employer asked me to produce free work as part of hiring process

by Ask a Manager on October 22, 2012

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A reader writes:

I am searching for a new job in marketing. One of the companies that I applied to recently is a technology company that is looking for a marketing person to manage their website, social media, and email campaigns. I sent my resume along with a few examples of my work in, only to get an email reply back after a phone interview that said the following:

“At this point, you are in a group of candidates that are on the fence and we need you to complete the following request before we move on with the process. To help us better compare you with the other candidates, we would like you to send us a sample of what you can do with website design. One of the possible early projects for this marketing position is redesigning the look of the website. I would like you to take our homepage and create an image (JPG/GIF/PNG) of what you might suggest as our new look. It can be as simple as just moving some things around or redesigning the footer or as complex as a completely new look. I have listed some websites that are examples of websites in our space.

Thank you.”

I really don’t have a problem completing this task from a skills aspect. I just am hesitant because in a past job interview, a similar task was asked of me … which I did complete, only to be told I was not selected and the job was going to a current employee’s child. A few weeks went by after all this, and I saw online the design I had submitted during the interview process was now being used by this business! It was clearly a ruse to get free design work. I am worried that this is the same scam.

I know the economy is still bad and small companies are struggling, and I really hope that this is legitimate, but my gut doesn’t think so. What advice do you have on how I can protect my work if I decide to pursue this opportunity? I thought maybe I would not send my submission via email as suggested but rather in person on my own computer? Or is my gut right that this another disaster or am I overreacting?

Well, first let’s talk about this kind of thing in general and then we’ll come back to this specific request.

As I’ve said here many times, it’s crucial when hiring to see candidates in action — to see them actually doing the work they’d be doing if hired. Often someone has an impressive resume and interviews well, but when you see them actually doing the work, you quickly realize they’re not as strong as they’d appeared. (And vice versa too; sometimes this can identify a candidate who’s stronger than her experience might have led you to assume.) My book co-author is fond of comparing this to how a football coach holding try-outs wouldn’t ask a player whether he could make a tackle; he’d ask to see him do it.

Additionally, having candidates do a piece of work similar to what they’d be doing on the job has the added advantage of letting candidates get a better feel for the work and self-select out if it’s not for them.

However, you have to do this carefully. You can’t ask people to do real work that you’ll then use in your business (or if you do, you need to pay them for it). For instance, I’ve asked candidates for communications positions to draft fake press releases for events that will never happen / asked analyst candidates to research and summarize their findings on a particular law or bill (work that my staff had already done previously, so I knew the correct answers) / asked admin candidates to write an email in response to a tricky and sensitive hypothetical / etc. None of this is work that I’d ever use, and candidates in these cases get that it’s not “real” work; I’ve had maybe two people over the years refuse (out of hundreds).

Employers also should think about how much time they’re asking candidates to spend on an exercise — an hour is reasonable; a day is not. And the less time an employer has invested in someone, the less time it’s reasonable to ask the candidate to invest … so, for example, you might ask someone to do something that might take two hours after a second in-person interview when they’re a finalist, but you wouldn’t ask that of them before even talking to them.

Okay, now let’s get back to your situation. First, I’m suspicious of the request simply because of the way it’s worded. There’s something about those first two sentences that just hits me the wrong way; it’s just … unprofessionally worded. But even leaving that aside, it’s not a reasonable request, because they can see “what you can do with website design” by looking at what you have done with website design — by asking for samples of previous sites you’ve designed, something that any strong candidate for this job should have.

Plus, it’s ridiculous to ask a designer to redo a website without knowing anything about the site’s goals and what the client wants to achieve with a redesign — the most basic questions any designer is going to ask at the outset of such a project.

Instead, it would be far more useful for them to sit down with you and your portfolio and have you walk them through the design decisions you made and why … and if they’re not ready to invest that time with you yet, then they could ask you to do a write-up like that in writing. Or if for some reason that’s not an option, they could ask you to pick any other website of your choice and redesign its home page. But not theirs. Asking you to work on theirs is too close to asking you to produce free work.

So what, then, should you do? You’re in an awkward position because if they don’t intend to act unethically and instead are just naive or inexperienced, you risk missing out on the job opportunity by refusing. So you’re stuck in a position where you have to decide if you’re willing to potentially forego the interview if you say no, without really knowing their motives.

One middle-ground option would be to say something like, “I don’t usually do spec work, but I’d be glad to send you examples of redesigns I’ve done in the past, along with commentary on what choices I made and why.”

If that’s not good enough for them, you probably have your answer about their intentions.

(Probably. Not definitely … but probably. But grrr, the lack of total certainty is why it’s frustrating.)

{ 101 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike C. October 22, 2012 at 7:58 am

That sort of request is sketchy as all heck.

If folks aren’t used to the term, this is a rather good (and fast) explanation as to why spec work is a terrible, terrible practice.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DsstOs-K7gk

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Elizabeth West October 22, 2012 at 6:18 pm

I think you posted this before, didn’t you? I liked it so much I tweeted it.

