why do offices say they’re “fast-paced” when they’re not?

A reader writes:

I’ve been chatting with my old boss from our local government organization as they’re considering hiring me back as a consultant for a brief period. I’ve just read their job description for the role, and it made me laugh out loud as they’ve described their office as a “fast-paced environment.” From my perspective, things there always felt painfully slow. Case in point, the work they’re hiring me back to do is something that was promised by their IT supplier over two years ago, before I left. It seems they’ve finally admitted to themselves that the supplier is not delivering the work in a reasonable timescale.

Anyway, it got me wondering about the term “fast-paced” in general. Is there a different understanding of what it means in different work environments? Or do people use it because they think that’s how the work environment “should” be? Personally I’d rather see employers being honest they want staff who can function effectively in an excruciatingly slow-paced environment, but I’ve never seen that or anything close to it in a job description. If I truly did want to work in a fast-paced environment, how would I screen for that if people are just using the term without really thinking about it?

I think it’s one of those things that offices want to believe they are. People, and especially people in management who are doing the hiring, like to feel like “not just anyone can cut it here,” whether or not that’s actually true. Plus, managers who have been frustrated by hiring or working with someone who was painfully slow or unproductive will sometimes start to think of their environment as fast-paced, when really it was just that the person in question was slow-paced. And there’s also the fact that employers in general are notoriously bad at self-assessing their own cultures (for example, they genuinely think they’re unusually flexible just because they let you work from home if you’re sick but not any other time, or they think they give people a lot of autonomy when in fact they control everything, and so forth).

As for how to screen for places that are truly fast-paced, one of the best ways is to ask what the team’s goals for the year are and assess whether the goals are ambitious or if they’re pretty unimpressive — and similarly, look at what they’ve actually achieved in, say, the last year. You can also get a feel for it by asking work-specific questions like, “What’s the usual timeline from when a client first approaches you to when you kick off your work with them?” or “What types of deadlines are you usually working with for something like X or Y?” or “What’s considered a typical and a high level of productivity for this position?”

Another way: believe what they show you. Do they move through the hiring process at a reasonable pace (and does the process appear to be well thought out or do they seem to be making it up as they go along?) or does it drag out for months? This isn’t foolproof, because sometimes hiring takes longer than it should because other things end up legitimately being higher priorities, but it’s an additional source of data.

{ 160 comments… read them below }

  1. Lil Fidget*

    I also think it’s interesting that I myself wouldn’t ever want to work at some place that described itself as “slow-paced” or “ponderous” or “bureaucratic” – even though the true definition of “fast paced” would likely involve a lot of things I don’t like, like very tight deadlines, nights and weekends work, and lots of sudden changes of plan.

    1. Some Sort of Management Consultant*

      We generally write that the applicant should have experience with the political decision process which at least in my country is code for “used to bureaucracy and red tape”.

      1. On Fire*

        Oh yes. I used to be a reporter at a daily newspaper. That was reasonably fast-paced.

        Then I went to work for the government. It was painful. The first day, I had my assignment *for the day* finished in about an hour. My new boss didn’t know quite what to do with me.

        I’ve changed jobs since then, and now it’s a better pace, although I still run out of projects sometimes.

        1. Fortitude Jones*

          I worked in law at a foreclosure firm during the height of the recession and then in claims – so, both very fast-paced, even grueling and sometimes soul killing, environments.

          Now I’m in a sales role (handling proposals) in what was noted as fast-paced in the job listing and interview – to say it is not would be an understatement. I regularly complete things ahead of schedule, which leads me to weeks of having nothing to do all day.

          I just…don’t know how much more of this I can take.

          I desperately wanted out of my last job because the workload was ridiculous, and now I’m having the exact opposite problem. It makes me concerned I won’t ever find a job with a middle ground.

          1. Michaela Westen*

            Isn’t this a management problem? They should have enough people to keep busy doing the work at a reasonable pace. Not so many there are weeks of downtime?
            Maybe when you find a better job and leave, that will help :D

        2. Bunny*

          Good Lord, I did the same thing. I was told I was working too fast and usually the assignment took 3 to 4 days.

          I was not a good gov’t employee.

    2. Someone else*

      Yeah, my experience with the phrase “fast-paced” is that it is code for “you will have very short deadlines” and “we will frequently ask you to turn on a dime”.

      1. Kyrielle*

        I would have described a previous job as fast-paced for exactly this reason. There was always more work than could be done, though not more “critical” work than could be done, but also there were frequent interruptions (sometimes necessary, other times perhaps not) and changes of plan. If you couldn’t tune out the “other things” on your plate that were not high-priority but that you were not getting to, or if you couldn’t drop something to work on something more urgent (and hopefully, though not always, more important), you really didn’t want to be there.

      2. Wintermute*

        My experience shows “fast paced” usually means either “we fired half the department because we were 25% overstaffed and now our numbers look great… but you’d better be willing to do the work of 1.25 people” or “management has no idea of what reasonable timelines for looks like because they’re ‘the idea people’ and is just an ‘implementation detail’ and all implementation details should be trivial (also, they may or may not be prone to saying ‘well then why the hell am I paying you ?!’)”

    3. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      Well, “ponderous” and “bureaucratic” are pretty negative ways of describing a different sort of office. If you used words like “deliberate,” “reflective,” or even “cautious” you might not react the same way.

      1. Overeducated*

        “Process-oriented” and any mention of “multiple internal and/or external stakeholders” would be the ways to signal that where I’ve worked.

      2. LadyCop*

        There are also many jobs that simply have a lot of down time when things are slow, and are very busy when they’re busy. They need people who can be comfortable with both…but so few are willing to admit it. When I have down times, I always remind myself I get paid either way…and those crazy days make me greatfull for the slow ones.

