Busting the “80% of All Jobs are Hidden” Myth

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“Unpublicized” is a Much More Accurate Term


And the number is smaller than you think.  Or been told.


As the world (well, the 99% of it that does not include the wealthy) tries to dig out of the morass called the “post recession,” job seekers are blindly following the “sage” advice to ferret out the 80% of jobs that are apparently “hidden” according to many “experts.”  They seemingly believe without question the vast majority of websites and career books that spout this grossly inaccurate number.

Hidden Jobs Myth

Unfortunately, that advice is as old and relevant as paper résumés.

Indeed, that number might be true for CEOs or CFOs who get hired at least in part with the help of their reputations.  However, many of those executive jobs are filled via referrals and highly paid retained recruiters who work via referrals — the “who knows you” factor — not by informational interviews or schmoozing.  On the lower rungs, it’s probably closer to 20 percent, not 80.  So why the myth?

One of my favorite TV shows is MythBusters.  As someone who thinks scientifically, I don’t mind having my beliefs shattered by logic and reality.  So, although I was a little surprised, I was not disbelieving when I came across an article on Quintessential Careers, within which Katherine Hansen burst the 80% “common knowledge” balloon:

I was shocked to read a 2009 statement by a respected consultant, someone who knows the world of hiring extensively, having worked with hundreds employers, that the hidden job market is one of the biggest myths of job-hunting; that, in fact, it doesn’t exist: ‘Maybe a few thousand out of 20 million jobs are unpublished, and they are primarily at or near the C-level,’ said Gerry Crispin, who with partner Mark Mehler, operates CareerXroads which consults with corporations in career planning and placement, contract recruiting, executive search, recruitment advertising, and human resource management.

So, why is it that, wherever job seekers “in transition” look (don’t you just love that politically correct term for “out of work,” by the way?), they see that 80% figure?  Or others ranging from 75% to even 95%?  Perhaps because:

  • it’s just old information that keeps getting repeated ad nauseam; the “world is flat” syndrome
  • some folks have a vested interest in spreading the myth.

Let’s examine the question from the point of view of an employer.  Why would a company keep a job opening secret?  Short answer: in most cases it wouldn’t because it wants to be able to find the cream of the crop.  Successful businesses do not restrict options.  Also, the longer the role remains unfilled, the less money the company will make, or the more stretched and ineffective existing staff will become.

This is how it has worked inside every progressive company I’ve worked in, either early on as a front line employee or in senior management:

  1. The need for a new person is fleshed out and justified, sometimes over months.  The proposal is then discussed at senior levels, and then budgeted as part of the “head count” process. Then, it’s approved or not.
  2. Once approved, “who do you know?” within the office commences, as its simply cheaper to work through a referral than pay for advertising or an expensive recruiter.  And, if referred by an “A” employee, chances are the person he or she refers will also be an “A.”
  3. Word spreads throughout the company, and often employees are given monetary incentives to generate interest outside the company (this usually occurs for positions at lower levels on the career ladder); these external job seekers sometimes (but not always) are allowed to bypass the dreaded “cold-call” on-line HR black hole, errrr, submission system.

This worked for me when I incorporated Canadian operations into the Atlanta head office.  I saw the need for a Canadian to fill the role, as there are cultural issues across borders.  There was also a lack of information about how Canadians think and make buying decisions — and what they expect — amongst the US-based staff.  Many US companies do not realize that Canada cannot be marketed to as a 51st state.  I spread the word throughout my expat community, and even to my contacts at the Atlanta Canadian Consulate.  The employee hired — a recent graduate from a local university, and Canadian — came from those efforts, didn’t cost us a dime to source, and was an excellent hire.  However, this was the exception, not the rule.

At senior management or C-Level, finding people is largely like sales at professional service firms (lawyers, architects, engineers): word of mouth via the hiring manager’s network before anything is advertised or sent to a recruiter.

Only after an ideal candidate is not found this way is something advertised, except at companies or organizations where it is company policy to post all positions.  However, many positions are posted when a candidate has already been identified just to enable the company to report that it abided by its policy, or in the case of the public sector, regulations.  For example, if Uncle Sam posts a job for a week or 10 days, forget it: somebody has already been promised the job.