This sort of thing happens to writers too. The website I used to work for required test articles, but they actually paid their regular rates for them. :)

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Kerry October 22, 2012 at 8:00 am

That email sounds like it’s aimed at game show candidates. “Red team! We’re on the fence about your skills…so here’s the chance to show us what you can do! Working with only a 1998 ThinkPad and two randomly chosen colored pencils, can YOU put together a website design underwater?”

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Mary October 22, 2012 at 10:23 am

Not a bad idea, “Survivor – Job Market Edition”. need to call my agent and pitch that. lol.

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Anonymous October 22, 2012 at 12:31 pm

I think that’s called The Apprentice.

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Anonymous_J December 12, 2012 at 9:35 am

LOL!

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Sharon October 22, 2012 at 8:27 am

This skills testing is becoming so popular lately and it’s very frustrating to job-seekers. Addressing Alison’s comment about knowing if the candidate’s skills are as good as his resume suggests: whatever happened to hiring people on a probationary basis? Companies used to do that and it seemed to work. You had 3 or 6 months to show you can do the job, and if you couldn’t, they’d let you go. If you could, you’d become permanent and start earning the benefits. It was all part of the employment “contract”, so candidates went into the deal understanding how it worked.

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Long Time Admin October 22, 2012 at 8:39 am

This.

I’ve been in the working world for 45 years, and until just recently, all the companies I’ve work for did this. It was explained at the interview. This is where the employer finds out if the candidate really can do the job, if the candidate can learn the job in a reasonable timeframe, or if the candidate is just blowing horsesh!t.

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Long Time Admin October 22, 2012 at 8:41 am

I should add, “depending on the kind of job”. I’ve always done clerical/secretarial/general office work. It would be different for a professional person.

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fposte October 22, 2012 at 9:03 am

That’s a long time to invest in somebody who can’t design/write/whatever, though. I think this particular situation stinks to high heaven, but Alison’s example of having people write a sample email is a good way to find out in an hour if people have this skill, so you can hire somebody who does and not wait six months.

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Ask a Manager October 22, 2012 at 9:43 am

Yeah — it really just isn’t good hiring to hire someone without testing if they can do the job. But you can get quite a bit of insight through a few short exercises/simulations over the course of your hiring process — no need to hire them and then wait 3-6 months after hiring them.

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not an idiot July 27, 2013 at 12:33 am

asking someone to work for free is wrong. that is what a 90 day probational period is. you do not need to wait the 90 days to part ways if it doesn’t work out. It is shows the company does not value a persons time. So if a company asks this of you, you do not want to work for them. Its the biggest red flag if there ever was one.

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Elizabeth West October 22, 2012 at 6:23 pm

But for designers and writers, that is what clips/portfolios are for. They shouldn’t be asking the candidates to do work for free.

I like how Alison suggested using hypothetical situations and previous project stuff to accomplish testing, however. Clerical tests are easy; there is software you can use to generate typing tests, etc. But for tasks where they want to see you in action, I would feel much more comfortable testing for a company that did this.

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Anonymous_J December 12, 2012 at 9:38 am

Exactly. If they need so much detail, maybe the candidate could write a mock proposal, but please, for the love of Charlie: Stop asking candidates for free work!

As an artist and a writer, this stuff makes me nuts!

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books October 22, 2012 at 9:44 am

Because there is a lot of cost sunk in hiring the wrong person. With the economy the way it is (was?), companies would rather invest their time up front than costs to hiring, training, onboarding, and getting rid of.

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Emily October 22, 2012 at 10:41 am

Don’t forget unemployment costs if you have to let the new hire go, too!

Plus, on the candidate side, I’m much more amenable to putting a bit more effort into the application so that both I and my employer can feel confident that I am in fact going to succeed in the job, and not spend a couple months floundering and suddenly find myself out of work again with a short stint added to my resume.

If you’re interviewing for 15 jobs I can see how this might get time-consuming, but how common is that really? Two job searches ago (and my my recent extensive one) I applied for 16 jobs, interviewed for four, and got one offer. Doing four work simulations to land a job isn’t really much more time-consuming than in my most recent job switch where I only applied for one job, but their interview process consisted of a 20ish minute phone screen, then two back-to-back 45-minute in-person first round interviews, then three back-to-back 30-minute in-person second round interviews. In total I sunk more than 3 hours into interviewing for this job, and that’s on top of the time spent on the cover letter and resume, interview prep, etc–but by the time they made me an offer I was 110% confident it was the right job for me and I’d be able to succeed at it.

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ML May 3, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Emily,

3 hours worth of design work will produce one thing:

bad design.

Thus you’re forced to spend much more than this in order to compete.

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Anonymous_J December 12, 2012 at 9:36 am

Some companies have the skills tests and STILL put you on probation for 60 days or so.

It’s gotten ridiculous!

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Neeta October 22, 2012 at 8:28 am

This looks like something straight out of clientsfromhell[dot]net, and Alison’s advice is spot on. If you have a portfolio, they should be able to gauge your abilities from those works.

I’m assuming that the company you applied for, is not in the IT business, or doesn’t have a dedicated department for design/development… so perhaps they genuinely don’t realize how unfair this is for the candidates.

