change.

    As I was looking for a job due to a layoff I decided to just see what happened.

    There were tons of other issues and red flags unrelated to the job description issue. It turned out the inability to get clear on the job description was indicative of constantly changing winds, priorities and decisions at the CEO level. Important note, it is a start-up

    In the end it crazily worked out for me, because I was able to carve out my job description due to the start-up nature and grab more responsibility the original job title allowed for. C-Levels took note of my work and promoted me and allowed me to pick out my own job title and take on as much work as I could handle.

    Having said all that, I think I’m in a really unusual situation and myself and an odd type of person who thrives in this insane work environment.

    The difference in job description may just be competing personalities who have different ideas of what this position should do based on their own personal biases. I think the biggest issue if you like and can handle all the various possible duties, is the pay of a grant-writer is probably different than that of an admin and it makes it hard to negotiate salary.

  4. Mena*

    Who would you report to and how did this person describe the role? And yes, they need to get coordinated. It sounds like everyone has a different view of what this role means to them (read: how this role might help/serve Mary vs. how this role might help/serve Joe). It sounds like each is describing it in the way that best meets his/her individual needs. You need them to agree.

  5. FiveNine*

    I will admit, my first reaction was that the issue is probably more along the lines of territorial issues. And OP is dealing with everyone at the very top (executive director, a board member, and the founder). My very best to the OP in feeling this out.

  6. OP*

    Hi everyone – OP here. Thanks so much for all the feedback.

    The ED actually called me today to explain things further. The ED is new, and it sounds like she and the founder have communicated since my last interview. She explained that she had perhaps emphasized the fundraising part more than she should have, since the last person in the role did much less fundraising than the organization would have liked. She described the position as primarily administrative with some fundraising elements to it.

    The ED did not make a job offer yet, but said she would be in touch. I emphasized that I’m still interested in the job. Do you think that, even after this call, I should ask for an updated job description (if I am offered the job)?

    Very grateful for the wisdom on this website!

    1. ChristineSW*

      I don’t see why not.

      Glad she was able to clarify the job and that she owned up to the confusion.

      Good luck!!

    2. Zelos*

      I’m no expert in the realm of hiring, but my first thought is “I wouldn’t.” Job descriptions tend to be somewhat vague from what I’ve seen anyway (unless you’re talking really technical positions with very defined scopes like Aerospace Engineer for the Boeing 747 or something). There’s usually some vague sketch of duties and then “other duties as assigned.” I’d argue the point if the ED and the board/president were on drastically different pages, like how it sounded previously, but now that they’re on similar pages I think I’d just confirm it with them in writing (email?).

      Because honestly, most people aren’t very good at writing job descriptions anyway (probably why many of them are so vague and broad). So making the three of them sit down and hash out a new job description might not even get you a clear job description afterwards and it’s heavily dependent on how good they are at writing it. Even if they finally agree on what they want you to do, it’s another thing to put it down on paper in proper formal language.

      However, if they agree generally on what they want you to do, you can email them back with “Just so I’m clear, it’s confirmed that I’ll be doing largely administrative duties with approximately 15% of my time dedicated to fundraising as it comes up, usually in the form of grant-writing blah blah”…and as long as no one has any protests with that, I’d let it go.

      1. Zelos*

        …hmm, actually, after reading Elle D’s comment below I may have to rescind this. I guess a revised job description could be helpful if there are any future disagreements or disputes, and would hold more weight than a more casual confirmation.

        That being said, I’m not entirely convinced you’ll get a crystal clear job description even if you ask for one. But hope for the best, OP.

    3. Fiona*

      Hmm…the ED now says it’s “primarily administrative with some fundraising elements” – but in the same breath says the previous employee did “much less” fundraising than they wanted. I have a sneaking suspicion they want to hire a fundraiser but pay an admin.

      1. Ann O'Nemity*

        That was my first thought, even before reading the OP’s update. I’ve heard of this happening all too often, especially during the recession.

