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why do offices say they’re “fast-paced” when they’re not?

A reader writes:

I’ve been chatting with my old boss from our local government organization as they’re considering hiring me back as a consultant for a brief period. I’ve just read their job description for the role, and it made me laugh out loud as they’ve described their office as a “fast-paced environment.” From my perspective, things there always felt painfully slow. Case in point, the work they’re hiring me back to do is something that was promised by their IT supplier over two years ago, before I left. It seems they’ve finally admitted to themselves that the supplier is not delivering the work in a reasonable timescale.

Anyway, it got me wondering about the term “fast-paced” in general. Is there a different understanding of what it means in different work environments? Or do people use it because they think that’s how the work environment “should” be? Personally I’d rather see employers being honest they want staff who can function effectively in an excruciatingly slow-paced environment, but I’ve never seen that or anything close to it in a job description. If I truly did want to work in a fast-paced environment, how would I screen for that if people are just using the term without really thinking about it?

I think it’s one of those things that offices want to believe they are. People, and especially people in management who are doing the hiring, like to feel like “not just anyone can cut it here,” whether or not that’s actually true. Plus, managers who have been frustrated by hiring or working with someone who was painfully slow or unproductive will sometimes start to think of their environment as fast-paced, when really it was just that the person in question was slow-paced. And there’s also the fact that employers in general are notoriously bad at self-assessing their own cultures (for example, they genuinely think they’re unusually flexible just because they let you work from home if you’re sick but not any other time, or they think they give people a lot of autonomy when in fact they control everything, and so forth).

As for how to screen for places that are truly fast-paced, one of the best ways is to ask what the team’s goals for the year are and assess whether the goals are ambitious or if they’re pretty unimpressive — and similarly, look at what they’ve actually achieved in, say, the last year. You can also get a feel for it by asking work-specific questions like, “What’s the usual timeline from when a client first approaches you to when you kick off your work with them?” or “What types of deadlines are you usually working with for something like X or Y?” or “What’s considered a typical and a high level of productivity for this position?”

Another way: believe what they show you. Do they move through the hiring process at a reasonable pace (and does the process appear to be well thought out or do they seem to be making it up as they go along?) or does it drag out for months? This isn’t foolproof, because sometimes hiring takes longer than it should because other things end up legitimately being higher priorities, but it’s an additional source of data.

why do offices say they’re “fast-paced” when they’re not? was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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