        1. Feotakahari*

          Username checks out. I’ve been told the fire department is the same way—you relax, but you don’t relax too much, because you have no idea when the next crisis will be.

    4. Mookie*

      I enjoy formulaic technical writing and uncreative but optimized rote work, so I’d actually be very attracted to “bureaucratic” if it signified something formulaic rather than infinitely circumlocutious and never-ending. No work to take home with you but it gets done by the end of every weekday, the fruits of one’s labor palpable if not breathtaking? Sounds ideal, really. I think there’re more genuine time-card punchers out there than people care to admit. I’d up and quit my current job for a listed position like that.

  2. Some Sort of Management Consultant*

    I think industry matters a lot too.
    Fast paced in a government agency is often painfully slow for a private business and near glacial for a consultancy or investment bank.

    1. MK*

      Not only indusrty, but people’s previous experiences in it specifically. Most of the time people are self-describing anything, they do it intuitively, not comparing by any kind of objective metric (if there is even such a thing).

      I work within the court system, and the workload for my position is notoriously (and objectively) heavy. But it has seemed less so to me, because I spent five years before getting this job as a practising barrister, when not only did I have a similar workload, but I also had to run around juggling very different tasks; now that I sit in a nice quiet office (or work from home half the time), while other people do the running around before I even begin to handle a case, the same, or even a heavier workload, feels perfectly manageable. Colleagues who came to this work from different, less high-pressure backgrounds, or even straight from post-graduate courses, have a very different experience.

      1. Turquoisecow*

        Yeah, when I first started working at my first office job, everything seemed to speed by so quickly I could barely keep up with the work. But after I had the job for a period of time, it actually felt kind of slow and tedious, because, having mastered the numerous tasks, everything took half as much time and stressed me out so much less.

        This has happened to me when taking on any new role. At first it seems overwhelmingly fast, then later seems manageable or ponderously slow. Maybe by describing workplaces as “fast-paced”, employers hope to find people who won’t break down and quit in that initial stage, unable to handle the stress. Or maybe they mistakenly believe that the workload is high enough to count as fast-paced.

      2. miss_chevious*

        Agreed. This was my experience coming into law school. I came from a graduate degree where I had 100 students a semester on top of my own course work and a part-time job as a bartender. Coming to law school, where I was only responsible for my homework was a break for me, but to other students the amount of work was a ramp-up.

    2. Doe-Eyed*

      My experience has been that government agency moves like an avalanche. Projects creep along right until they reaches some sort of tipping point and then breaks loose in an uncontrollable fashion, taking out most of the peaceful village below.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Production tends to be a bell curve anyway. It starts out slow as people get used to the process then suddenly the pace picks up and it can get crazy. Then as materials run out or the quantity is met things slow down again. I have worked in several different types of environments and by far the craziest I have seen is a production line running at top productivity. Unlike retail where there may be a little lull here and there, when production runs at peak there is no lull. Ever. I’d look up and realize I had been working for 6 hours with no break at all.

          1. Ralkana*

            Thank you for this! I work in a manufacturing firm, and I’ve been trying to figure out a way to describe the pace, and this helps! It’s basically “Full speed until something breaks,” on the production side.

      1. synchrojo*

        Ha! in my experience, the tipping point is the absolute last second at which it is physically possible to complete the work allotted in time to meet a 60-day public comment period and make necessary revisions before the legally-mandated deadline.

      2. she was a fast machine*

        Literally the best description of any of the multitude of government agencies I’ve worked for or with. I have to save this one.

    3. Oxford Coma*

      There also needs to be a certain level of…I guess motivation is a close-enough word? I know that when Fergus is screaming at me that he needs XYZ done by Thursday, it really means nothing. Scope creep and debugging will toss that timeframe out the window. When your job involves re-doing the same thing five times before it goes out the door, deadlines can become checkpoints rather than hard limits.

  3. Naptime Enthusiast*

    My industry overall is notoriously bureaucratic and slow-paced, everything is red tape and approvals and slow moving manufacturers. That being said, when sh*t hits the fan, you need to be able to respond quickly and juggle a lot of tasks all at once while higher-ups are asking why their pet project isn’t getting attention. At one point, there was an 8AM status meetings, a lunchtime meeting to build slides for the 3PM exec meeting, and an 6PM post-exec meeting to talk about what needed to get done for tomorrow’s 8AM status meeting. It’s also a lot of learning early in your career, so if a new college grad is looking for a hand-holding experience for their first few years working, this probably isn’t it.

    But none of that sounds as appealing as a fast-paced environment.

  4. Meeeeee*

    Ugh. My old company describes itself as “fast-paced” and “entrepreneurial”. Really it should be advertised as what it really is, which is “toxic and dysfunctional”.

    1. Specialk9*

      Yeah, when I see fast paced on a job description, I mentally translate that to toxic, understaffed and with everyone working 3 jobs, and/or that your free time will never be your own.

      1. Wintermute*

        same here, it’s code for “we laid off so many people we went right past ‘lean and mean’ straight to ‘skinny and pissed'”


        “once you reach a high enough level on the corporate org chart you, too, can make your lack of planning, foresight and time management skills someone else’s problem!”

    2. Emmeline CinderKlaus*

      Yuuuup, I feel that. I’ve worked a few big box corporate jobs, but more recently my experience has been in start-ups with varying work load intensity (think 2-5 people max, specialty custom products and services). Language like “fast-paced” strikes me as being a bit of a red flag worth noting nowadays, especially in consideration with overall business size.

      The BossPerson I currently work for (hopefully not much longer!) can’t set a realistic expectation to save their life and requests all tasks be treated with equal priority (???). He describes the company as “a quickly paced small business” but from my perspective we’re just a needlessly chaotic mess. Business aren’t really ‘fast-paced’ if the only reason for the constant strain/extra hustle due to a total lack of company-wide organization or priority structure. That’s just plain old poor business management.