The “80% hidden” job market may have been the reality.  10 or 20 years ago.  When there was only Monster or printed newspaper / trade magazine advertisements, no company websites, no job posting aggregators like Simply Hired or Indeed, no recruiters Tweeting, nor trade association websites with their own niche job boards.

As Hansen points out, there are only a few instances today where the “hidden / unpublicized” argument may hold some water:

  • The employer needs to confidentially replace a non-performer.  However, these are usually handled by an outside retained recruiter who can keep things confidential.
  • The employer at a public company fears news of significant hiring will hurt stock prices; again, this is handled confidentially by a retained recruiter and is exclusively at C-Level or close to it.
  • The employer does not want to reveal future plans to competitors and others, and publicizing openings could expose those plans; again, senior level.
  • The employer wants to get referrals before or instead of publicizing the vacancy and being inundated with resumes from unqualified candidates; usually, the employer is HR resource-constrained.
  • The employer hires a search firm or recruiter to conduct a confidential search; retained recruiters will fill jobs at senior levels, while contingency recruiters are often not so, ahem, confidential nor picky.
  • The employer uses social media such as Twitter or other non-traditional advertising means to find candidates; but usually, these jobs are usually posted on the company site, anyway, so are not “hidden.”
  • The employer may be very small and does not have the funds to advertise the opening.
  • Human error; the employer simply fails to publicize it (e.g., lack or time, forgetfulness or a simply awful web site).
  • The opening exists, but there’s a hiring freeze, so the job cannot yet be publicized.

Or, perhaps, a company is biased to hiring only people who are already gainfully employed and are not looking, so engages a retained recruiter.

So, does that add up to 80%, or even 50%?  No.  It’s closer to 38% according to Hansen’s report, and that’s on the high end.  The more junior the position, the more that percentage drops.  Just as we found out in the last US Presidential election and the related statistical reporting, numbers don’t lie, but anecdotal evidence presented by “experts” often does.  As anyone who has worked with even basic statistics will tell you, painting everything with the same brush is folly, but that’s what is occurring.  Each profession, industry, geographic location, seniority, etc., will have vastly different percentages tied to them.  Some jobs might be almost all unpublicized, but others might be advertised all the time.  For example, a call center will be advertising for low-paid customer service reps due to the revolving door.  The call center director position might be publicized only on the company website and the aggregators that scan the web.  The CEO’s position may not be published anywhere.  The latter might be said, too, for highly-skilled or specialized positions that internal recruiters fill by stealing employees from other companies and/or don’t want to receive many unqualified resumes to sort through.

So, who’s winning with the repeated utterances of this myth?  Book authors and unscrupulous (or ignorant) job coaches or other third parties who get paid by the job seeker.  Certainly not the one looking for a job.  If someone wants your money and part of the sales pitch includes these ridiculous numbers, you may want to think twice about getting out your wallet.

I’m not saying “don’t try to ferret these jobs out.”  I am saying to take bad advice like this with a grain of salt.  People I know who were not on the executive floor got “hidden” jobs by super-networking and becoming involved in groups like trade associations where they became well-known as subject matter experts.  One of my previous jobs materialized after performing a change management study for a non-profit after I was found on LinkedIn by the executive assistant to the CEO.  Others did so via establishing robust web and social media presences.  They strove to become known quantities.  However, others have done all this and came up dry in this economy.

If it’s 38% or less, then should job seekers be firing 80% of their arrows at it?  Not likely.  It is a tool, but just as with investing and establishing a balanced portfolio, or a marketer implementing an integrated marketing strategy to maximize sales, finding the right mix is the only way to a payoff.  Filling 80% of your days with informational interviews, as some folks do based upon the fictional “80% hidden” factor, rather than taking a balanced approach, may be ill-advised.  If you’re a senior-level executive, sure, put more networking into it than the entry-level staffer might.  But, whether entry-level or C-Level, don’t blow most of your personal and time resources or monetary budget on a myth.