You can do what Alison suggested and send over some redesigns. Or you can make a new design of the website, but send a lower quality image and add some watermarks to “key” areas.

In general though, as a designer don’t discount practical interviews where you’ll be asked to design something on the spot. But nothing that would take you longer than 1-2 hours.

Kerry’s parallel with game shows though, sounds eerily accurate.

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Ah-nony-moose October 23, 2012 at 4:05 pm

But here’s the thing: I know as a designer, sending a low-res proof is no guarantee that they won’t steal your idea. They may not use your specific artwork, but the idea/concept is still getting presented to them gratis. I have this happen to me, and it really sucks! My self-esteem was in the toilet and I was mad at myself, too, for letting it happen!

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anon-2 January 30, 2013 at 12:54 pm

oh An-nony-moose …

It’s frustrating to have your ideas stolen. I’ve been plagarized.

It’s often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but that’s not true. If someone plagarized your ideas or work, that’s the highest form of flattery.

Of course – the SECOND time – “there’s a fee. Glad what I told you worked.”

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Ask a Manager January 30, 2013 at 3:22 pm

As someone who regularly has my published work stolen and reprinted, I can tell you it’s not flattering. And they get a legal take-down notice or they can pay a license fee — the first time. There are no second chances with stealing.

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Esra October 22, 2012 at 8:49 am

The nice thing about applying for jobs that require a portfolio (speaking as a graphic designer at least), is that by the time they interview you, they already know what you can do. They’ve already seen your results, they just need to make sure you’ll be a good fit.

Because of this, I’m extremely skeptical about any place that asks for spec in the interview process. Any decent place will (should) respect applicants who tell them they don’t do work on spec, but would be happy to share some of the process work that went into a portfolio piece. Any really decent place won’t ask this sort of thing in the first place.

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Piper October 22, 2012 at 1:57 pm

This. There is absolutely zero reason to make a candidate do spec work if they have a portfolio to support their resume.

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Blinx October 22, 2012 at 2:53 pm

It’s a trust situation. You are trusting that the candidate designed all of the work in the portfolio. Did they only make corrections to some files OR work as part of a team OR download the piece off the internet… but claimed that they designed it all? The interview is half skills assessment/half character assessment. Very tricky!

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Esra October 22, 2012 at 3:34 pm

But if that’s the case, you can ask them to see the process work. If they downloaded the piece off the internet or are taking credit for team work, then they won’t have any of the concept development and creative process work available.

If the interviewer wants to make sure the applicant hasn’t just shown them the best Creattica has to offer, they can ask some probing questions about the process that went into the portfolio pieces that impressed them most.

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Anonymous October 22, 2012 at 4:48 pm

That is assuming the HM knows what to ask.

We do a skills assessment for all jobs. Too many folks neglect to mention the work in the portfolio was the result of a team rather than solo effort.

That said, it’s pretty unethical for someone to use the work created in a skills assessment without compensation. Isn’t there some kind of creative copyright being violated here?

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Ask a Manager October 22, 2012 at 4:57 pm

Yes — the problem is proving it.

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Esra October 22, 2012 at 6:59 pm

I don’t think anyone would mind doing a skills assessment, that’s fine. Want to make sure I can use photoshop or hand code a page? No problem.

The issue is when you’re asking someone to spend (probably hours of) their time coming up with a design for you, when you already have an assessment of their design skills via their portfolio and your ability to ask them questions about any of the pieces contained therein.

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Elizabeth West October 22, 2012 at 6:30 pm

Ding!

This is why my old content job insisted we not only use reputable sources, but submit them as well. If you did not, your article was dumped. I can’t imagine someone who didn’t know what they were doing being able to talk convincingly about the design process.

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Esra October 22, 2012 at 7:08 pm

Exactly, it’s going to be pretty apparent if it isn’t their work.

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Tiff October 22, 2012 at 8:56 am

Yeah something about that email is shady. I get the feeling that the email went out to a larger group than they are letting on. *If* they’re hiring at all (!) they can cherry pick the best design – once they have a basic frame it wouldn’t take much to get someone else to implement it.

However, my current boss is fond of giving candidates assignments. I ended up re-working several of their survey tools, translating them into Spanish and coming up with a plan to survey targeted customer bases for my second round interview. She didn’t ask for all that, but she got it – and I got the job. I think you have to rely on your gut to tell you which companies are genuine and which ones are shams.

It would seem like (especially for design/marketing functions) that there should be some standard agreement between the company and the candidate to protect the candidate’s interests.

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Zee October 22, 2012 at 9:01 am

They should be requiring this of everyone, not just those who are “on the fence.” Also, I’m almost willing to bet there isn’t a group of better candidates; they are doing this to get free work. I’m skeptical; it’s too much like smoke and mirrors.

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Just a Reader October 22, 2012 at 9:50 am

Does a candidate have any recourse if the work is used, as is referenced in the OP?

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Blinx October 22, 2012 at 10:04 am

Maybe she can submit an invoice for services rendered.

If spec work is submitted, perhaps it could be protected with a line like “All artwork/designs remain copyright of the artist and may not be used without permission.” Then if they want permission, bill them!