      But apparently I just don’t get that we’re “fast-paced,” and the 18 people we’ve turned over in the last two years on a 4 person crew just couldn’t cut it. *involuntary eye roll*

    3. Ali G*

      Yes – this is what I came to say.
      Fast-paced is often (in my experience) a euphemism for “you work for people who don’t know what they want but expect you to produce what they need at the drop of a hat.”

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Fully agreed. It means “We have no systems or SOPs in place to handle ordinary tasks. Each time you encounter an ordinary task you will be required to reinvent the wheel.” One place had been in business for 20 years, every day was like their first day in business all over again.
        Synthetic insanity. Totally preventable. But it came with free martyrdom complex, which some people reeeally wanted and actually prized.

    4. Michaela Westen*

      Yes, and “entrepreneurial” means chaos with little or no attempt to manage anything.

  5. grace*

    Asking about how they generally feel timelines move is a great way to find out. My office was straight up that most projects last between 6 weeks to 3 months, and with one exception, that’s been the case – thank goodness, because I struggle immensely when deadlines are so far out they don’t seem to “matter”. Whatever the answer, make sure you quantify what ideal timelines and schedules look like – if they say that they generally take anywhere from 6 months to a year to finish a project, and you know that you’d be climbing walls over it, then you’ll know that’s not for you.

  6. Snarkus Aurelius*

    Fast paced work environment. Team work. Think outside the box. Disrupt. Open door policy. Multitasking. Flexible salary. Excellent benefits.

    Employers use these terms because they sound really nice, and all the big employers like Google and Facebook do too. But, as you’ve noted, a majority of the time, employers either don’t know what these terms mean or employers completely disregard the literal meaning in favor of the dismal status quo.

    Think of it like my exes’ online dating profiles: the content is usually more aspirational than realistic.

    If nothing else, you can amuse yourself with all the irony. I had a boss with an open door policy who literally kept her door shut every minute she was in the office so people wouldn’t bug her. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the term “flexible salary” in a job ad that pays just above minimum wage but demands a college degree and several years of experience. I worked at a place that had “excellent benefits” but an annual gyno exam wasn’t covered.

    This is just another way to seem exclusive and selective when in reality that’s not the case.

    1. LouiseM*

      Exactly! Certain phrases just become buzzwords and “fast-paced” is definitely one of them. It annoys me, but you need to speak “business jargon” and just read through all the bullsh*t in the job ads.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Naaa, you can just figure the ad means to opposite of what it says. Fast paced actually means slow paced because no one knows what to do, and so on.

    2. Amber T*

      “Think of it like my exes’ online dating profiles: the content is usually more aspirational than realistic.”

      Water coming out of my nose is not a good feeling. Thanks for the giggles :)

      1. Lil Fidget*

        Yeah we used to laugh how everybody was “easy going” on dating sites, until the term became completely meaningless. For some reason that was the number one go-to description everybody used. (It was noticeable because while I think I’m great, I’m not especially easy going haha).

        1. Just Employed Here*

          How about GSOH (good sense of humour)? What does that even mean? Whoever thinks of their own sense of humour as not good?

          1. Someone else*

            It means they think pranks are acceptable and/or make inappropriate jokes frequently and if you object, you will be accused of not having a good sense of humor and/or being a fuddy duddy.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          The people who are truly easy going don’t say to much about it. The ones who mention it seem to be wound up very tight. Okay, they get upset over the smallest things.

    3. Falling Diphthong*

      And why would you want a disruptive ninja in the office?

      (Just this morning I ran across a job posting for planning how to divert asteroids intent on killing us all–the definition of a government job with decades-long timelines–and you had to be ‘disruptive.’)

      1. Nanani*

        If a ninja causes a disruption, they aren’t very good at being a ninja. You should only ever notice a ninja-related disruption looooong after the ninja has finished their task and the consequences come to light.

    4. KHB*

      Haha – I was just thinking about how this is like how everyone’s online dating profile describes them as “laid back” or “easygoing,” when those terms, too, could mean just about anything – from “can’t be bothered to get off the couch for weeks at a time” to “no longer punches holes in the walls every time something upsetting happens.”

      1. Snarkus Aurelius*

        When I was filling out my sister’s online dating profile, I had to tell her, “No, I can’t put down that you’re laid back. You’re not. Remember when the last time you let me pick the movie? You had a public breakdown because you were convinced I was telling you what to do? Then we didn’t go and you made me walk behind you because I was beneath you? Then you didn’t talk to me for three weeks until you needed a ride? Yeah, that’s not laid back. At all.”

        1. I'm A Little TeaPot*

          Please tell me that either your sister got some help, or you have short doses contact with her.

        2. zora*

          This is why I think it’s always good to have a loving but honest friend look at your dating profile. A couple of us were helping our friend with hers and we told her “Low-maintenance? Remember how it takes you 2 hours to get ready to go anywhere and you veto at least 4 bars before we can find one to agree on? That is not low maintenance.” She was honestly surprised that’s not what that word meant, but we were being honest, “We want you to find someone who will love you for who you are, but if you misrepresent yourself you’re not going to find that guy!”

          1. Overeducated*

            Also, I think saying you are low maintenance in a dating profile is like writing “don’t worry guys, you don’t even have to make an effort.” But I digress from the OP here….

    5. Anonymous Educator*

      There are also special buzzwords for schools that don’t necessarily mean they’re actually put in place:
      Life-long learning
      Critical thinkers
      21st-Century education
      Social/emotional intelligence
      Flipped classroom

      1. NoTurnover*

        Oh my God YESSSS. The self-directed school I work at doesn’t use any of those buzzwords, but so many fairly traditional schools use “freedom,” “child-led learning,” “choice,” etc. that we have real trouble trying to explain to parents that we REALLY mean those things.