Oh, and by the way, if you ever see me walking to my car during a downpour, it’s because the MythBusters proved you get wetter by running. Almost twice as much, actually.  It’s true, but it defies “common knowledge.”

Jonathan Blaine

I've always called myself a "Marketing Guy." If I had a brand and logo, perhaps that would be my slogan. Measuring ROI is huge. Just because you're now using "new media" does not mean marketing fundamentals should be discarded. Customers' desires do not change. I'm a "right-brained creative analytical" guy (if you can fathom such a thing) who looks at a project several different ways. My first instinct is usually the correct one. I'm a "doer," and often a "diplomatic fixer;" someone who gets things done and still gets a thrill out of customers actually buying something because of something I mailed to them, or an ad I placed. Most of my success has come from strategy, writing, how ideas are presented to the potential customer and the actual thoughts that somehow originate within the ether between my ears. As a fan of DM guru Denny Hatch, I believe that the brand should never outweigh the message, and that art should never win over copy. The mix has to be “just right.” And continually tested. I have solid ryttan, err, written and verbal communication skills, and a reputation for consistently producing cost-effective quality work.

14 Replies to “Busting the “80% of All Jobs are Hidden” Myth

  1. When we refer to the “hidden job market”, we are referring to all of those positions that are NOT advertised. It does not mean that the company will keep the job a secret. As this article points out, the first step a company will take after approving a position is to go their employees for referrals, and they may even incent them to find a great candidate. They will do everything they can in accessing their own networks to find the candidate before advertising the position. So, the more a job-seeker networks, the greater their chance of coming across one of these non-advertised or “hidden” roles. We work with hundreds of job-seekers every year and we continue to find that the great majority of our clients find their jobs through their network rather than through responding to advertised roles.

  2. Kathleen,

    Thanks for your valued input, especially since it comes from behind the desk of a leading career transition service. “Advertised,” at least to this marketer, means money was paid to a print publisher or service like Workopolis, Monster, TheLadders or HigherBracket. You’ll likely agree that most HR folks do not advertise anywhere as much as 10 years ago for mid to executive level positions. The Calgary Herald, for example, used to be full of such display ads in 1990, but not anymore. Most organizations can easily get more interest in a position than they need simply by placing a posting on the corporate site, which will likely be scrubbed and distributed to potentially millions of people by free aggregators. That is publicizing, not advertising. Job Coach Lavie Margolin expands on that in “Debunked: The Hidden Job Myth.”

    This loss of revenue is one reason why newspapers are failing. Advertising is often now an expensive last resort.

    I received this response on one forum from a career coach / recruiter about this article. The ALL CAPS shouting is not mine: “I would be very careful dispelling the notion that there are not a considerable amount of jobs out there that are unpublished. There ARE. How an individual goes after those opportunities is what takes some skill and finesse. I have made many placements over the course of my time in executive search by bringing top talent to the attention of my clients when THERE IS NOT A SPECIFIC SEARCH THEY HAVE ENGAGED ME IN. I know their companies intimately well, I know the growth path their companies are on, and what kind of strong executives they need. And this is for a FEE. Companies hire now, and always have NOT just for published positions, but for the key people they need.”

    As long as the company is paying the full fee, fine. Job seekers should never pay a dime to anyone who says they’ll find them a job. A career coach should be just that: part groomer, part psychologist, part teacher, part guide. But not “promiser.”

    My response to her post (and just what is “a considerable amount?”):
    “I’m not saying there aren’t. But there’s a huge difference in the common knowledge and the reality. 80 – 38 = substantial. Arithmetic does not lie.
    Being in the right place at the right time works, too (i.e. the pipeline argument, when the job is nowhere but in the hiring manager’s head). In other words, luck. Getting known = hard work and is necessary. Being passive, or handing over the career keys to someone else = ill-advised.
    A career coach who uses fear to sell, or is simply unaware of the reality, via providing an 80% or similar number should likely be avoided.
    A job seeker needs a balanced approach, and that is exactly what I spelled out in my column, as well as what is discussed in the original article I linked to and quoted. That same Quintessential article showed that many of the 70 experts approached for their opinion could not refute the 38%, nor back up the ‘commonly bandied-about figures’ of 75-95%.”

