I was prompted to write this article after a jobseeker (I’ll call him “Bob”) contacted me about a request one of the hiring companies made that made him feel uncomfortable.
He was looking for some direction and wanted to know what I would recommend.
Here’s the situation
Bob had successfully passed the second interview with flying colours and everything indicated that he was a strong contender for the position.
However, there was another hoop that the employer wanted him to jump through.
In order to progress through the interview process, Bob was required to complete an exercise and was given two weeks to submit his answers.
He was debating how he should respond to the request, because the exercise wasn’t something he could complete in an hour or two.
He was asked to observe the employer’s manufacturing line and provide a report summarizing the issues he saw and his recommended corrective actions.
Bob felt it was an unreasonable request especially since he would be able to provide stellar references and there was a lengthy probation period that the employer could exercise if they hired him and he didn’t perform to their expectations.
Needless to say, he was very concerned about the whole thing and I concurred.
I immediately saw a few things that raised red flags for me.
The first red flag
The assignment would actually take him at least one full day to complete which as far as I was concerned was asking way too much of anyone – especially someone who was employed and still not guaranteed the job even if he were to pass the test.
I calculated that the commute to the plant, the assessment of the line, and creating the report would be at least 6 hours in total which means he would have to take another day off work which would put him in an awkward position with his employer.
I mean, there’s only so many “doctors’ appointments” and excuses you can come up with after years of taking little to no personal days off.
The second red flag
The fact that they were giving him (and likely other candidates) two weeks to submit their answers was in my mind a clear indication that they were not motivated to hire anyone.
If they were so concerned with making a hire and him being “good enough”, they would have stipulated a much tighter deadline of 2 or 3 days to submit the report in order to gauge his level of interest and how well he was able to complete a rush assignment.
If he passed (which he mostly likely would have) then the employer would have been in a good position to fill the role sooner than later.
Needless to say, I smelled a rat!
I told my client he had 4 choices
#1 – ACCEPT the challenge and hope that it wasn’t a waste of his time and that the employer wasn’t just fishing for free help (which is what it looked like from my POV)
#2 – DECLINE the request
#3 – ASK if they could replace the assignment with a thorough reference check which would in all likelihood, eliminate any reservations they might have about his skills and knowledge
#4 – SUGGEST another kind of assignment that wouldn’t take him more than 2 hours to complete and that didn’t require him to take another day off work
It’s risky business
Given the facts of this case, it appeared to me that there was a strong possibility that the employer was looking for free help.
I told Bob that he could go through with the assignment, but it could be a total waste of his time and energy not to mention the fact that it was disruptive to his work and personal life.
If he were to decline or suggest an alternative assignment, he might be immediately “disqualified” although in this case, there might not even be an actual job, so he would be disqualified from nothing.
Even if there were an available position, did he really want to work for someone who expects a lot and then takes weeks, if not months, to make a decision and then there’s no guarantee he’d get the job after all of that investment of time and energy???
Since there was no way to know 100% what was really going on with the employer, whatever Bob did was a risk.
He either risked investing a lot of time that could be for nothing OR risked losing out on a “potential opportunity” which might not even exist.
What I tell everyone who is in a similar position, is that at the end of the day you have to be okay with whatever you risked. There is no right or wrong answer.
Interview assignments are a reality
It is becoming more common for employers to ask qualified candidates to do mini-projects as part of the hiring process. The objective is to see how you tackle an assignment so that the employer can get a good idea of how you overcome challenges.
These hiring exercises aren’t necessarily a bad thing. It can help the companies make better hires – or at least that’s the theory.
Let’s face it, some people interview well, but once they get the actual job, they completely choke and have to be replaced. Conversely, some people are terrible at interviewing, but would perform well in the job if they were to be hired for it.
So, these hiring tests can create a more level playing field and allow the cream to really rise to the top so that the employer can make a sound hiring decision.
But, as I’ve already pointed out, these requests can cross a line, by expecting candidates to invest a lot of time and even to perform free work that the employer will actually use.
4 Questions to ask yourself before accepting an interview assignment
1) How much time will it realistically take?
Spending an hour or two on your own time on a mini-project is okay but expecting you to commit to more than that especially if you have to go somewhere else as part of the exercise, is not okay.
2) At what stage of the hiring process is the employer making the request?
If you haven’t even been interviewed yet or it’s the first interview, then a request for you to do anything that’s going to take more than 20 to 30 minutes is not reasonable.
If you are in the final stage of the interview process, things look like they’re going in the right direction, and the employer has enough information about you to determine that you are a potential fit, then it would be reasonable for them to ask you for more of your time, but no more than a couple of hours.
3) How is your work being used?
If the employer asks you to complete an assignment, the information you give them should only be used to determine your candidacy for the position and not to get free work out of you.
That’s completely unacceptable not to mention unethical.
If you feel uneasy about the request, you can either decline (and likely be removed from the process) or you can ask them how they plan on using the work you give them.
You can make it clear that if they use your work, you would expect to be paid for it.
Pushing back and taking a stand could eliminate you from the running, but if the employer does that, then they were probably just looking for a freebie, so you would have lost nothing.
4) Is the employer considerate?
An employer who is reasonable and thoughtful is not going to expect you to invest too much of your time on a hiring exercise. If anything, they will do whatever they can to make sure that you can complete the assignment without it jeopardizing your other commitments.
Anyone who isn’t considerate of your time is probably going to end up being a bad employer which is exactly what you don’t want.
How to move forward
At the end of the day, you need to decide if you’re going to move forward with the hiring assignment or walk away.
Just remember, your pushing back might get you disqualified but if that happens, it’s quite possible that the employer was just looking to use your work for free or they aren’t a good employer.
In either case, losing that “opportunity” was not a loss – there was no opportunity.
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Hi! I’m Diana.
I draw from over 15 years recruitment, career/job search coaching, and sales/marketing experience to help all kinds of jobseekers stand out, get noticed, and get hired for their dream job.
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