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Ariancita October 22, 2012 at 11:08 am

Yep, or she could draw up a simple contract ahead of time stating that if any part of the design is used, they will be billed at x rate, and defining what “use” entails. But that’s an awkward thing to present in an interview situation where you’re trying to get a job in-house (not land a freelance client).

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-X- October 22, 2012 at 12:26 pm

One of the big problems with spec work is not that the person who “wins” doesn’t get paid. It’s that many many people do work but don’t get paid.

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Michael October 22, 2012 at 10:23 am

You can always sue someone. Whether you win or not is the question. :)

So, as long as the candidate can afford that then they’ll generally have some sort of recourse. If they do though, they need to be very aware of the specific wording of the correspondence before any work is submitted.

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EngineerGirl October 22, 2012 at 10:38 am

DMCA takedown? Its a little harder since it wasn’t taken off of another website. But if she had e-mails (date-time stamped) to prove that she initiated the design, it might work.

Also, it might be worth it to pay a small fee to a lawyer to get a stronly worded letter about copyright infringement. Unless you specifically signed over the design, it is yours.

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Michael October 22, 2012 at 12:12 pm

Doing a DMCA take down on a company’s web site design versus a single picture or article would be a rather interest series of events, I would think. :)

I once had this situation happen to me. I went in for a web development position and did the “proactive” thing and tried my hand at redesigning their site. I showed it to the interviewer who looked at it for a few moments with a narrow gaze and asked if he could keep it. I said he could thinking “score, he likes it therefore this improves my chances of being hired.” Alas, I didn’t get the job but about a year later their site looked eerily similar to my design. I wrote my last email contact about it and they said they had no record of such a thing happening. I wasn’t in a position to pursue it legally so I let it go but it taught me a lesson.

That said, using the DMCA would get into technicalities of exactly what can and can’t be copyrighted as well as the exact wording of the exchange of work as I mentioned. If there is even the slightest “work for hire” type situation or a vagueness that spells out no terms over the work then it could reasonably argued that either the creator abandoned their claim on the work by nature of the exchange or it was agreed the company actually owns the work whether or not money actually changed hands. People will agree to strange things when they need something and a job interview falls squarely in that so candidates will often not realize what happened until after the fact.

Still, I would love to see this used on a Fortune 500 just to see the fall out. But, I’m twisted like that.

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EngineerGirl October 22, 2012 at 2:57 pm

I’m not sure I agree with you totally.

The employer may argue that it is theirs, but under what grounds? They didn’t pay for it. They had no contract that said that they owned it. Abandonment is a hard thing to prove. Also, even if they changed the site a little, it would still be protected under copyright as a derivitive work. If the site contained original artwork it would be even easier to prove.

The big thing is the paper trail. If the person had an email with the design enclosed, it could make it pretty easy to prove it is their work

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Michael October 22, 2012 at 8:40 pm

The reason it could be called abandonment is that you surrendered work without certain terms. Without some copyright mark on it, yes, you do still own the copyright but asserting it is hard. As you said, it’s in the paper trail. Without the trail, you’re likely going to lose.

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Elizabeth West October 22, 2012 at 6:35 pm

I can see that would be difficult if the testing process had a disclaimer such as “All test materials generated by applicants become the property of [Z] Company and rights in perpetuity, etc.,” blah blah blah. I would bet money if they’re trying to get freebies, that would be in there somewhere.

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Zee October 22, 2012 at 10:32 am

Alison writes: You can’t ask people to do real work that you’ll then use in your business (or if you do, you need to pay them for it).

I don’t know, though, how you can follow through with this, especially if you’re like the OP and found it a little while later on the company’s website. Michael below suggests suing. Maybe Alison can chime in about this and expand the discussion here.

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Ask a Manager October 22, 2012 at 10:38 am

By “can’t,” I mean “ethically can’t.” It’s illegal too, but it would be a huge hassle to prove in a lot of cases.

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Ariancita October 22, 2012 at 11:11 am

As for proving, she could theoretically submit copyrights for her work (they don’t even have to be copyrighted at that point; date of submission is often enough). But that doesn’t even address the real life hassle and expense and bad blood of actually suing.

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Michael October 22, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Something is copyrighted merely by virtue of you creating it. You don’t have to register for a copyright like you do with a trademark, symbol or patent. Simply showing proof of the time of creation is enough to assert copyright. You can do things to strengthen your claim by keeping logs showing the creation processes, other sketches or draft revisions all with date entries and any communications you had with other about the work.

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Ariancita October 22, 2012 at 1:50 pm

Yes, I know. But it’s the providing proof of it that’s the issue. You want to have outside, legitimate proof. So even just registering it would have an official date stamp. There’s also the poor person’s version of mailing it to yourself via the post office and not opening that mailing once you receive it, so it’s post marked/dated by a government agency.

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class factotum October 22, 2012 at 9:02 am

For the job I have now, I was asked to submit a marketing plan that I had already written. I did so, but I also, because I wanted to impress them, drafted an outline of what a marketing plan for them would like like. I didn’t fill in the detail – I just wrote things like, “And here, I would want to know what specific products you would want to sell,” “Here, I would ask questions about the growth rate in the country,” etc.