      1. Biff*

        At least where I am, they are quite competitive with the other service jobs available locally.

    6. Jesmlet*

      Yes, this! Flexible, room to grow, creative, etc. etc. etc. So many empty buzzwords that don’t have any effect on who actually ends up applying.

      The best thing my future boss told me when I interviewed was that the pace varied wildly – sometimes it’s crazy busy, sometimes it’s painfully slow. I’m convinced that my follow-up email that specifically addressed this point is what put me over the top. So to all recruiters writing job posts, just be honest. You’re not going to get the right candidate if you pretend your company is something it’s not.

    7. Allison*

      It’s like how every single retail and food service employer says they have flexible hours and competitive pay, but anyone who’s worked any kind of job like that knows that flexibility only goes so far and “competitive” just means they pay about the same as everyone else. They know the job isn’t as great as it sounds, but everything they’re saying in the advert is technically true.

      1. Kj*

        Yeah, no job ad says a job’s salary is un competitive. I had a job with “flexible hours” where that meant I was free to work nights and weekends, but I also better be in the office at 8 am and no they weren’t going to pay me overtime or give me comp time….

  7. Boredatwork*

    I have worked three jobs that considered themselves “fast-paced”. The first was what you’d expect, long hours, tight deadlines and sudden unexpected changes that could materially change a project last minuet. We had government regulated deadlines that couldn’t be missed without penalty. This required 4 months of continuous weekends and late nights into the early AM.

    Second job, in the interview warned me it was a “fast paced” job that would require extensive overtime, as a warning and to try to scare me away from taking the job, if I was looking for a typical 9-5. “Extensive” overtime translated to a handful of weekend days per year and the occasional late night, by late I mean 7pm.

    Third job, made it very clear overtime was expected during “busy” times and that deadlines were enforced (whether mandated or arbitrary). This turned into a handful of weekends, and the occasional late night. The enforced deadlines could be moved back by a week or two for unforeseen issues, and was generally accommodating.

    For me understanding the scope of the job and the number of people involved in a task helps determine how “fast paced” something has to be. In job #2 I was solely responsible for a large volume of work. Job #1 was a toxic WP with bad turn over and job #3 is appropriately staffed and managed by adults who care.

  8. Short & Dumpy*

    It doesn’t sound like it was the case with your office, but in many of the federal offices I’ve worked in (especially the last decade or so), any given project may well take forever & a day to complete. BUT, you’re chronically understaffed and working on 40 projects at once so the workday for each person is in fact very fast paced.

    Sooooo….don’t just ask “how long to complete xyz” without also asking “how many xyz are underway at the same time”.

    1. Higher Ed Database Dork*

      This is a great point! My current work environment is like that. I really enjoy my job and team, but we definitely need more people. I think we probably implement things faster than other teams but we’re definitely not moving at the speed of the private sector, and couldn’t even dream about doing that without at least 3-4 more people (currently have 2).

    2. Rachel Green*

      I would agree with this. I work in government. And we are understaffed. So, I have several projects on my plate right now, each of them moving at a slow pace, but I always have plenty that needs to get done. Plus, the work fluctuates, like we might have a few slow months where I’m more caught up, then we get a bunch of new projects and my plate is overfull for the next several months.

    3. Sleepy Unicorn*

      I was going to comment something similar. I’ve worked in government where a department’s day-to-day operations were very fast paced (and often exacerbated by being chronically short staffed) and the operations supported critical infrastructure or services to residents that could not ever be delayed or stopped. However, at the same time large projects, transformation, strategic initiatives, etc. moved super slowly.

    4. Anjay*

      Yuuuup. Sure, if everything goes well and we’re going as fast as we can we can do a Thing from start to finish – and I’m talking a lot of steps – in a day or two. But we can’t do that when we have 50,000 Things coming in in one week.

  9. LouiseM*

    I have the opposite problem! I work in an industry that a few people have mentioned up thread is NOT fast-paced (academia). Our hiring process moves at a glacial pace and everyone knows (and jokes about!) how long it takes to get anything done. We recently had a major departmental project coming up and the running joke was “we’ll believe it when I see it”–because our progress had been halted so many times by bureaucratic nonsense.

    So, nobody calls it fast-paced. And yet, my boss CONSTANTLY emails and occasionally texts outside of work hours. She says there is no expectation that anybody respond until the next day to late-night messages, but to me it seems like she thinks she’s working in a different industry than the rest of us. It’s funny because it actually doesn’t bother me at all, but a few of my work friends have anxiety and it really messes up their evening when she does this.

    1. Laoise*

      My manager makes extensive use of Outlook’s time delay on emails. No one else works outside work hours and we get read the riot act if we try.

      But 8am many mornings, a barrage of emails arrive, making it very clear she worked through the night and just told all the emails to send at 8am.

      She herself had once been read the riot act by her boss for sending emails in the middle of the night, because it could make it seem like we should too. The delay was their compromise.

      1. LAM*

        I do this with text messages when I think of something at stupid-o’clock that I wanted to ask or tell someone. Everyone knows that if they receive a text from me before 9am, it’s a scheduled text.

    2. Tricksy Hobbit*

      Haha, I know exactly what you mean. I’m also in higher education. The problem is that our part staff is not involved enough to catch on, but boy does the full-time staff (usually). It has made for some awkward conversations.

      PT: Why don’t we do XYZ? I mean it’s so simple and easy.
      FT: Well…umm… diplomatic BS… trying very hard not to sound unprofessional to our direct reports etc

      Usually, I just nod and smile or ask them to write a report to pass on to my supervisor. Of course, they never write the report which is good because I know there is no way in Hades that XYZ will ever happen even if it is a good idea.

