Ghost Jobs: The mystery of fake job ads

Patricia Parnet
8 min readFeb 21, 2024
Photo by danilo.alvesd on Unsplash

Ghost jobs: Posting fake job ads without actually filling the job externally. How can you recognize ghost jobs? Views are my own.

It’s frustrating and the haunting never ends: The title, the company, the description… you’ve found your dream job ! Especially in the current economic climate where promising jobs are rare, this is surreal and too good to be true. After meticulously preparing application documents and enduring an extensive application process, the outcome can often be disheartening — prolonged silence, superficial interviews, and delayed rejection emails. This scenario is often what people refer to as a “ghost job” — a misleading job advertisement. It emphasizes the significance of being vigilant and conducting thorough due diligence when navigating the intricacies of the job market.

“Ghost jobs” are job advertisements that seem open but are either already internally filled or were never intended to be filled in the first place.

It almost seems like fraud or deception. Imagine if a business started advertising products that it never actually planned to offer. Consumer advice centers and the local press would immediately raise their voices. Now let’s transfer a variant of this approach to the world of jobs. There, these pseudo advertisements are often simply accepted and not questioned. This once again underlines the unequal distribution of power between applicants and recruiters. It seems to be common practice in some companies…

But what are the reasons for this? After all, job ads cost time and money! Formally, they are no different from “real” jobs. Nobody really knows the true reason and it varies from company to company. Here are some speculations:

  • 📈 Pretending growth: Especially to impress investors or competitors. Particularly common among start-ups and young companies.
  • 💰 Collecting salary data from the market: This can be useful for internal company salary structures, future recruitment or even offshoring, just to name a few. Ultimately, every company wants to act competitively and save or invest strategically. But why are no studies or surveys used for this?
  • 🎨 Skill assessment: The intentions here are linked to those of the salary level. Companies want to find out whether their own employees are still competitive or where they need to provide additional training. It is also very interesting for job postings in the future. They might not have certain tools and skills on their radar…
  • 🤿 Filling talent pools: Companies aim to create databases of potential candidates for the future. In some companies, the only way to enter the talent pool is through a traditional application. Sometimes it is very hidden, for example: “Would you like to share your profile for similar positions for several months?” However, many applicants are of the opinion that this triggers annoying newsletters that often suggest totally unsuitable jobs. As a result, nothing usually happens in these talent pools. This approach therefore works more in theory and otherwise resembles a talent dead-end from the applicant’s point of view. Indeed, there are also great examples where it works well and entry does not take place via the application screen. How about investing energy in better processes instead of ghost jobs?
  • 🔎 Compliance during internal recruitment: Of course, a fair and transparent application process for everyone is great. But if you only bring external applicants on board to use them as test subjects for internal hiring that is almost certainly in the pipeline, this is more than questionable. It becomes even more unreal when the use of ghost jobs is justified with fairness.
  • 😓 Applying pressure on internal employees: Often by suggesting a quick “replacement” for one’s own position. The aim here is to fuel competition and create the impression that a better person can be found quickly for one’s own job. This practice is particularly widespread in the US, where dismissals are often carried out more quickly than in Europe.

The tricky part about ghost jobs is that there is little to no difference between them and all serious job ads. They are actually advertised on all reliable platforms. This is one reason why very little is done about them, because job boards earn particularly well when applicants search for a long time and many ads have to be placed. There are only a few warning signs, and even these offer only a general guide with no absolute certainty. To protect themselves from ghost jobs, applicants should pay close attention to the following aspects:

Ghost Job-Alarm: The job has been online for a long time or is constantly being promoted

If a job advertisement remains online for an extended period of time, this may indicate that it is a ghost job. Especially if the ad is continuously re-posted or promoted on various platforms, there is a possibility that the position is no longer intended to be actively filled. The date will then be moved back and the job will look new, even though it is not. Ads often appear at the top when this service is additionally booked. Companies might do this to give the impression of ongoing recruitment efforts, while the actual decision has already been made.

