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by ERIN WHITE | March 31, 2009


When recent college graduate Katharine Certain accepted a job at an ad agency last year, she hoped the small company would give her a wide range of responsibilities. She didn't expect them to include walking the owner's dogs.

Sometimes, jobs turn out differently than anticipated. A new boss may saddle you with unexpected duties, or not give you promised responsibilities. You may report to someone you didn't expect, or be asked to work longer hours than you planned.

Career coaches say candidates can minimize the chances for such new-job surprises by doing lots of research about the company and about the specific job. They recommend that candidates not rely solely on the interviewers at a prospective employer.

Instead, they suggest you talk to as many people as possible about the position and firm. If you know people inside the company, ask them about working conditions and the prospective job. The answers may differ from the official line. If you don't know anyone in the company, try to find employees, or former employees, through acquaintances or through Internet search engines, job-research sites like or networking sites such as These contacts will help you discover whether your would-be employer has given you a misleading job description.

The interview process itself can offer clues. Does the interviewer clearly and specifically describe your duties? The more specific, the better. Vagueness could be a sign that your higher-ups haven't thought enough about the job, or that the duties may be in flux, making an unpleasant surprise more likely. Sometimes, a job can change for reasons that are harder to anticipate, such as a merger, the departure of a boss, or the loss or gain of a key contract.

"The one thing to think about is: Is this your fault because of a lack of really good due diligence before you took the job, or is it their fault, or is it nobody's fault?" says Nella Barkley, president of Crystal-Barkley Corp., a coaching firm.

Regardless of the reason, career coach Barbara LaRock recommends that new employees not bail out immediately, unless the company is doing something unethical or illegal. Try to give it at least six months, she says. Talk with your bosses to see if they can bring the job more in line with your original expectations.

If you decide there is no remedy, look for another job. But make sure you don't repeat the same mistakes that you made in your prior search. "Ask yourself, 'Is this a pattern?' " says Ms. LaRock, of Reston, Va. "Are there signals I'm missing? Am I not asking the right questions?"

Ms. Certain, now 23 years old, realizes she should have asked more questions before she started, or tried to contact former employees. Using an Internet job board, she had located the risumis of a couple other people who had held the same position. She noticed that each held the job for about a year. But she didn't think much of it, because job-hopping is so common in advertising, and didn't bother to contact them.

Her interviewers gave only a vague job description, and tried to sell her on the notion that she would have more responsibility than at a larger agency. At one point during an interview, a dog jumped on Ms. Certain's lap. At the time, she thought it was cute. "Little did I know he and I would have such a close relationship," she says.

The job went downhill quickly. Soon after she started, her new boss outlined her responsibilities, including calling potential clients and evaluating marketing plans. Then she added: "Water the plants once a week and our dogs need to go out by noon."

Worried that she would be fired if she questioned the assignment, Ms. Certain did as she was told. Ms. LaRock, the career coach, says Ms. Certain should have spoken up to see if the boss would reconsider this as a long-term duty. If the boss wouldn't even talk about it, Ms. Certain should have taken that as a sign that it wasn't a good place to work.

The menial tasks left Ms. Certain feeling degraded and confused. Her friends ribbed her. "At least you're not walking dogs," she says they would tell her. "Oh wait, you are."

After nine months, she quit. When looking for her next job, she paid careful attention to how specifically her interviewers described the job duties. She wanted a clear description. She found a job at another agency and hasn't experienced any unpleasant surprises.

Other times, the surprise isn't the duties, it is the schedule. Dorri O'Brien Morin, 37 years old, was bored with her software-marketing job in Northern Virginia two years ago when a headhunter called about a job at a smaller technology firm. When interviewing, she noticed that most of the employees were young men without kids, so she told them she had kids and couldn't clock marathon office hours. They said that was fine.

But she soon realized that her schedule was incompatible with most other employees' schedules. She liked to come in about 7 a.m. and was ready to leave by 3:30 p.m. or 4 p.m. "That was not well received," she says. Co-workers would schedule meetings at 4:30, then want to hash out ideas over dinner or drinks, when Ms. Morin needed to be with her children. Moreover, the office was an hour and 15 minutes away from her home, more than doubling her commute.

She stayed only about 12 weeks. "I never thought to consider when looking for a job the fact that it would be important that nobody else had kids," she says. She found a new job doing economic development for her local government. It's only a mile from her home; her employer accommodates telecommuting and flexible work schedules. She has many co-workers with families who understand her need for reasonable hours. "That quality of life factor is huge," she says.


Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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