    3. attie*

      You can’t just say “academia” and not distinguish between academic staff and support staff. Support staff may have heard of this mythical “work hours” concept. But for most profs, after 10 pm is when you finally get enough quiet to get some serious stuff done! If you are allergic to nighttime emails, it is definitely not the environment for you.

  10. Antilles*

    And there’s also the fact that employers in general are notoriously bad at self-assessing their own cultures
    This. Many places tend to have a really skewed viewpoint of what they actually are, because many of the workers won’t have that much other recent experience to compare it to except what they saw at their own job. So it’s entirely possible that “two years to make a hiring decision” *does* count as fast-paced compared to the early 2010’s Great Recession style of “3+ years to gather enough documentation to justify this as a legitimate exception to the hiring freeze”.

    1. BRR*

      This is sort of the case with my employer. We just had a program for my team and had to identify our strongest traits. People were saying things like innovative, hard-working, and wait for it, fast paced. We’re not any of those things. It was painful to have people assess things because it was like saying we utilize the newest technology and just got a fax machine.

    2. Chaordic One*

      This is very true. At my former toxic workplace they made a point of hiring young college grads and for many it was their first job. They tended to stick around long enough to fill out a “Best Places to Work” survey and give it glowing remarks (except for salary) and then move on to something better, which apparently was not that difficult for most employees, given the high rates of turnover.

  11. Only here for the teapots*

    I usually read ‘fast paced’ as hectic & managed/owned by someone who can’t stand to see employees working at a human pace. I most often see this in ads that list maybe 3 jobs worth of duties for 1 person, with phrases like ‘must thrive in a hectic environment & be able to juggle running chainsaws while changing the boss’ tire’. Or something like that.

    1. Hm*

      This is how I read ‘fast-paced’ also – we expect you to do the work of three people. I went to a horrible group interview once for a quasi-medical clinic where that was in the ad, and when we got there, they not only gave us all a ridiculous test but then had us role-play, things like “Your phone is ringing and your manager is asking for something and there’s a client in front of you, what do you do?” The kicker for that was that they were actually paying $3/hour under the rate listed in the ad. NOPE!

      1. Only here for the teapots*

        I’m in a somewhat isolated college town that keeps making ‘best of’ lists, so even listings that seem decent at first glance almost always pay minimum wage w/poor or no benefits. There is so much competition that employers try to lowball as much as possible.

    2. Anon Today*

      The job description almost always is the give away. In those cases fast-paced means we are too cheap to staff up appropriately, and we’ll drive an employee into the ground until they leave, and we find the next sucker.

      1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        Same impression here. I guess it’s a good thing that they are trying to warn people.

      2. Mookie*

        Fast-paced: “you’ll be hired before you know it and resigning sooner than you anticipate.”

    3. Anonymous Educator*

      Yeah, I never read “fast-paced” to mean “We make changes really quickly and get projects done fast.” It definitely means to me “hectic and disorganized, and you’d better be ready to fly by the seat of your pants.”

      1. Decima Dewey*

        “You will end up crying on your way home a few times a week. Possibly on your way in as well.”

    4. Allison*

      Yeah, I worry about that too. I like jobs where there’s always something to do and projects move along at a nice pace, and I rarely mind it when things pivot, I can go with the flow, but I know of jobs in my industry where you’re expected to turn around requests within a rigid time frame and you have to hit some ridiculous numbers every day or you’re taken into a back room for a serious discussion. My first job was like that and it was insanely stressful.

    5. Not Today Satan*

      This is my impression too. I don’t know why employers act like it’s something to brag about.

  12. Bea*

    I feel like whomever designs the basic misleading job ads are trying to use buzzwords and also using BS templates they pull from the internet.

    I carefully screen the genetic ads when looking for work.

    1. Snarkus Aurelius*

      The cynical side of me also thinks employers are trying to get highly qualified people to do mundane work so they amp up the BS in their ads.

      I once interviewed for a Deputy Director job that nearly matched my current job description. Turns out the Director was looking for an administrative assistant. She gave me a completely different job description and said what was listed in the ad could be done when all my other admin work was done. Like I was an intern instead of a 30+ year old with years of experience.

      I withdrew. The Director was shocked because she wanted someone like me to be her assistant. Because of course she does.

      1. Bea*

        What a wackadoodle way of getting an assistant.

        …Come to think of it, one of my jobs was advertised as a “Bookkeeper” and I found out I wasn’t reconciling anything. I was just doing the clerical aspects and spreading my knowledge as thick as possible. That was less cynical and deliberate though, they were small scale and didn’t know what they wanted at all. I ended up putting an office structure together for them in the end.

        1. Snarkus Aurelius*

          And it’s insulting to those people who chose being an administrative assistant as a career. If you want a good assistant, that’s who you hire.

          You don’t recruit CEOs or CPAs or lawyers or engineers and try to sell them something else because, I assume, you want bragging rights.

          1. Bea*

            That and it’s not going to last long. Sometimes people want to step backwards in duties for personal reasons, I’ve been there but to try to con someone into it will leave you with constantly filling a void.

    2. Iris Eyes*

      I have a growing suspicion that for every bad resume there is a corresponding bad job ad/description.

      1. Bea*

        I’ve seen so many bad resumes, I can imagine how many job ads are trying to combat them only to be terrible in it’s own right.

  13. She Who Must Be Obeyed*

    It *is* possible that things have changed since you left. Several of my old jobs at IRS have changed to the point that I wouldn’t recognize them. Actually, I think all of them have. Simply acknowledging that the IT supplier isn’t going to get the job done and looking for someone else to do it–someone they trust to follow through–is a sign that things are changing. But Alison’s right–“fast paced” is defined by the people working in it. What’s fast to one person is glacially slow to another.