I agree that an ethical company would not ask you to do work that they intend to or could use. I wonder if you could critique their current site without creating a new one. But it does sound like they just want free work.

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Mary October 22, 2012 at 9:04 am

If you do choose to move forward, you could wireframe a new layout or if you do the graphic (jpg etc) put a large watermark on it.

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Rana October 22, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Or save it in a form that can’t be easily uploaded, like a pdf of a screen capture.

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Rana October 22, 2012 at 8:48 pm

(However, that assumes they’re primarily interested in design work, not in assessing the quality of the underlying code.)

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Wubbie October 22, 2012 at 9:30 am

Since you’re not an employee of the company yet and have no contract to do the work, can’t you just refuse permission for the company to use the design unless you get an offer and sue them for IP infringement if they do so?

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Esra October 22, 2012 at 9:41 am

That would be a pretty costly endeavour, the suing them. Companies that will use this kind of work without paying, generally don’t inform the applicant they are doing so, let alone ask permission.

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Michael October 22, 2012 at 9:50 am

You can watermark the resulting image with “Copyright {Your Name}” or “Sample Only.”

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Soni October 22, 2012 at 9:53 am

Or do the design, but put a huge frakking watermark right across all the best bits.

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Blinx October 22, 2012 at 10:05 am

Watermarking would only prevent the actual jpg from being used, but they can recreate the look/feel of it.

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Ariancita October 22, 2012 at 10:24 am

Yes, exactly. Watermarking doesn’t help. It’s the design that will be used, not the exact jpgs that were used in the design: think layout, color stories, typography, user experience.

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A Bug! October 22, 2012 at 10:58 am

Yup. If they have a jpeg mock-up they can shop around for cheap (possibly overseas) labor to make it happen.

The designs will come in, and someone will plant the idea in management’s head to send the design over to The Website Mill and then pass day-to-day site management off to whichever intern has the most web savvy.

And then when the designer happens to look at their site a few months down the road and sees the lifted design it’s a battle just to get minimal compensation.

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Ariancita October 22, 2012 at 11:06 am

Yep, and they would probably not take the whole design as is, but would combine the elements of a few specs from other candidates. But you’ll still recognize your work when you see it, only now it looks poorly designed and is not 100% your design, so you can’t even use it as a possible portfolio piece.

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Michael October 22, 2012 at 12:18 pm

What marking the image “copyright of” would do is make it clear that you are claiming copyright of your work. This can be used later should you force the issue and give you a leg to stand on that you didn’t abandon or transfer your rights to another party.

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Chinook October 22, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Been there, had that happen to me with in a small town newspaper. We, the ad department, created a killer back page ad for a client. We sent it for approval and they turned it down, saying it was too expensive. The following week (they were weekly papers), our competitor showed the EXACT SAME AD with minor changes to pattern. Our publisher looked at it and said that there was nothing we could do about it. Grrr…I was proud of that design too.

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Elizabeth West October 22, 2012 at 6:40 pm

People who steal anything (money, jewelry, designs, copy, etc.) should be flogged. With a cat-o’-nine-tails.

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Mary October 22, 2012 at 10:20 am

As I read the “letter” I was thinking they were looking to see the OP’s approached to Allison’s comment, “[redoing] a website without knowing anything about the site’s goals and what the client wants to achieve with a redesign”.
I bet all they want out of you is just that. Which is exactly where I would start, I would reply to the letter with a customer needs analysis.

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Michael October 22, 2012 at 10:24 am

Spec work is 99% of the time bad. As a rule of thumb: don’t do it.

http://www.no-spec.com/

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Michael October 22, 2012 at 10:30 am

Spec work is bad 99% of the time. If you want to just a designer’s ability then you should look at their portfolio. I have yet to see an interviewer who wants to go multiple rounds with an interviewee with details that would make a half-way competent design possible. I could be wrong.

In any case, if you work, you should be paid for it and design work is often the most tricky. If you look around to see how designers work it’s often times a bunch of “conceptualize, do work, scrap it” repeated several times before a finished product is made. Why go through that without being paid? It often times involves a lot of hours hours, late nights/weekends, etc. For no pay? No thanks.

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Robin October 22, 2012 at 10:21 am

It sounded strange to hear the candidates were “on the fence.” Shouldn’t the expression be that the employer is on the fence about something?

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Anna October 22, 2012 at 2:07 pm

I saw that too! It makes me wonder what they think good communications skills are if that’s the kind of thing they send out.

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Snow October 22, 2012 at 10:23 am

That letter sounds so iffy. That’s terrible writing to start off with, but in my field I always ask potential hires to take a writing/editing test. Never have I told them “they’re on the fence.” The aim here is, of course, to instill some sense of urgency in the candidate so he or she thinks she MIGHT be getting the job. But in my opinion, this seems like a ruse.

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Snow October 22, 2012 at 10:30 am

I wish we could edit our own comments! “The aim here is, of course, to instill some sense of urgency in the candidate to believe he or she MIGHT be getting the job. But in my opinion, this seems like a ruse.”

