Job Candidates Aren’t Free Labor

Interviewers are increasingly making absurd demands on applicants’ time. Here’s what to do if you’re asked to work for free.

By ALISON GREEN, Direct Report

If you’ve interviewed for a job lately, you might have been asked to do something new: Employers are increasingly assigning job candidates take-home work to demonstrate their skills and show how they’d approach the role they’re interviewing for. This can be anything from writing a press release for a communications job to coding a webpage for a web development job.

In theory, this is a good thing, because seeing candidates in action helps employers make better hires. Some people interview deceptively well but turn out to have lackluster skills once they’re hired. And other people don’t shine in interviews but would be great at the job. Seeing how candidates actually approach the work can give employers much stronger data to use in making hiring decisions.

But while seeing candidates do actual work is a smart way to hire, employers often really mess up the execution by putting overly burdensome expectations on candidates.

This letter is typical of the complaints I hear from job seekers:

I’ve been selected to move on to the second stage interview process for a really interesting position. It’s an events position and they mentioned in the first interview that we would be asked to complete a project if selected for the second phase. I’ve just gotten the outline of the project for the second phase, and they are requesting that we submit three different proposals for three separate events, including budgets, marketing plans, staffing, logistics, income statements, as well as concept/design/themes. They have given us seven days to complete these assignments, and we must drop off hard copies of each assignment on the deadline date. Am I wrong to think that this is incredibly excessive?

Here’s another: different industry, same excessive request.

I freelance on the side and am currently looking for a new full-time job. I got a second interview for an eLearning developer position. Before the interview, they asked me to do a “sample task.” I’ve been asked to do pre-interview tasks and assessments before and they usually only take an hour or two at most. I got the “sample task” for this interview and it was essentially: create an entire 30-minute learning module with video, graphics, at least two interactions, voice over, and an online discussion community. If this was for a freelance client, I could bill this “sample task” at $2,800 (and would take over 30 hours of my time). This seems outrageous to me.

In both of these examples, the assignments far exceed what an employer needs to see to evaluate a candidate’s work. It’s reasonable to ask candidates to spend an hour or two demonstrating their skills; it’s not reasonable to ask them to complete complex projects, at least not without pay.

What’s more, when they’re asked to complete lengthy assignments, candidates understandably worry about whether their work will be used for purposes other than evaluating if they’re fit for the job:

I recently applied for a remote position and they’ve decided to move forward with my candidacy. The second step in their hiring process is an assessment. I saw that and thought sure, no problem! However, they’re asking for a three-day turnaround (they sent it during the week and I work full-time, in addition to doing school online, all of which is on my resume) and it’s likely to take 1.5-2 hours.

On top of that, I did a little searching, and what they’re asking me to do is a lot of prep work for upcoming projects and events that are actually on their calendar—not hypothetical scenarios. This seems sketchy, and my instinct is to withdraw my application.

In that case, as in many others, it’s possible the employer wasn’t actually planning on using the work and simply did a poor job explaining that the exercise was for assessment purposes only. But in some cases, those fears are well-founded:

I interviewed for a writing job at a university. … The interview went well, and the interviewer, who would have been my direct supervisor, asked me to do a writing sample for him. He wanted it to be suitable for posting on the law school’s website. He gave me the topic, the specs, and a couple sources I could use to learn about the topic. I wrote the thing and returned it to him. A couple weeks later he called to tell me that I didn’t get the job. Competition was fierce, etc. Then, a few weeks after that, I was browsing their website for some reason and found my writing sample there. I compared it against the document I sent the guy, and it was verbatim, maybe only a couple words were changed.

So I was—and am—confused. If he liked my sample enough to use it, why didn’t I get an offer? I know there can be many reasons for that. But I’m also wondering if it was kosher to use my sample and publish it without asking me or paying me? He never told me that publishing the sample would be a possibility—I just thought it was a sample, plain and simple. I think he should have told me that he wanted the rights to use it if he liked it. Other pieces on the website had author names in the byline, but mine had “staff writer.” And I really didn’t think I was doing volunteer work for him; if I wasn’t hired, I’d expect a fee like any other freelancer. Feeling a bit cheeky and pissed off, I emailed him an invoice. Unsurprisingly, I never heard back from him.

So what should candidates do when they encounter excessive demands in an interview process, and how can they ensure they’re not taken advantage of? And how can employers get the information they need from candidates without unreasonably burdening them? (To be clear, short assignments are reasonable—and smart. The issue here is with assignments that are overly lengthy, have unrealistic deadlines, or will be used for anything other than evaluation purposes.)

On the candidate side, it’s tricky. Flatly refusing to meet excessive demands likely means the employer will just move forward with candidates who don’t push back. Of course, one option is to consider that a bullet dodged, since an employer who makes unreasonable demands of job candidates isn’t going to be any more reasonable once you’re working there. But not everyone has the luxury of being able to walk away from a job opportunity, so another option is to try offering to do a more reasonable version of the assignment. For example: “Because of other commitments right now, I can’t spend more than an hour or so on an assessment exercise. But I could do [name a much smaller piece of the work] to give you a feel for my work if that would work on your end.” Or you could simply say, “I don’t usually do spec work, but I’d be glad to send you examples of similar work that I’ve done in the past that illustrate what I think you’re looking for here.”

And if you’re concerned about how an employer might use the work you’re doing, you can ask, “Can you tell me how you’ll use the work I produce? Is it for evaluation purposes only?”

Employers, on their end, need to recognize that candidates have lives outside of job searching—jobs and families and other commitments to juggle—and that it’s not reasonable to expect people to do hours of work for free or to turn assignments around within a day or two without advance notice. And if an employer likes something a candidate produces enough to actually use it, it needs to pay for that work, just as it’d pay anyone else.

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