A reader writes:
I have recently come across a situation that has never happened to me in my 15 years working as a professional. I have a unique skill set within the HR community and I have recently been interviewing for a job at a new company. The director who I have interviewed with is clearly under water and doesn’t know how to proceed with the work that I would be doing should they hire me for the position. Since my initial interview, she has scheduled one conference call and sent two emails full of questions for me to answer to “help her out” as she navigates this new work. (The conference call was to prep her for a meeting where she wasn’t sure what to ask, and I had to provide her with basically an education on international HR/deployments and new market entry outside of the U.S. The next set of questions we to clarify things she didn’t understand from that meeting.) Yesterday, she sent me a list of questions because they are trying to set up an international benefits plan and she had a lot of questions about what kind of plan to select, how it should be administered, etc.
This puts me in a terrible position because I don’t want to seem like I am not a team player or willing to help, but clearly I am not an employee and they have made no offers so I feel like she is really taking advantage of the situation.
I have a second interview on Friday but again no offer of employment, and the recruiter keeps telling to “hang in there.” I don’t want to keep this up unless I have an offer, but I am not sure how to step away without jeopardizing this career opportunity. Thoughts?
She is indeed taking advantage of the situation, and it’s not okay to ask you to help her with her work without compensation.
It’s true that a strong interview process will include finding ways to see the candidate in action, using exercises, simulations, or real-life problems to see what their work is like. But that’s not what this is; it’s an unethical grab for free help, whether she realizes it or not. (And I’d bet that she doesn’t realize she’s doing anything wrong here — she needs help, you seem friendly and knowledgeable, and she’s probably not thought beyond that. Which doesn’t make it okay, but I’d think of it as ineptness on her part, rather than anything nefarious.)
In any case, as for how to handle it, you have a few options:
1. Talk to the recruiter and explain you feel uncomfortable with what you’re being asked to do. The recruiter might be able to relay that message in a way that doesn’t hurt you. (Don’t do this if your recruiter seems ham-fisted though; she’d need to be able to act with some nuance here.)
2. Be unavailable to help, rather than outright refusing: “Unfortunately I’m at a seminar / traveling / slammed with client work all this week. I know you need timely answers and I don’t want to hold you up.”
3. Point her to resources that aren’t you: “The XYZ Association website is a great source of information on this stuff — you should find a lot of what you’re looking for there.” (You can do this in combination with #2, too.)
4. Frame it as consulting work: “This is a pretty involved topic, and one that needs more than a five-minute conversation. Would it make sense to set up a short-term consulting agreement?” (Be aware, though, that this risks her flouncing off in irritation, thinking “I was just asking for a few minutes of her time!” and harming your candidacy as a result. That’s entirely unfair, but it absolutely happens.)
Of course, you could also just be direct (“I feel uncomfortable helping with this when I’m not yet working for you”), but I don’t know of many people who could pull that off without causing tension, and you don’t want to cause tension in this particular relationship right now. And you have other options (see above), so I’d go with one of those.