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Hello Vino October 22, 2012 at 10:27 am

I’ve been working in design/marketing for almost 5 years. It’s not unusual to give job candidates a small assignment. These projects usually take about 30 minutes to an hour max. Many employers will also specify how much time they’d like you to spend.

I’ve been on both sides of the this situation. As an applicant, it’s the perfect opportunity to showcase your skills to the employer. It reveals how you think and approach a real project on your own, which sometimes isn’t clear from the portfolio. From the employer’s standpoint, this little assignment makes it very clear who is serious about the job. The last time I was reviewing applications, about 40% of job candidates couldn’t even be bothered to respond to 5 basic questions. At the company I currently work at, we’ll negotiate an hourly fee and specify 10 hours max for bigger assignments.

All that said, I have several issues with what the OP is being asked to do. First of all, this company barely provided the OP with any information. Secondly, it would be fine if they asked for a written list of recommendations on how to improve the website or if the OP was asked to provide quick and dirty hand drawn wireframes for the website refresh. But what they’re asking for is something that would take hours. It could very easily be a full day’s worth of work. It’s completely unreasonable to ask an applicant to do that for free. Also, the fact that this is for the employer’s website instead of a client’s website makes all this seem very questionable.

OP, I recommend that you get in touch with the employer and get a better a sense of what they expect to receive from you. Maybe a list of bullet points and very rough sketches would be fine? If they expect more than that, I don’t think this is the type of place you want to be working for. As it is, there are a lot of companies will take advantage of designers who are desperate for work. You don’t want to work end up at a place that doesn’t respect you and your work.

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KarenT October 22, 2012 at 10:32 am

At this point, you are in a group of candidates that are on the fence and we need you to complete the following request before we move on with the process

This is what makes me suspicious. What an unprofessional thing to say. And how sketchy to ask someone to perform work for you after you’ve just told them you are on the fence about them. It sounds to me like they are stringing you along, making you think if you do an awesome job you will be hired. Maybe that is true, but it sounds like they are scamming for free work.

In my industry (publishing) it is very common to ask candidates to perform job related tasks (LOVE the football analogy from Alison’s co-author). We always, always, always emphasize that the work given is for a hypothetical situation and will not be used.

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Kelly O October 22, 2012 at 11:33 am

Karen, I’m with you on this one. I think the thing that’s hanging me up is the way it was worded.

Not “we are considering a final few candidates and would like to see more detailed examples of your work” or something like that. I think it might be considered much differently if it didn’t feel so… I don’t even know how to describe it except to say it feels off.

I don’t really do anything that requires a portfolio, but I think Alison’s advice about providing detail about your decision making process and how you create design would be good. And really how can you expect to improve a design if you don’t know the company’s longer-term goals for their website, what the overall message they want to send is, and the resources that are available to the person creating the design – again not a graphic designer, but it just doesn’t make sense.

(To me, it’s like you asking me as an admin to explain how I’d make changes to improve your office. I can’t know until I see how it currently works, and why you do things the way you do them. Anything I tell you without knowing those things is just shooting in the dark.)

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Rana October 22, 2012 at 8:50 pm

Yeah, there’s a bit too much of the “Act now! This offer ends soon!” quality to that “on the fence” bit.

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Kimberley October 22, 2012 at 11:02 am

I would reply that you would love to help them with their re-design, however without knowing what their goals are your work may not be relevant. Then proceed to show them examples of similar work that you’ve done.

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HL October 22, 2012 at 12:31 pm

My advice to the OP would be to follow your gut instinct and also consider Alison’s response, together with the insightful comments made here. You may find this old article helpful in your situation: http://www.jhacareers.com/FreeConsulting.htm

Not long ago I received a response to an application asking me to complete and submit the results of two labor-intensive “exercises” so they could decide “whether to continue the interview process” (and failure to comply would disqualify me). Now, there is no problem performing such exercises during an actual interview, but I was immediately suspicious, since an interview had yet to be scheduled, and there was absolutely no guarantee that my investment of time would secure an actual interview.

My approach was to treat these exercises as an actual assignment, so I replied by asking a few clarifying questions (also a way for me to vet the work culture). Weeks passed. Never received answers to my questions, but I did finally receive a “thank you for participating in the application process” response. No regrets that I’d performed a batch of work for free.

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Elizabeth West October 22, 2012 at 6:45 pm

Oh, good job, ha ha. Yes, absolutely, you can’t do work for any client without having a conversation with them about what they need first. What you did was the same as asking a telemarketer what company they’re with. It’s scam control!

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Anonymous October 22, 2012 at 12:55 pm

I once interviewed someone for a marketing manager position, and asked them what they’d do if they got the job: general idea of strategy, tactics, etc. I didn’t ask for a full marketing plan; I just asked for some ideas to be shared during the interview.

The person’s response? “No, I won’t do that. Then you’ll just get my ideas for free.” Did they get the job? Hell, no.

On hiring for the same position, one of the candidates showed up to the interview with a marketing plan already completed for us (something we didn’t ask for), based on what she had seen of our current efforts online. She handed me a printed version of it, and we went over it together and discussed her plan. Guess who got the job? This candidate.

Sometimes, you’ve got to take a risk.

