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When employers promise the moon

Published Sep. 2, 2005

Here's what Marc Russell was promised for his first job out of college: a position in a fast-growing consulting company helping Fortune 500 companies solve complex business problems and technology needs, with ample opportunity for rapid career advancement, international travel and stock options.

This fairy tale gave way to a scary truth: He spent three months in an empty room in the Seattle suburbs waiting his turn to play BattleZone on the company's fast computer. That was the good part.

His longest trip was from Seattle to Portland. He got all of 10 stock options, which he has since lost. His biggest project was working for the Kings County Jail, where his keenest insight was that the corndogs don't have sticks. He wrote software tracking inmate movement. (How far could they go?) And there was this spooky perk no one warned him about: "The client threatened to keep us there if he didn't get what he wanted," Russell says of a prison administrator. "He was only half joking."

Of his year at the consultancy, Russell says: "Sometimes I wonder how I ever let that happen."

Before you're even on the payroll, many of you encounter your first lies: about opportunity, making a difference, travel, work from home, hiring staff and spending almost as much company money as you make. So spellbound, you believe your job is to leap tall buildings. Benefits include Brooklyn Bridge ownership. Play your cards right and you'll be the Leader of the Free World.

Once the hex wears off, you find yourself in an odd corner of America, your spouse ripping mad, the kids uneasy and your eyes aglaze at your job description, which omitted the word "catastrophe."

"It's epidemic," executive agent Neal Lenarsky says. Sometimes, it's a case of serial swindling: The hiring manager hasn't figured out yet that he also doesn't have the job and authority he thought he had. "Most of the hiring executives are lying to themselves," he says.

Adds Alan Sklover, a lawyer who specializes in employment issues: "It's the most underestimated provision in the employee contract: What's your job." He recalls two clients poached by a company that wanted to start a competitive business, but then changed its mind. "They were hired to jobs that never existed," he says.

Realistic job previews lead to more organizational commitment from employees, less turnover and higher job satisfaction, says Ben Dattner, who heads his own consulting company. Overpromise, he warns, and "the honeymoon will come to a rapid and unfortunate end."

If hoodwinkees stay, they badmouth the hoodwinkers and hardly work. The issue has been so studied that there are studies of studies. The legal profession has coined a name for the bogus schmooze: the Summer Associates Program.

Part of the problem is we want to believe. In the early 1990s, Deborah Erickson was wooed away from her editorial post at Scientific American to join a think tank. She was to study health care reform, write white papers and take "a front-row seat at the fray" in Washington. It was a chance _ and you can almost see this spell cast from the employer's magic wand _ to "participate in this great social change." The courtship included a weekend in Martha's Vineyard.

She never went to Washington, viewed the "fray" from afar and cluttered her agenda with "nothing, nada, squat." Nothing? "Dude, I mean nothing," she says.

She kept asking for work and hoping it would get better. "It really was a horrible experience," she says. "It was heartbreaking."

Part of the problem is that job descriptions are written with the slipperiness of classifieds and personal ads. A brief lexicon from one recruiter: "Character building" means the job stinks, "mentoring" means "you've got a staff so inept you're a babysitter," "expense account" translates into "a bagged lunch so you can stay at your desk," and "team working environment," means noisy cubicles, says Don Steinmann, who used such euphemisms when he put together a team of computer programmers.

But he quickly learned the error of his ways. He had to be more realistic, he says, otherwise employees leave within months, at no small cost to the company. "All of that money is just flushed down the toilet," he says.