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Should You Do Free Work at a Job Interview?

If you’re currently searching for a new job, you may encounter something you haven’t run into before: Employers are increasingly asking job candidates to do work projects and exercises as part of the hiring process.

These exercises aren’t the typing tests and software assessments of the past; rather, more and more often, they’re mini-projects designed to see your work in action so that the employer can get a firsthand look at how you approach work challenges. For example, if you’re applying for a communications position, you might be asked to write a press release or create a mock publicity plan for an event. Or if you’re applying for a research analyst job, you might be asked to write a memo on the ramifications of a particular piece of legislation.

[See: The 10 Most Common Interview Questions.]

In many cases, this trend is a good thing. Seeing candidates in action helps employers make better hires. After all, some people interview beautifully, but don’t have matching skills once they’re on the job. And other people aren’t at their best in interviews, but would excel in the role. Seeing how candidates actually approach the work is one of the best ways for employers to get good data to use in making hiring decisions.

But in some cases, these requests go over the line, such as by asking candidates to invest an unreasonable amount of time or to perform free work that the employer will actually use.

[See: 25 Best Business Jobs for 2017.]

Here’s how to know whether or not an interviewer’s request for a sample work project is reasonable:

How much time will it take you? Asking you to spend an hour or two on an exercise is reasonable, but asking you to spend a day on a project generally isn’t.

At what stage of the hiring process is the request being made? If the employer hasn’t even interviewed you yet, asking you to do a short 15-minute writing sample is probably reasonable, but asking you to invest two hours in a project isn’t. Once the employer has invested real time in talking with you and determined you’re a promising candidate, and you’ve had the chance to ask your own questions about the job to determine your interest level, they have more standing to ask for a bit more of your time.

How does the employer plan to use the work? Employers should use hiring exercises for assessment purposes only, not as a way to get free work from candidates. If you’re unsure how an employer may use the work you produce, it’s OK to ask. (You can say, “Can you tell me how you’ll use the work I produce? Is it for assessment purposes only?”) If an employer ends up liking something you produced enough to actually use it, you should be paid for that work.

Does the employer seem considerate of your time? Good employers will be thoughtful about the amount of time they ask you to invest in their hiring process. They’ll make a point of streamlining exercises, and they won’t assume that you can give instant turnaround on a work sample without advance notice. It’s a bad sign if an employer seems to assume that you can produce a work sample immediately, with no consideration of the fact that you may have other commitments in that time period.

[See: 8 Important Questions to Ask A Job Interviewer — and Yourself.]

If an employer asks you to do something that you think is unreasonable or excessive, you’re in an awkward position because pushing back may mean that they remove you from the running for the job. One option is to try offering a less-time-intensive version of what they’ve requested, by saying something like, “Because of other commitments, I don’t have time to do the full scope of what you’re asking. I can’t really spend more than an hour or two on this, but I could do (name a smaller piece of the work) to give you a feel for my work. Would that work for you?” You could also try saying, “I can’t invest that much time pro bono, but I can send you examples of similar work that I’ve done in the past.”

But ultimately you may need to decide if you’re willing to walk away from the job if the employer holds firm.


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