When you are interviewing for a job, you expect to sit down with an interviewer and provide answers to their questions. But in today's corporate world, your interviewer may make a much different request.
Rather than simply rely on the answers you give, the company that is considering hiring you may want you to do some work for free so that they can assess your skills before extending an offer of employment.
While it can be a chance for you to demonstrate why they should hire you, it can also be a situation where you may feel you are being pressured and taken advantage of by the company.
If you wonder how to best approach interview assignments, here are some things to keep in mind.
What is an Interview Assignment or Interview Project?
When a company asks you to complete an interview assignment or project, it will be some sort of task representing the type of work you would be doing on the job, should you be hired.
In some cases, it will be an assignment that will only take you an hour or two to complete. But in other cases, it could be an assignment that requires 10 or more hours of your time.
For example, suppose you are interviewing for a marketing or sales job. In that case, the company may want you to develop a few ideas on gaining new customers or increasing sales of a particular product.
When given an interview assignment or project, you will have to meet a deadline given to you by the company. In most cases, this will range from two days to one week, depending upon the complexity of the assignment.
What Does a Company Learn from an Interview Assignment?
While you may initially believe the company only wants to get free work from someone they may or may not ultimately hire, they are actually using the assignment or project to learn more about you as a person and potential employee.
“Increasingly, companies are asking potential recruits to complete a piece of work or a test as part of their recruitment process,” says Archie Payne, President of CalTek Staffing. “This gives companies a good idea of how candidates think and their approach to work, which helps them identify top candidates.”
First, they are testing you to see if you are really as interested in the job as you claim. Most companies that use assignments as part of their interview process believe that applicants who genuinely want the job will look at this as a chance to put themselves ahead of their competitors. In other words, it will help the company find out who is or is not serious about the job and their career.
Next, the project will let the company get an up-close and personal look at how you would apply your skills to the role. Even if you have given the interviewer example after example of your work, nothing can match letting them see what you'll do once you start working with their products or services.
Finally, the interview project is a way to test your work ethic. Will you go all-in on the assignment and get it finished well ahead of your deadline? Or will you do only the bare minimum of what is needed and turn it in at the last minute?
“The interview process itself is quite deceiving as some people interview really well but perhaps don't have the necessary skills, which only becomes apparent when they start the job,” Payne adds. “So it is understandable why companies are going this route.”
What “Free Work” is Reasonable vs. What is Exploitation?
When you are presented with an interview assignment, you'll have to use your own judgment as to what you think is a reasonable request or one where you believe the company is exploiting your talents and your time.
Since each candidate for a job is unique, what may feel like no problem to one person may feel like a big deal to another.
Completing an interview assignment will typically be more manageable if you have plenty of free time. However, if you already have a busy schedule filled with work, classes, or family responsibilities, you may think the company is asking too much.
A reasonable interview project may involve something as simple as writing a press release about an upcoming event or introducing a new product.
On the other hand, an unreasonable project may ask you to complete an events proposal requiring you to develop budgets, staffing, logistics, marketing themes, income statements, and more. This type of assignment would typically take an employee all week to complete. Some people will consider this an unreasonable request.
“If a candidate is asked to invest significant time (greater than an hour) to produce something for a client without getting paid, I personally feel this is above and beyond what a candidate should be expected to do,” says Hannah Morgan, Job Search Strategist from Career Sherpa. “However, I can see the employer’s logic. They want to see how you think and work. But the candidate should know what their options are.”
“If it is a company that you are truly interested in and they ask you to produce work for free, I would suggest asking the interviewer questions. How much time do you expect a candidate to dedicate to this? What guarantee can you provide that my work will not be used by the company? Are there any alternatives to this – for example, can I provide a sample of previous similar work?” Morgan suggests.
But the difference between reasonable and unreasonable interview projects is more than just the amount of time it will take you.
“Applicants asked to perform any level of test or take-home work during the hiring process should also consider how far along they are in the hiring process,” according to Kimberly Back, Senior Job Data Content Producer for Virtual Vocations. “For example, candidates who have already passed the second round of interviews are more likely to be asked to complete a real-world performance assignment.”
Chances are the company is exploiting you (and other job seekers) for free labor if you are asked to complete a thorough interview project before ever meeting with the employer or having the opportunity to ask them questions about the role.
What You Gain from an Interview Assignment
When you decide an interview assignment is reasonable enough for you to accept, you stand to benefit in many ways.
For starters, it will give you the chance to show the company why you would be the best person for the job. If you take on the project and hit a home run, it may even give you greater bargaining power if a job offer is extended, meaning you may be able to ask for a higher salary or additional benefits.