    There are obviously many companies providing excellent service to those in transition. However, there are also too many taking advantage of people, such as the Canada-immigration company I found that is targeting misfortunate folks in India who will likely believe as gospel the 80% story on the company’s web site, along with other, well, “cherry picked facts.” This incorrect “common knowledge” is also on government and university employment center websites (such as Ryerson and Alberta Human Services), likely because this bad information has hardly ever been challenged.

  3. A couple of comments I’ve received on a private discussion forum concerning this story:

    “I am starting to interview again, and I agree the 80 percent of jobs aren’t published is a myth when there are so many online job postings avenues out there. Many jobs I apply for may have a hundred applicants fighting for a single position. Just getting an interview is a feat alone. If anything, the jobs are dangled out there for job seekers (over-publicized) when an internal candidate may already have the position.” – Chris H.

    “It appears they may be some credibility to ‘unpublicized’ or ‘unlisted’ jobs. Article from the Wall Street Journal ‘Want a Job? Beware Phantom Postings’: http://on.wsj.com/13oVVah. While they may not be hidden, the article highlights that job opportunities are sometime skewed towards those who have an ‘in.’ – Lonnie M.

    On a side note, I’ve been advised from someone on the “inside” that if a federal government job is advertised for less than 2 weeks, a candidate has already been identified, so submitting for those jobs is a waste of time. Even Uncle Sam is playing games.

  4. What a refreshing and true article. I have recently come across companies who are making a good living in the UK from this hidden job market myth and saying that 80% of jobs are not advertised. University career centres are also quoting this figure. I have searched in vain to try and find the source of this 80%, which is quoted all over the place. As a labour market analyst with access to the most extensive data available and the ability to make sense of it. I can confidently state that the number of hidden jobs in the UK is nowhere near 80%. Telling unemployed people that this is the way to find jobs is not only misleading, but will, for most of them, lead to disappointment. Very few employers in the UK that have recruited in the last year have used speculative applications as a recruitment channel. I am talking about a low single percentage figure. Yes, around 3 in 10 recruit through word of mouth and networks, but these jobs go to those in the know who are well connected. So, the hidden job market is almost nonexistent for those marginalised in the labour market but is an important source for the well connected and those with the right skills, qualifications and contacts.

    Thanks for your valuable comment, Michael. Apparently, this myth is a universal constant on both sides of the Pond. Too many job seekers are chasing wild geese based on outdated bad advice or outright lies, and even those are mostly apparitions. – JB

  5. Thanks for your discussion, Jonathan. Are you discouraging people from networking? One thing you might include is networking helps you find the publicized jobs, more eyes and ears are helping than 1 set. I see this every month in my own experience. It also provides a “good feeling” in helping others, as you are probably well aware that you have to give before get… like a paycheque.

    BTW your picture is very interesting; pictures speak many things.

    Murray: Thanks for the note. I’m certainly not discouraging networking, as that is one of the few ways to get even on the radar of the companies Hansen talks about. However, I have known too many people to bite into this disinformation hook, line and sinker. Then they use 80% of their time, money and resources to chase these ghosts of jobs, or spend too much time in non-selective informational interviews.

    Granted, utilizing every channel is important (just like in marketing) — as long as there is a good chance of a potential payoff and they’re working with the right data to begin with. But, if folks take this simply wrong advice to heart, chances are they will end up discouraged. Imagine a direct marketing company that sells seeds purchasing a list of tire buyers; they just might get lucky, but probably not. As Michael pointed out in a previous comment, there are apparently many unethical companies and job coaches taking desperate job seekers’ money on what amounts to a lie. – JB

  6. It’s interesting to me that instead of collecting data to verify this claim, which the Federal and state departments of commerce and/or labor could do fairly easily, these very same departments are starting to parrot it. Not to mention all the college/university career centers that have for years.

  7. There is another whole segment of the ‘Hidden Job Market’ that you may have overlooked.

    In Australia, two of the largest growing and skill shortage areas are Aged Care and Child Care.

    These are highly regulated industries where it is generally a requirement that you hold at least a Certificate III qualification in this area.