      2. JM*

        I agree with your statement about hiring a fundraiser and paying an admin. It’s that people think they can underpay you because they switch the title around.

    4. MissDisplaced*

      OP, I find the phrase “The last person in the role did much less fundraising than the organization would have liked” to be a little bit worrisome, especially if they are also telling you the fundraising part was over-emphasized in the interview.

      It just sound like they are not clear on HOW much fundraising they really want this person to perform. I would just get some clear guidelines on this and what the fundraising goals are if you’re offered the job.

  7. Elle D*

    Definitely use this opportunity to ask for clarification! Make sure that your job has a clearly written description, that you understand who you report to, who else does a job similar to you, why the position is available or being created, and how you’ll interact with other departments. I’m sure this is obvious to most, but for me this was only my 2nd professional role. With my first job, the answers to those questions had been so clearly defined that I didn’t think I would have to ask them even when the situation was a little more fuzzy.

    I unfortunately ended up in the “more worrisome” situation that AAM describes. I thought I understood the job description and how it fit into the organization, but hindsight is 20/20 and I now realize there were some differences in the way different parties described my role. I also received an offer with a job title that varied from what had been discussed. I had been told to communicate all questions through HR. When I asked about the title change, HR stated that the job description was exactly the same but they had changed the title. I had been trying unsuccessfully to obtain a job in a new city for months, so I accepted this at face value and took the job. It turns out the title change was a result of internal politics, and my job is still caught up in a power struggle. It can be really uncomfortable – I’ve been yelled at by people in other departments for doing work my manager assigned me. I thought this position would advance my career; in terms of the work I’m doing it was a step backwards because I’m not “allowed” to do certain work so as not to step on anyone’s toes.

  8. anonymous*

    The job description will probably keep changing. Usually there is a rule that some sort of job description has to be on file. They are often out of date and inaccurate.

  9. GoodGirl*

    I was in a very similar position as the OP in my first post-college job. I applied for a position (Junior Chocolate Teapot Maker) and after two phone interviews, I was brought in for an in-person interview. During the in-person interview, I met with several people and they had explained that they had some “emerging” needs in the Promotional department as well. I had previous experience in Promotions, so it seemed like a good fit for me and for the company.

    I ended up getting the job and thus splitting roles for a few months. The Junior Teapot Maker role ended up taking the vast majority of my time. It was frustrating at the time, and I voiced my concerns to management. They felt that there wasn’t enough work to justify hiring two people.

    It ended up working out okay though, because about six months after I was hired, I was promoted to Teapot Maker and no longer had to do two jobs.

    After that, I have been very cautious about accepting a job that a.) isn’t clear about the responsibilities and b.) encourages splitting time between roles. Inevitably, one role will get preference/priority over the role and unless you have managers that are very willing to coordinate, it can get really ugly.

  10. majigail*

    New ED… Interviewing with a Founder… founder/board/ED not on the same page about a new role

    Sounds like the organization is going through some major changes right now. There might be some Founder’s Syndrome going ong. The changes can be good or bad, depending on what you want to do. My guess would be is that the founder was able to get the board to agree to hiring an admin to help the new ED (it’s hard for nonprofit founders to see that they could be replaced with just one person and it’s often true!) I would proceed carefully because ultimately, the ED is going to be your boss and she’s going to define the role. What the founder envisioned might not be what the ED actually needs. But if you’re willing to be flexible, it could be a great opportunity to propel the mission to the next level!

  11. GeekChic*

    I accepted a nonprofit job with a nebulous description – my first interviewer (my direct manager) described the sort of position I’d be interested in (digital communications and marketing), while my second interview with the ED of the company was…odd. He said they had they had a real technological need and that a lot of people in the organization needed computer training, and he asked about my training background, and was interested in the time I put in at college manning the university technology helpdesk.