Image of a paid job advertisement with the addition “promoted”
Check job advertisements with “promoted” or similar very carefully.

However, be careful, especially with specialized jobs and higher positions that often stay online for a long time, even if they are definitely not ghost jobs. Finding the right match between applicants and companies can sometimes take time. Therefore, the time alone should not be taken as a clear indication.

It is therefore important to monitor the development of job advertisements on various platforms. Be more patient and attentive rather than investing time in an application that is not worth it!

Ghost Job Alert: Everything is imprecisely described or very short

Are there no clear descriptions, team names or other relevant information? Does everything seem very superficial and contain a lot of “blah blah”?
Of course, short and snappy descriptions don’t mean that it’s a dubious job — quite the opposite. But if it seems imprecise, generic or even incomplete, the company has made little effort and it could be more likely to be a ghost job. The vague wording could be used to attract external applicants without revealing exact details.

Ghost Job Alert: No Contact Details

Unfortunately, it is still common not to provide a contact option or the name of the recruiter. By the way, these 10 UX tips for inclusive job ads advise against doing just that. But if there are other features that seem unusual and then no contact details are listed, it becomes suspicious.
If a contact is listed and you are not quite sure whether it’s a ghost job or not, get in touch and ask directly and openly. It doesn’t cost anything and can give you clarity!

Ghost Job Alert: The exact same position was advertised in different locations and countries

IIn such cases, there is a possibility that the advertisements are used to show that the company is hiring broadly, while the actual intention is to fill the position internally or has already been reserved for a preferred candidate. The mix of locations could be a strategy to gather external applications while the decision may already have been made. In case of doubt, applicants can be paired off against each other without knowing it. Or, in the end, the applicant who is the most cost-effective is favored, often in Eastern and Southern Europe. However, this phenomenon can also be observed worldwide. For example, jobs are first advertised in Germany and France and then in Asia. It is therefore worth using international filters in job portals. Click here for tips on applying abroad if you are specifically interested in an international career.

Ghost Job Alert: No clear statements or timeline in the interview

If the company does not provide clear information about how the hiring process is progressing or when decisions are made, it becomes suspicious. The lack of transparency could be used to retain external candidates while internal decisions are made in the background. In such cases, it’s important to ask pointed questions during the interview to get more clarity on the process and timeline. Be confident and demand the answers you deserve. If in doubt, it is also possible to cancel or even terminate an interview!

Ghost Job-Alarm: Suspicious reviews on portals such as Glassdoor

Nowadays, there are a number of review portals for companies, such as Glassdoor, where you can also give feedback on the application process:

Overall, such portals provide a good overview of the current situation in the company. However, access to the job applicant area is somewhat hidden, as the evaluations of current employees are in the spotlight. Switching between the views is just a click away. It’s worth taking a look before every application!

Never received an offer or a rejection? Did they ask superficial questions in the interview? If these reviews pile up in a short period of time and are outlined in great detail, this might be a red flag. However, not every negative review is automatically a reliable sign of a ghost job. In some cases, companies simply need a slightly longer time to make a decision, have complicated communication processes or something else has gone wrong. Manipulated reviews can also occur, both positive and negative. Although rejections are common and negative reviews provide orientation, they could also come from frustrated applicants. Remember that a rejection is no reason to give up!

During the job search, you should listen to your gut feeling at all levels, because it is always honest with you. If you don’t have a good feeling, it’s usually a warning sign. You can already notice this in the job advertisement. Especially when looking for a job, you should know your own value and that of your time: When it comes to fairness and transparency, you have the right to take a firm, confident stand. You are more than just a data set; you deserve to be treated honestly and should not waste time with companies that use ghost jobs and do not communicate openly with you.

A job rejection does not necessarily mean that you are a victim of a ghost job. It can have many other reasons and is no excuse to give up. The right job just wasn’t there yet and with a little patience, there are certainly much better opportunities waiting for you. We all get a ton of rejections. So beware of the many job ghosts and focus all the more on real opportunities.

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