    Here is where it gets interesting. To complete a Certificate III in Aged Care, or Certificate III in Children’s Services, you must complete unpaid work placement in either an Aged Care, or Child Care centre.

    With thousands of students trying to complete the course, every centre in Australia is bombarded with students wanting to do work placement. So this has become how the industry recruits – they hire the people who perform well on the work placement – no job advert visible, and on job sites it would appear that these industries aren’t really hiring, despite becoming one of the largest industries.

    This model is not just for these qualifications, in hospitality and retail, jobseekers are constantly flooding them with ‘walk-ins’ submitting resumes. These industries keep note of the people that present well and have the ability to do the job and do the job well.

    I believe for many industries, there is a very large ‘hidden job market’.

    Source: Years of management within Government ‘Job Service Australia’ providers (helping unemployed people find jobs), and working with Registered Training Organisations.

    David, I understand where you’re coming from. One could have the same argument about becoming a general in the army, too. If a particular job requires conditions you wrote about, or something like a years-long apprenticeship to become a plumber, for example, then that is quite different than the vast majority of workers (at least in North America) who are too often chasing their tails pursuing nonexistent “hidden jobs” and coming up dry, to mix metaphors. Obviously there are some types of jobs that are not as affected as others, but those are in the minority. The jobs in healthcare you wrote about have a distinct training and professional path, just as they do here, unlike the majority in the business world.

    In the US and Canada, potential workers often roll the dice on their education path and lose, even after being told they need specific training before being even able to apply… only to discover too late that their certification means nothing without experience. The Aussie system, at least in this regard, seems quite civilized compared to the one here. Thanks for your input. – JB

  8. I’d like to echo some earlier comments that companies seldom keep job opportunities a secret, except when they may be trying to find a replacement for an employee who they are planning to “let go” and is not yet aware. In some cases, estimates of the hidden job market refer to the percentage of jobs that were filled without ever being advertised. The perhaps mis-named “hidden job market” can include jobs found by networking, word-of-mouth, referrals, recruitment/employment/search firms, and internal hires. Employers may also create a new, custom position when they want to ensure a good candidate does not get away (especially hired by the competition) – even if they were not planning to hire anyone.

  9. Thank you for exposing this myth. It never made sense to me.
    The other myth is that there is a shortage of Technology workers. I work in technology and they usually use this lie to try and bring in cheaper workers from overseas or outsource the work overseas.

  10. Thank you! I have been contacted by [name of outplacement company redacted – JB] to offer a service based on this myth for a hefty fee.. You have put everything in perspective. You saved me some money today.

  11. I reviewed the company that you cited. It is not a minor player. In fact, it is typical of too many outplacement companies that often promise the world for a fee. They, like many others, profess to having a “proprietary” database of millions of employers to help clients contact decision makers about “unadvertised” opportunities. That’s just plain horsehockey. If they are even hinting that the vast amount of jobs are hidden (as this company does), run away. And you did. Good for you. – JB

  12. Great post. You are right on regarding the numbers of the “hidden job market” Why would an employer choose not to post?

    This is where it gets interesting. If I apply for a position at Company X where a good friend or past boss of mine works – I can ask them for a referral and put that in the referral box when applying or include it in the cover letter. As well it may include applying via that friend for the job that is actually posted. It does not mean you will get the job – but it does vet your background by someone who actually works at the organization.

  13. Your comment reminds me of a joke from “Airplane!”

    Air traffic controller trying to guide the crippled plane down: “Shouldn’t we turn on the searchlights now?”

    Robert Stack: “No. That’s just what they’ll be expecting us to do.”

  14. So where is the peer-reviewed study that says 38%? The author quotes someone (Hansen) who expresses an opinion based on discussions. All very interesting but I would want to be known as someone who bases their supposed statements of facts on verifiable evidence.


    Richard, I see you’re faculty at the University of Alberta. As far as I know, there are no peer-reviewed studies on this one way or the other… and certainly none whatsoever that support the 80% hidden job argument.
    Perhaps, that is something you and your students would like to take on as an academic project. I’m sure many job seekers would be interested in your results.

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