    1. Letter Writer*

      I have now started in the role and can confirm it’s perhaps very slightly faster paced than it was before, but mostly attributable to all the things they have requests for that they’ve been saving up for me to start doing! I imagine in another few weeks it will be as dull as ever

  14. Snark*

    I’d love to see a job description that’s like, “Honestly, we think pretty conventionally around here and the closest we get to disruption is going out for margaritas for happy hour instead of wings. We could get things done faster, but we try hard when it’s important. Our work-life balance is tilted towards work, our benefits are expensive and mediocre, and the management is basically decent and competent except for one or two things that will drive you bonkers and lead you to write to internet advice columns. But it’s tolerable for six or seven years until we hire a real asshat and make you move on, or when we lose an account and have to lay you off, which we’ll try to do as far in advance as possible. Join our team today!”

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      I read that as “six or seven figures” and was thinking “Okay, for seven figures I would definitely consider this job, whatever it is.”

        1. Snark*

          I don’t even know what a haddock is without Googling it, but even so, I am so there for it, if you want to pay me seven figures.

            1. Snark*

              I live in a place where surface water is something that gets fought over and my research was on plant ecology. I come by it honestly.

  15. Anon Today*

    I wish employers wouldn’t use subjective terms like fast-paced. Because it means something completely different depending on the industry, organization, and even manager you report to. I think it’s much more helpful to be more descriptive, and then provide examples to candidates.

    My place of employment describes itself as fast-paced, and I think that is true for some departments. But, we have other departments that function very slowly (either because of the nature of their work, or because they have a manager who demands that pace).

  16. Kat*

    Some workplaces think they are fast-paced because things take so long to happen that every project ends up in emergency mode. Like, most of my work is very routine and reasonably paced. But most of us also have few projects/duties that we can only move so far on until they’ve been routed through a painfully complicated bureaucracy so on those we wait and wait and wait while doing our everyday work and when we finally get approval from all parties, the work is nearly overdue and everyone is panicking and we all have to scramble to get it finished by deadline. I think my boss would describe it as fast paced even though 80 percent of the time its slow to moderate.

  17. Anon for This*

    I think a lot of this is explained by the varied perceptions that people have about pace, workload, etc.

    My boss, for example, feels like he is pulled in a million different directions and can never catch his breath. His complaint isn’t specifically about the pace of his work, but rather the number of different responsibilities he has, and how work on projects other than his main project pull his focus away in a problematic way.

    But I know — because I manage the project that he complains about being too demanding of his time — that he spends very little time on it, and far less time than others at his level, and if we took it off his plate it would have a negligible impact on his workload.

    Neither of us is right or wrong. Our perceptions are just different. What he perceives as “too many projects pulling me in too many directions” I perceive as “Not much impact on his workload.”

    1. finderskeepers*

      This is basically the description of executive management. They are responsible for 1000000 things but only do 1/1000000 of the work.

    2. Snarkus Aurelius*

      This, this, this.

      My old boss was promoted via the Good Old Boys network so he didn’t really understand the duties of his promotion. He just wanted that job.

      So when he complained, he would list the regular duties of his job that every other agency head had. Like hiring and firing people. Basic stuff. And he would complain about having to do them so he wouldn’t do those duties and he’d instead gravitate back to doing his old job in practice. But when his boss checked in with him, he’d be back complaining about those new, regular duties.

      It would have been so rude, but I was dying to ask him what he thought this new job was supposed to be?

  18. Mockingjay*

    “managers who have been frustrated by hiring or working with someone who was painfully slow or unproductive will sometimes start to think of their environment as fast-paced…”

    This statement describes Current Job, which I like. But I and my more recently hired coworkers are held to a slower pace because of previous inept hires. Both our supervisor and Grandboss have a hard time believing that we can do the job faster and better than the previous people in our roles, and with fewer people.

    I’ve learned a lot about office culture from AAM and have realized that my office really, truly believes it is fast-paced. Compared to other projects within the company, it is. Compared to the previous programs I have worked on at other companies, it isn’t. Just depends on perspective.

  19. Espeon*

    Yeah this one is weird. When I worked for Sh!tty Financial Company I’d come from somewhere genuinely fast-paced, so I encountered the problem where I was finishing my work so quickly that I ended up sat around doing nothing, because there was nothing else to give me (I kept asking), and then got called lazy by the director?! Needless to say I pointed this out in my exit interview when I quit after five months.

  20. Serin*

    My experience is that when an employer tells you, “We are …” there’s about an 80% chance that what they really mean is “We’re anxious about …”

    So when an ad or an interviewer stresses some specific aspect of their workplace, I take that as a signal to look at that aspect extra-carefully.

    I mean, “This is a fast-paced workplace” might mean “A couple of years ago, someone suggested redoing our process so it doesn’t require a fax machine, and we’re moving towards compiling a list of people who should be on the committee to consider that,” or it might mean “When the big boss says ‘Do this,’ she means, ‘You should already have done X twice by now.’ ” But one way or another, it means they’re aware the pace is a problem.

  21. Irene Adler*

    I applied for a job at one “fast-paced” company. A year later they got in touch with me.

    1. Ali G*

      Hahaha! This reminds me of when I finished grad school. I applied for a few positions – one at a state agency in my home state. I got called in for an interview a few weeks later. FF 4-5 months and I hadn’t heard a word from them. I found a great job (one I ended up in for almost 9 years) and one day I got a random phone call – it was the hiring manager from the agency. He wanted to ask me back for a second round of interviews and I was like “Um I have a job, so no.” He was genuinely surprised and proceeded to tell me how much they liked me, how sure he’s going to get the funding soon (huh??) blah blah. I didn’t go back.

