Hiring practices have come a long way.
With all the changes in hiring practices, how are applicants supposed to know when the application process is too much? There was once a very standardized formula for job interviews. An HR manager looked through a stack of papers and created three piles – a yes pile, a no pile, and a maybe pile.
Teams decided who was deserving of an interview. They were invited into the office, did the old song and dance of shaking hands and answering questions, ending with a handwritten thank you note and a nervous wait by the phone. Managers would debate the best fit, possibly call in a few folks for a second interview, then pick their favorite and extend an offer.
Today we have algorithms making hiring decisions, the global pandemic has normalized video interviews, there is a recent rise in focus on DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) and upskilling, increasingly narrowing job descriptions by demanding specializations, and so forth.
It has all gotten more complicated for everyone involved.
In today’s world, you may be advancing in the process and get a text or email that casually mentions that they have a little bit of homework for you. Don’t panic – it’s pretty normal. They’re typically called “work assignments,” and although controversial in some circles, it is becoming a standard way to gauge talent.
Others say it is free labor. How can you tell the difference between the two?
Some companies require lengthy projects as a taste test, a way to audition, to prove what you’ve got.
Why can’t they just look at your resume, or portfolio (if you have one)? They can.
But they want to see what you alone, not on a team, can produce. They want to know how you communicate during the process. Some companies even compensate you regardless of whether or not you’re hired!
That’s not predatory. And despite the aforementioned controversy, it IS okay to take on some work assignments.
Again, think of it as an audition. As an actor, would you film an entire movie as an audition? Or would you practice, memorize lines, then do an in-person reading with others?
Your time and talent aren’t free, so you have to ask yourself how much you are willing to give them. “I need the job no matter what” isn’t always the safest answer. If their demands are unreasonable in the honeymoon phase of hiring, it doesn’t get better from there, pals.
When a reasonable deadline is given and the project doesn’t require an excessive amount of time to complete, it could be worth moving forward. It could even be a fun learning experience!
But there is a caveat…
This is currently an unregulated portion of the hiring process. Employers can legally require any work samples, and technically, they have the right to use your work without attribution or compensation.
So, find out what the terms are of this project. It is totally acceptable to ask what they plan on doing with the assignment upon completion and if it is exclusively for evaluation purposes. Ask how attribution would be handled, how much time they expect it should take, what criteria are used in the evaluation. You can even try asking what past candidates have done that was impressive.
Again, they’re not just taking measure of the final product, but the communication you use to accurately deliver what they’re seeking. That takes questions!
- Timing. If a work assignment is given before you’ve had an actual job interview, the company is wildly disorganized and unaware of modern hiring practices. Or they’re looking for free work, which means it might not even be a real job opportunity. It should be the final leg of the process, not the first. Further, if they demand an unrealistic deadline, that’s also problematic (a four-hour project shouldn’t be due in an hour).
- If they won’t answer any questions or they consistently say they don’t know the answer, yet overenthusiastically push for you to complete the project, that’s a huge red flag. At best, they’re not well organized. At worst, it’s a nefarious request and you’re about to be taken advantage of for free labor.
- They’re blatantly asking you for your intellectual property. If they expect you to create an entire business plan from scratch, a fully working app that could be deployed, or want creative ideas that go far beyond your work product, and they don’t offer attribution or payment, they’re demanding a transfer of intellectual property for free.
- It’s not a hypothetical scenario. If an employer is giving you assignments based on current clients/projects instead of hypothetical situations, they can (and often do) just use that work without paying anyone. An example of a hypothetical is asking you to re-write a press release from last year or reviewing a fake site’s design, not prep work for their current projects.
- Excessiveness is a huge red flag. Let’s say you’re interviewing for an event coordinator role. Asking you to put together a one-page proposal for a new type of event is one thing – that’s normal. Demanding that you submit four different proposals for four new events, including logistics, budgets, staffing plans, marketing plans, and theme concepts? That’s free labor, run! Trust your instincts on this one and ask yourself if they need this type of info out of you before hiring, or if they’re squeezing free ideas out of you.
- All of the red flags are nearly insurmountable, so you ask them to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA – there are simple templates online you can find). The legalese may turn an employer off, or they may find this move to be entitled, but this could be a final way to not decline an assignment while protecting yourself. Rudeness when rejecting the compromise is a red flag.
If there are no red flags and it’s a reasonable project, hop to it and have some fun!
If you find red flags, ask more questions. When the answers aren’t helpful, it may be best if you decline the project.
If this is an opportunity you really want to pursue, you still have options.
Try asking to alter the assignment. “This project, if done properly, would take 12-20 hours and I would like to show you my capabilities within a 1-2 hour timeframe so you can sample my talent, which I assume is the purpose of this exercise. Would [example of a condensed version of the project] work for you?”
If you’re feeling direct, you can say: “I don’t typically do spec work prior to employment, but I’d love to send along work I’ve done that is similar and offer analysis into how it is within your framework?”
For those who already have deep expertise in your area, let’s say you’re a senior developer, try: “I don’t expect you to change your hiring practices for every candidate, but I am one of only a handful of people with the expertise you’re seeking – I have an extensive GitHub repository, I’ve been published in 23 news sources on the topic, and written three books, all of which demonstrate my work product.” Risky, but it could work if you really are the unicorn they’re seeking.
If you’re straight-up gutsy, try: “That sounds like a project that is within my capabilities and based on what I’ve learned so far, I believe it would take [number of] hours. My rate is [$] per hour – what is your preferred billing method?”
Similarly, if the request is akin to building a deployable app: “I’d love to do that project for you as an independent contractor – let’s talk!”
Those last two methods probably won’t get you anywhere, but you never know. It could press them to alter the project requirement if they already think you’re THE candidate.
If you don’t like what you’re hearing, you’re well within your rights to cut ties at any point in the process, just as they are.
If you find yourself dreading the project, and incapable or unwilling to do your best work, they could be asking too much. It’s okay to keep looking.
Think of all of this as an audition and gauge your willingness to participate accordingly. Some projects can be stimulating and fun, others can be straight-up predatory.
And lastly, if you do the project and don’t get hired, get the most return on your time investment. Gracefully ask for feedback (you might as well)!