    It was kind weird, but I assumed (you know what happens when you assume) that the interview with the direct supervisor would be a more accurate indicator of the job, and that the ED might be out of touch or too removed from the day-to-day details.

    NOPE. (And shame on me for underestimating the power of an ED.) The job was 90% full-on “Is the computer on?” tech support with 10% digital marketing and PR.

    I got out of there pretty fast, but it was stressful to have to re-scramble for the job hunt (without much time off earned at the new job, and a glaring why-are-you-trying-to-leave-this-new-job-so-soon red light on my resume.

  12. Jessa*

    Everything everyone said above and also, how in heck do you decide what salary you’d take, those jobs both have different pay scales. I would be really annoyed if I took job A at a reasonable pay for job A and found out it was job B which is really worth A+5k. And sometimes I wonder if that’s not planned.

  13. sunny-dee*

    This happened to me last summer. I was trying to transfer out of my department, and I applied for a marketing job. I interviewed with several managers, who loved my writing background — and immediately changed the job from “marketing” to “editor” because they were so displeased with the current doc team (a bad combination of no native English speakers writing English docs and writers unfamiliar with the technology). Except on another go-around, they couldn’t get funding for editor, so they wanted to hire me as a junior writer (0-2 years experienced …. when I have 10 years) to write “source” material for the docs team to replace the bad docs but without upsetting anyone by having me rewrite their stuff directly. And also to prepare marketing materials, since they needed someone to do that, too. And — worst of all — it would be have been a serious down-grade that kept me in the department I was trying to leave.

    All that to say, if you see red flags, pay attention to them.

  14. AB Normal*

    Hmm… OP, before taking this job, I’d also get more clarity about what they mean with “fundraising”.

    In some organizations, fundraising include direct marketing, planning special events, researching prospective donors, soliciting major donors, planned giving campaigns, etc. Make sure you fully understand the scope of the job. As others said, it’s possible that they are trying to hire a fundraiser without paying market value, and you may end up resenting the job after accepting the offer without the full picture and later realizing you are being underpaid.

    “since the last person in the role did much less fundraising than the organization would have liked” -> this is the part that raises red flags, as it seems in conflict with saying that fundraising is not a large part of the role.

    But I’d wait to ask more questions after you receive an offer — then it would be advisable to make sure the expectations are clear on both sides. Good luck!

  15. SevenSixOne*

    This happened a few times at OldJob like this: Company posts an opening for a Green Widget Design position, current employee in the Blue Widget Testing department applies for and gets the Green Widget Design job after good candidates have applied or interviewed, leaving a different but similar position vacant and leaving those candidates feeling baited and switched… Especially when Green Widgets and Blue Widgets are completely different skill sets or Widget Design pays a lot more than Widget Testing :(

  16. Mints*

    I’d like to add my story:
    I was hired for an admin job, and was told it was greatly focused on meetings and the working with the public. I had worked in childcare and retail so I thought it would be good. It turns out there were (are) wayyy less interactions and meetings than I had expected. It averages to like ten meetings every couple months. They weren’t misleading on purpose, but I have a different view of what “fast paced” means.
    Oh, and a little after I started, I was doing mail merges for invites to an event, which is fine, no problem. But then they decide that I should do cold calls for invites too. It was horrible and I hated every second of it.
    At my next job, I’m going to have more and better questions about job duties

  17. Confused*

    Job descriptions can be changed at any time. I found this out the hard way. Took a job with a fairly clear description for which I was a good match. It ended up being changed recently to include responsibilities that I have no experience doing. I now report to 3 people in addition to having certain reportable functions that I do autonomously. It is very, very stressful as some of the work requires dedicated time to complete (financial analysis) and one of the managers actually asks me to print out his e-mails even though he has his own printer right on his desk. So I am a personal assistant for one, paralegal for another and a financial analyst for another. There is no coordination of the work from any of them so every day is a challenge to get through and not in a good kind of challenge way!

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