  22. Anonymous Educator*

    I’ve also seen even the term “busy” used to mean different things. Some people think “busy” means “I can stand around and chat with my co-workers for an hour about how busy I am… and why is this project taking so long?” while other people genuinely mean they can barely schedule in a bathroom break because there’s so much work to do.

    1. Sal*

      HAHAHA I used to have a coworker in a different department that was always hanging around our department telling us how he was so busy, didn’t have time for anything…

  23. Turquoisecow*

    I don’t think I’ve ever worked anywhere that was *truly* fast-paced, but there were a few times where the pace was maybe a little sped up due to emergencies (either real emergencies or fire drills) and management got kind of annoyed with the people who continued at their usual pace rather than at least pretending to speed up.

    Like a coworker who would sit in a meeting explaining a problem or project, and then afterward go out for a smoke break whilst his colleagues immediately began to brainstorm ways to work on said issue. Or another colleague who would proceed to work on her ordinary (non-urgent) tasks before getting started on any special projects, even though the special projects had been clearly presented as urgent.

    So I wonder if, in some cases, the job is described as “fast paced” to screen out people who aren’t able to prioritize in emergencies, or who completely fall apart if you ask them to move a little faster.

    1. Bea*

      Very true and it should be lumped with “ability to prioritize and organize your work”, I am from a fast pace background and I’ve ran into people who made me die inside over their inability to know what’s important and what’s filler. I even wrote detailed charts and still they picked the bottom stuff before the top.

      1. Turquoisecow*

        Prioritizing had definitely always been the hardest thing for me to learn at any new job. I had a decent boss (he sucked in some ways but was good in this instance) who told me that if I wasn’t sure, to come to him for help prioritizing. Most of our stuff had dates on it and didn’t take that long, but sometimes I’d come across confusing things.

        But if you’ve been clearly told what’s a priority and you focus on something else? Yeah…that’s not good.

        I think in some cases this is clearly laziness – they don’t want to do the hard stuff, so they do lower priority, easy stuff.

  24. Lissee*

    I’ve seen fast-paced used frequently when it really just means people plan poorly or have chronically unreasonable deadlines (often for no other reason then that someone promised something without thinking how long it takes to get done). So people are always rushing due to self created emergencies.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      Or sometimes they’re just purposefully (to “save money”) understaffed. I guess you can count that under “people plan poorly,” though.

    2. Overeducated*

      My mom used to call this “perpetual manufactured crisis.” She left that particular work environment after her pension vested…..

  25. Leela*

    “And there’s also the fact that employers in general are notoriously bad at self-assessing their own cultures (for example, they genuinely think they’re unusually flexible just because they let you work from home if you’re sick but not any other time, or they think they give people a lot of autonomy when in fact they control everything, and so forth).”

    So true it hurts! I used to do a lot of recruiting and companies would constantly want to put things in their job descriptions that were so untrue I couldn’t believe they could believe them, but they really seemed to.
    “Amazing benefits!” = we have some kind of health plan
    “Fun place to work!” = we are notoriously demanding and inconsiderate of your time but we have beer fridays
    “Career advancement!” = Can’t quantify this with anything but someday, sometime, somehow, a position might open up for advancement. We have no real reason to think it would be this one
    “Competitive pay” = This means anything from competitive pay to “we pay you”

    And so on. I love the advice AAM gives here about asking specific questions that would have to be answered with something other than opinion or yes/no. When I first started interviewing to work, I’d often take a “yes”/”no” as indicating the same thing to me it does to them, or take “oh we’re pretty fast” to mean that they were pretty fast. Now I definitely make a point of getting into questions whose answers have hard data. Granted anyone could lie but generally that hasn’t been my experience and it gives me a much better idea of what it’s like to work there than your manager assuming two years means fast because they were thinking it would take 3, when you were thinking fast would be 6 months.

    1. Bea*

      ““Fun place to work!” = we are notoriously demanding and inconsiderate of your time but we have beer fridays”
      SCREAMING. I remember this when trying my hardest to fill a really FUBAR position. The owner kept leading into everything about how we’re so busy but always having fun…

      It was even more hilarious since it was a hellhole.

    2. Eliza*

      One reason not to worry too much about the possibility that employers could lie in response to specific questions is that most employers won’t feel like they *need* to lie: if they genuinely feel as if the pace they’re going at is fast and that that’s an aspect of the job they want people to know about, they won’t balk at describing the details of how they think it’s fast. There are some places that will resort to outright deception to hire people, but looking at sites like Glassdoor is probably going to be a more effective way to screen those out than asking directly.

      1. Kyrielle*

        If anything, they’re more likely to hide that it’s faster/slower than you might like, not deliberately, but because *they* genuinely think it is. That is, not hiding it deliberately, but of course they can’t tell you, because they don’t perceive it.

  26. LiveAndLetDie*

    I think it’s the same thing that compels people to tell you they’re smart or laid-back or that they have attention to detail, just on the corporate level.

  27. EmilyAnn*

    I’ve always worked in government which most people see as the opposite of fast-paced. It might take 6-12 months for a promotion or hiring to go through so some might see that as slow-paced. However, deadlines for certain things might be in hours or days so we’re “fast-paced” in the sense that some things must be done quickly and others can sit around for months on end. I would have described all my government jobs as fast-paced even with that dichotomy.

  28. anyone out there but me*

    In my experience, “fast paced” really means, “Get up to our speed really fast with little to no direction, and do things exactly as we want by reading our minds because nobody here has the time or desire to train you properly…”

  29. Schnapps*

    Hi! Government worker here!

    I find a lot of it isn’t necessarily fast-paced in that there’s a consistent amount of abundant levels of work – more that there are times/parts of your business cycle that are extremely busy and others that are less so to being nonexistent. My work is all deadline and legislation driven, so the closer you get to the deadline, the faster the pace gets. There’s also a lot of stuff that can change in an instant for any number of reasons, which changes the pace quite regularly.