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LadyTL October 22, 2012 at 1:51 pm

Unfortunately people doing things honestly like you are far and few between. More often the company just steals the ideas/designs. With an approach as sketchy as this one is I would say this is just a attempt to steal designs so they don’t have to pay someone to do it.

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Elizabeth October 22, 2012 at 2:42 pm

Designs, definitely, but ideas about things like, “What are some things you would do in this job?” are not actually that stealable. What’s important is the person doing the job with those ideas.

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Ask a Manager October 22, 2012 at 3:14 pm

They’re not few and far between! It’s very normal to ask the sorts of questions that Anonymous described in an interview. She wasn’t even asking for work to be performed; she was talking about how the person would approach the job. With many jobs, there’s no way to be hired without having that conversation.

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Elizabeth October 22, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Asking for ideas during an interview is totally normal, and the person who refused is paranoid (and probably over-values his/her ideas). Also, asking a question during an interview doesn’t take up an unreasonable amount of time on the candidate’s part, in the way that doing a full website redesign would.

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Piper October 22, 2012 at 1:49 pm

“Plus, it’s ridiculous to ask a designer to redo a website without knowing anything about the site’s goals and what the client wants to achieve with a redesign — the most basic questions any designer is going to ask at the outset of such a project.”

Seriously. For real. Word. And all that.

This whole situation gives me the rages. Web development is so much more than “arranging” images and text on a page. What about UX and strategy? What are you basing that design on? How do you even know what to base it on if you haven’t done any kind of user research and testing? What’s worked for the company in that past? What hasn’t worked? Are there any technical limitations to their website?

There is no way you can even begin to give them a design based on what they sent you. GAH!

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Anonymous October 22, 2012 at 3:46 pm

Maybe it’s a test! Maybe they’re looking for the OP to say “I can redesign your website based on aesthetics, but I think what you’re really looking for is something strategic. I’d have to have much more information on your goals and input from the rest of the team before I would start a redesign.”

End. Interview. Offer. Made. BAM.

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Ask a Manager October 22, 2012 at 4:09 pm

I wouldn’t expect that will instantly lead to an offer — that’s a pretty normal thing to say and not something that would cause most employers to just swoon :)

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Hari October 22, 2012 at 2:23 pm

This does seem like a lot of work for OP to do because it sounds like they want him to essentially build a frame for their webpage which depending on complexity (not to mention other needs that aren’t being addressed here) would take some time to complete in Adobe Fireworks.

This reminds of me of this craiglist ad for “Fashion Marketing” where to apply you have to go on their website and make 5 blogs then “engage community” and comment on 5 others. They are posting this city by city so they will get a ton of people that will be looking for part-time work and do this only to probably never hear a reply or not get paid for it. I say not paid since it starts out as unpaid and only transitions into paid depending on how well you “work with the team”. Happened to be on CL this morning and found it AGAIN, here is the posting, its beyond scamy to me. http://seattle.craigslist.org/see/mar/3356972698.html

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Elizabeth October 22, 2012 at 2:23 pm

I like it when a short see-them-in-action piece is part of the interview process itself. For teachers, it is standard to teach a demo lesson as part of an interview. That gives the principal so much information about how that candidate teaches, information that you can’t really get just from interviewing. Yes, it takes time on the candidate’s part to prepare, but most teachers I know have one or two demo lessons they use for multiple interviews, tweaking them to fit the grade level. Also, you could argue that then the children get a lesson “for free,” but no school is going to save money by using just demo lessons instead of paying a regular teacher!

In my last interview, I also was given a laptop and a summary of a pretend student who was struggling academically, then asked to write a report card comment for that student. I think I was given 20 minutes for this task, so I knew I wouldn’t have to spend hours and hours agonizing on making it just right.

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Robert Narsavage October 22, 2012 at 2:49 pm

This occurred with me during an interview not long ago, though it was done on the spot. I was interviewing for an assistant director position at a School ( keeping things general here ), and was meeting with my potential direct report. During the course of our interview, she brought up a huge problem they were facing ( which of course I was being looked at to solve ). The conversation turned from an interview to a strategy meeting, helping her solve her ( and her School’s ) problem. Of course I obliged … you get what you give. I imagine this sort of thing is more prevalent than we realize.

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Ask a Manager October 22, 2012 at 3:18 pm

And at good employers, for many positions this is a normal part of good interviews and will make you a stronger candidate.

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Anonymous October 22, 2012 at 3:34 pm

For my current job I was asked to write a bullet point list of what did not work on a sub section of a site. A whole redesign would have been a no for me.

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Naomi October 22, 2012 at 3:52 pm

I agree 100% with Allison.
Please please please do not submit your work for this. This has been a new practice in some companies when hiring designers and I for one am not fan of it because it requires you to put in hours of your time for zero compensation, on the off chance you might get the job! And you’ve had past experience where they even stole your ideas…. Don’t do it. Its not worth it and doesn’t seem like an ethical/legitimate business company.

Best of luck.

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Rachel October 22, 2012 at 5:03 pm

I 100% agree with AAM on this. Asking for proof that you have the skills you profess to have is a good thing. However, asking for specific work that solves a real business problem isn’t acceptable.