But perhaps more importantly, tackling an interview project will give you tremendous insight into what your day-to-day responsibilities would be like on the job. If you enjoy doing the assignment and do a good job on it, chances are you would also enjoy the job.
But if you find the project extremely boring, too time-consuming, or you have no idea what to do or what you're doing along the way, it's best to find out now rather than after you accept the job.
How to Say “No” to an Interview Project
While you may assume saying “no” to an interview project means the company won’t hire you, that is not always the case.
Be honest with your interviewer. If you cannot complete an interview project or do a poor job due to being rushed, you likely won't get the job. Your interviewer might afford you some flexibility by being honest and expressing your interest in the job.
If you are a leading candidate, you may be able to negotiate and complete an assignment that better fits into your schedule, or perhaps not need to complete a new project at all!
1. Offer your portfolio and work examples.
“Your time, skills, and experiences are incredibly valuable, which is why you’re interviewing to work for them—not volunteer,” says Olivia Sod, Career Expert from Stomp the Pavement. “Instead, offer a portfolio of your work and use your interview to give clear examples of your past success.”
Unless you are brand new to the industry, you should have plenty of real-world examples to use from previous jobs and college assignments that demonstrate your capabilities.
2. Ask for a smaller assignment.
“Accepting to do some free work as part of a job interview can get your foot in the door,” says Paul French, Managing Director of Intrinsic Search. “But, if the assignment is overly demanding, you could say something like, ‘Right now, I cannot commit more than one hour on this assignment, but I am willing to do another smaller test or assignment to showcase my skills.’”
However, be prepared for the interviewer to tell you all applicants must complete the same type of project. If you want the job, you'll need to adjust your schedule to finish the assignment on time. But should you feel the job is one where you can take it or leave it, you may choose to decline the project and look elsewhere for employment.
3. Ask for payment.
There is a fine line between showing you have the skills to do the job and doing the job for free.
“An interview is a discussion to see if an employer and employee are right for each other. The process might involve writing or designing samples, as well as a test, but doing work that the employer would otherwise have to pay someone to do is typically illegal,” says Nance L. Schick, Employment Attorney.
If the interview project involves producing something that an employer will actually use to make money, don’t be afraid to ask for a paid trial instead.
The company’s response to this request will tell you a lot about what it will be like working for them. If they ask for free work before hiring you, they will likely continue to take more and more from you without properly compensating you.
“I believe that doing free work for a job interview is not fair,” says Irene McConnell, Managing Director of Arielle Executive. “Employers shouldn’t ask anyone to do this, especially if someone has a strong portfolio and experience. If someone is spending their time and energy to work for your company, it is your duty to pay them. It is highly unethical if you don’t do as such. Moreover, it is also the individual’s right to be paid for the services they offer.”
“In my experience, most trustworthy employers will not only offer to pay you for work that is part of an interview or application process but will insist as a matter of principle,” adds Roger Huang, Director of Growth Operations for Springboard. “I would also factor in the amount of work involved. If they are asking you for hours of your time and refuse to compensate you, that would be enough insight for me into the company's ethics and views on employee compensation to conclude that it will likely be difficult to negotiate a fair salary and ask for promotions and raises. It might not be somewhere you ultimately want to work.”
4. Use a recruiter as a liaison.
Since interview assignments or projects are typically reserved for higher-level positions within companies, you may want to consider working with a recruiter during your job search. If you do, they can act as a liaison between you and the company that is interested in your services.
If you are working with a recruiter, they can also alert you ahead of time to companies that tend to use the interview assignment as part of their hiring process. In addition, since a recruiter will know the company's hiring manager very well, they can give you insight into how you can navigate your way through potentially awkward situations, such as negotiating changes to a project request.
Protecting Your Intellectual Rights
Depending upon the assignment you are given by a company, you may have concerns about protecting the intellectual rights associated with the work you hand over to your interviewer. Though your work is supposed to be used only for evaluation purposes in deciding whether or not to hire you, it is always possible the company could also use your ideas to make millions of dollars – and you may wind up with nothing at all, especially if you don't get the job.
To guard against this, you can get a written agreement from the company that states any work from your project will be used only to evaluate you for the job. If you feel it is necessary, you can ask the company to sign a nondisclosure agreement. However, this may make the company decide to drop you from its list of candidates, so use this approach very carefully.
It can be challenging to know if an interview project is a reasonable request or simply a way for a company to get free work from as many people as possible before filling a position. Using common sense and good judgment will help you make the right decision.
By doing your best and handing in a project that puts you light years ahead of your competitors, you stand a much better chance of landing the job.