  30. Jam Today*

    In my experience, “fast paced” translates into “chaotic, with no strategy or planning to speak of, so everything is a emergency.” See also: “drinking from a firehose.”

    1. AMT*

      I’m glad I wasn’t the only person who mentally translated it into “manager’s lack of planning becoming everyone else’s emergency several times a day.”

  31. Longtime Lurker*

    I’ve worked in truly fast-paced environments (a daily newspaper, for example) and been involved in the hiring process. It’s very hard to translate what that means to people who haven’t done it before without specific examples, like “you will be expected to do X and Y, every day.” But I’ve seen people flame out from the pressure, too, so I feel like it’s important from the get-go to give specifics about what you mean when you say “fast-paced.”

    As an aside, I’m rewatching The Office with my teenager and I’m pretty sure Michael Scott would have described his office as “fast-paced”…..

  32. Daisy*

    I’d like to point out that some companies are:
    – “fast-pacing” in terms of team work: projects get started and finished soon, lots of new things coming in so you always work on something new and there is always a new peace of information that is part of your work now and you need to know etc.
    – extremely “low pacing” in terms of approval of the new projects: you can wait months (or years!) before you get the approval on the project you collected the documentation about. Due to bureaucracy, too many people involved in the decisions, turnover on high levels… you name it.

    I’m definitely in one of them, middle manager, caught in the two-speed wheels.

  33. whistle*

    Well, they may not have described the culture correctly, but at least they spelled the word correctly. When I lived in LA almost every job posting on Craig’s List advertised that the job was “fast paste.” Laughing at those ads never got old.

    1. Relosa*

      I can vouch for the awful LA CL ads.

      One of my favorites was a role for a “cowardinator” and I genuinely couldn’t tell if it was a pun or not.

  34. BuilderBob*

    I actually interviewed for a government job where they made sure you understood how show it was. There’s a lot of downtime, plenty of reading and you’ll need to find stuff to do at times are you ok with that? They even went so fast as to explain the job want very challenging or stimulating but required an advanced degree. It was surprising but I applaud their honesty.

  35. LadyCop*

    There is no government job that is remotely in a fast paced environment…there’s a reason even in the Army you get to “hurry up and wait.”

    1. TardyTardis*

      September, just before the end of the fiscal year, is very fast paced in Purchasing and Contracting in the military–you’ll have a colonel sitting in your cubicle with a walkthrough for $40,000 of cable assemblies for (insert name of plane or missile here). Or $300,000 worth of carpeting. It’s um, busy.

  36. TeapotLibrarian*

    I think also it’s worth considering what the opposite of fast paced is. Is it “everything over-all will take forever but you’re going to be constantly overwhelmed working on all these things taking forever,” or “projects will come in at a manageable rate and you will have plenty of time to complete them at your own pace.”

  37. Sam Foster*

    I think there is also a general lack of self-awareness. I’ve worked at a number of fast-paced businesses where people are too busy to answer email, work long hours, etc. and yet I produce double the output and spin in my chair half the day AND have had bosses tell me to slow down to not make others uncomfortable. So my advice is roll with it and adjust accordingly.

  38. The Claims Examiner*

    to me it has always meant “you will have a ton of work that you can never stay on top of” ;)

  39. Baska*

    Especially at small companies, a lot of it may depend on the previous person in the role as well. I’m the office manager at a small non-profit, and my predecessor had everyone convinced that her job was OMG IMPOSSIBLY SO BUSY ALL THE TIME PANIC PANIC PANIC. After I came in and wrote up some documentation (because of course she didn’t have any documentation), I realized that this is one of the most laid-back, routine, even-keeled jobs I’ve ever had, about 90% of the time. The first time I put together our monthly bookkeeping package for the accountant — in about an hour and a half, with neither wailing nor gnashing of teeth — my boss was legitimately amazed and thought I was some sort of miracle worker… which leads me to really wonder how my predecessor managed to survive any job at all.

  40. Relosa*

    Since my earliest work experiences were on my feet all day and literally fast-paced for efficiency in operations, I always automatically read “fast-paced” environments in an office/professional setting as “hands-on with no idle time” kind of thing. Or always on your feet.

  41. Ann Nonymous*

    If a job is described as “fast-paced” that is one of the surest adjectives to make me not apply to it. I’m very competent and quickly get all jobs done. “Fast-paced” to me indicates bad management, under staffing and overly (and unrealistically) set deadlines. It rubs me just as wrong as exhortations to “work hard” – why is that a virtue?? Work should be reasonable in all senses. That is how a superior job is done…not by breakneck speeds, constant stress and a personal, often physical, toll. The latter ensures errors, disgruntlement, injury, illness and resentment.

  42. Former Producer*

    After working in a TV newsroom for 4 years, I don’t really believe most job postings that say the position is fast-paced. Maybe there are some deadlines, but nothing compared to the deadlines anyone in the news business has faced. Interviewers always seem surprised when I tell them how quickly I can write a story, but it just feels natural to me. I’m looking for a job outside TV now because I want a lower stress position, but I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I don’t have enough work to keep me busy for a full 8 hours.

  43. Jady*

    This is a bit late but:

    I would caution that sometimes it’s a real description. I’ve had a new hire quit in under a year due to the stress from our high pressure/high demand office. The poor man was sweating at his desk, couldn’t sleep, majorly stressing out.

    You really want to inquire for details. With my experience, I’d ask about things like turnover rate, how often projects are delayed (for typical for-profit businesses), overtime hours, what typical deadlines look like, etc. And you want this information from the people who would be your coworkers too, not just the people above you. There can be major disconnects between the two.

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