On the few occasions I’ve shown good faith and complied with a request to provide some highly-customised item, I’ve always regretted it. Companies pull these tricks to get free work and for no other reason in my experience. I work as a software developer, and these days I have a blog that showcases the knowledge I possess. It includes articles on technical topics, code samples, opinions on emergent technologies, etc. I also have a YouTube Channel containing videos showing me actually using the tools of my trade to tackle abstract problems. They’re in the form of tutorials to the viewer. (Dull as ditchwater to anyone but serious prospective employers and possibly my peers that are trying to pick up skills, but invaluable to hiring managers in getting an insight into how I do my job with the real tools I use everyday). Finally, I have a LinkedIn profile that details precisely where and when I’ve used the skills demonstrated, and that contains several testimonials from credible individuals within my industry for whom I have worked (e.g., CTOs of technology organisations). If all that isn’t enough to convince a prospective employer that I have the skills they’re seeking, my providing work for free certainly isn’t going to make any difference to anything other than the budget they’d be saving by getting some chump to work for free.

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Anonymous October 22, 2012 at 7:11 pm

For $35, you can register a copyright. You may more avenues when somebody infringes a registered work than you do when you register after infringement. :)

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D R December 2, 2013 at 4:38 am

When you are interviewing for a job it is possible (rather most likely) that you have another job. And all “copyrights” produced on job belong to your employer. So really it is dicey here with 2 employers (one current and another prospective) involved.

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Another Anon October 23, 2012 at 9:41 pm

Be careful. I was in a similar situation once and though I did provide a rough design mock up drawn up in a graphics application, I later found the same reorganization and design elements in place on the company’s updated website. I didn’t provide any code and can’t confirm the ideas I presented were used. I didn’t get the job and they hired someone with less experience. I like the idea of copyrighting your work!

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Miss Displaced October 24, 2012 at 7:35 pm

As a designer I’ve seen this type of thing quite often. I’ve been asked to design at various times: a postcard, a web banner, a 2 page magazine spread, and a magazine cover prior to even getting an interview.

I went back to read the OP instructions on this: “…create an image (JPG/GIF/PNG) of what you might suggest as our new look.”

My understanding of this is that do don’t want actual code, but just a sample picture of the page layout you would propose, so I don’t think their intention is to “steal” applicant designs.

I guess the question here is: 1. how bad do you want the job and 2. how much time are you willing to invest? Personally, I don’t mind doing these employment “tests” but I am generally only willing to devote about an hour to doing them. If they’re asking for more complexity than that, it’s a red flag.

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Confused June 2, 2013 at 10:47 pm

I recently inquired about a part time graphic design position putting together a 48 page regional magazine. As part of the interview process, before even sitting down to talk with me about my skills or requesting a portfolio, they told me part of the interview process is to have me put together the whole magazine (which is what this job would entail). WHAT? I’m thinking this is totally outrageous. I could see doing a couple pages and maybe an ad – something that would take under an hour – but not the whole magazine. What do you think?

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D R December 2, 2013 at 12:17 am

I faced this too recently – an interviewer clearly suggesting that if he liked my work he would use it! I have blogged about it – have a look.
http://thoughtsoflight.wordpress.com/2013/12/02/free-work/

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Gella January 28, 2014 at 6:15 pm

I just got a request from company to show my proficiency in language by translating an almost 700 word text DIRECTLY RELATED to that company to another language. That is BEFORE the interview. You think I am going to even for a minute consider this? No can do. Next!

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Jenny April 1, 2014 at 4:03 pm

Hello, a couple months ago I was contacted via email by an employer who saw my resume posted on indeed and asked if I would be interested in working for their company as a Graphic Designer. I then looked at the company’s job posting and found it to be a great fit, good pay, great benefits, etc. Shortly after I went in for an interview. The interview was 2 hours long very intense, however like I said, good pay, blah blah blah. A week later they ran a background check on me which having no prior record I’m sure went well. Two weeks after that, the company called me in for a second interview. At the second interview they asked me to do a 3 part project which took me 3-4 days to complete. After I submitted my project, the company then told me it would be 3-4 weeks before I heard back from them because one employee was going on vacation. Since I have another job I was ok to wait.
After 4 weeks went by I emailed the company basically saying that I have still not heard back anything and that I had also noticed they had not even opened my project. Since the project was so large I had to submit it via dropbox which gives me the courtesy of knowing when my project is accepted. Well it has been a month and a half now since I have submitted the project only to find that is was never opened. Has anyone ever heard of this kind of thing? I feel like at this point I deserve some kind of explanation?

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Mike O'Horo April 14, 2014 at 5:43 pm

The underlying basis for the negative reaction to performing practical work is the idea of doing it for free. That only matters if you could have sold that work for a fee instead of doing it free as part of this company’s vetting process. In most cases, you can’t sell it elsewhere, or you’d be developing a freelance practice instead of trying to get a job. So, what have you really lost if they don’t hire you and use your ideas? Think of it as a minor investment that didn’t pay off.

It’s important to keep our egos out of our decision-making. If this looks like a company you want to work for, and they require this on the front end, so be it. If you decide you’re not willing, that’s fine, too.

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