Skip To Main Content

Ghost Jobs: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Reading Time 


Posted On APR 25, 2024 

At LHH, we’ve been poring over our annual Global Workforce of the Future research based on a survey of 30,000 workers across 23 countries. To provide some context to our research, we decided to look beyond the numbers and explore what other people are saying about some of the key points raised by our data. Our survey showed that many job seekers are applying for hundreds of jobs without hearing back.


This is surprising, as the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary (JOLTS) from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 9 million openings at the end of 2023. While this is below the peak of 12 million reported in March 2022, it still represents a high level in the historical context – a level at which candidates should not be struggling to this degree.


Naturally, this has led many people to seek an explanation, a search that came to a head last summer when a clip posted by Tik Tok user arizona_allie quickly went viral and racked up over 100,000 views in less than two weeks. The video, captioned “Tell me you’re unemployed without telling me,” included a written line that said “POV: getting your 438th auto rejection email for a job you’re qualified for then seeing it get reposted again the next day with over 2,000 applicants.” In a lively below-the-line discussion, other Tik Tok users shared similar experiences and offered theories in attempt to explain what’s happening – most of which painted employers in a very unflattering light.


This phenomenon had been noted earlier. A 2022 study by Clarify Capital sought to explain why job postings are kept open with little intention of recruiting, while a post in early 2023 by LinkedIn user Michael Keach went viral on the platform and compared the mental challenge of applying to over 160 jobs without success to his 20 years of military service. Trending on Tik Tok, however, was the point at which ghost jobs truly entered the mainstream, especially among the Gen Z cohort who will shape the workforce of the future.


Disappointing reasons for ghost job listing


The impact on the affected individuals is often devastating. Job seekers are left feeling that they have failed when, in reality, the employer had no intention of filling the role; worse still, they then endure this experience hundreds of times over. As we are talking not just about data points here, but people’s livelihoods and their dreams for their futures, we would hope that employers have very solid reasons for advertising ghost jobs.


Regrettably, that does not appear to be the case. Clarify Capital’s abovementioned study found that the three most common reasons were ‘the company is always open to new people,’ ‘to keep current employees motivated,’ and ‘to give the impression that the company is growing.’ Other frequently cited reasons included ‘to have an active pool of candidates in case of turnover’ and ‘to placate overworked employees.’


While each of these reasons points to a need that must be addressed, none are a strong enough justification to negate the harm done to job seekers – especially when these needs can be addressed much more effectively through other means. For example, employers that want to give an impression of growth should consider their marketing strategies, while those needing access to a talent pool should engage with a company that can offer that service. An organization that’s advertising ghost jobs to placate overworked employees may have managerial and process issues to address.


A lose-lose situation for employers and job seekers


That the ghost-jobs phenomenon is demoralizing and harmful to job seekers seems clear, but what of the impact on the organizations that advertise them? Here, too, the overall picture is negative. Most of the managers posting these openings will be aware of the old business maxim that an unhappy customer will tell 9-10 friends about their experience (a number that is in fact much higher in the social media age) but fail to apply this logic to their employer brand. The ghost-jobs phenomenon is already being widely discussed online by the people on the sharp end of it, who, in their growing frustration, are increasingly willing to ‘name and shame’ the companies they believe are responsible in an attempt to warn others not to waste their efforts.


Employers engaging in this practice therefore risk finding themselves in a ‘boy who cried wolf’ situation where they have an opening that needs to be filled urgently, but that potential candidates believe to be a ghost job. Even if they can surmount this obstacle, they may find that candidates have formed a negative opinion of the company due to a previous experience with a ghost job advertised by the organization.


The rise of ghost jobs also casts one of the dominant recruitment narratives of recent years in a new light. Fortune reporter Chloe Berger pointed out last year that the ‘Great Resignation’ of 2021 was largely driven by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ JOLTS indicators showing over 10 million openings for multiple consecutive months. How many of those openings were in fact ghost jobs is an unanswerable question, but the Great Resignation narrative led many people to start looking for new jobs when they might otherwise have stayed in their existing roles. Many employers lost people they wanted to retain during the Great Resignation; those among them that use ghost job listings may, at least in part, have been the architects of their own misfortune.


Ghost jobs: LHH’s view


It should be apparent by now that LHH believes ghost job listings to be an undesirable practice that has primarily negative outcomes for job seekers, employees, organizations, and arguably even the wider economy. We advise any employer that engages in this practice to urgently seek other options.


We were particularly alarmed by the practice of using ghost job listings to build up a candidate pool, because this is a highly ineffective and potentially risky way to achieve this. Done properly, building a candidate pool is an ongoing process with no end; care must be taken to ensure candidates’ personal data is handled in compliance with relevant legislation such as the California Privacy Rights Act and the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the latter of which applies to all organizations that do business in the European Union regardless of corporate domicile. The penalties for breaching such legislation can be eye-watering – for example, the most serious GDPR breaches are punishable with fines of up to €20 million or 4% of the firm’s worldwide annual revenue from the preceding financial year (whichever amount is higher).


Given this level of risk around the incorrect handling of personal data, we strongly advise any organization taking this approach to instead partner with a specialist third party. Specialist partners can offer you access to worldwide pools of the strongest talents while managing the relevant compliance issues on your behalf.


Despite the proliferation of ghost job listings, we were relieved that our research show people remain confident in their ability to find a job. For more information and other insights, explore our Global Workforce of the Future research.


To discover how LHH can help you access up-to-date market intelligence and strong talent pools without posting ghost job listings, get in touch.