A reader writes:
I had an interview recently that overall went really well, but there was one part that I felt was inappropriate and wanted to get your feedback on it. I was called in for a “working” interview and was told that I would participate in this department’s morning meeting and later draft a writing sample. These were all fine and I enjoyed the opportunity to display my preparation and skills. The whole interview process took up the entire morning and a bit into the afternoon; I met with everyone in the department and the president of the organization.
One odd thing they asked me to do though was to prepare folders with some flyers and other literature to be handed out at an event that night. This is a task that apparently this role would handle a lot, but surely they don’t need proof that I know how to put paper into folders? Part of me really wanted to speak up because I’ve spent the greater part of last year doing unpaid internships and, frankly, I’m sick of not getting paid to work. I felt a little taken advantage of. The only plausible use for me doing this task I could come up with was that they wanted to see if I had a good attitude about being asked to “pitch in.” So I didn’t say anything, but it definitely made me feel worse about the whole situation. Otherwise this organization seems really great and it seems like it would be a great place to work, but I’m just wondering — should I have objected?
You’re right that they shouldn’t have done that; it doesn’t sound like a test of your skills, but rather simply a way to get some work done.
That said, I highly doubt that they were nefariously thinking, “Aha, let’s get free work out of the job candidate” — rather, it sounds like they just weren’t thinking thoroughly enough, because if they had, they would have realized that it wasn’t an appropriate use of your interview time. So yes, they were wrong. Probably not intentionally so, but wrong anyway.
But should you have said something? The frustrating reality is that it’s hard to speak up in that situation without jeopardizing your candidacy. I’d absolutely speak up if you were asked to work for free for a day, or to put significant time into creating something the organization would use (as opposed to simply seeing you in action, like creating a writing sample they won’t actually use or having you participate in a meeting). But in the situation you described, if it was something like 20 minutes, your best bet — the one that would get you the best outcome, which isn’t always the same as standing on principle — was probably just to do it cheerfully.
On the other hand, if it had been hours of preparing flyers, it would be reasonable to speak up. You could say something like, “I’m glad to help out, but I may have misunderstood — should I be doing this as a job candidate?” (You’d want to say this in as sweet a tone as you could muster, to counteract any potential concerns about you being unhelpful or something like that.) If they said yes and that you should proceed, at that point you could decide whether you wanted to push back or not; if you did, you could say, “I certainly don’t mind pitching in, but this looks like several hours of work, which I feel odd doing as a job candidate rather than an employee.” That approach carries the risk of them deciding you’re a pain in the ass and/or demanding, and therefore removing you from the running. I’d argue that you don’t want to work for an employer who would see it that way, but you’d want to be aware of that risk before going that route.
Overall, though, when you’re dealing with organizations that otherwise seem legit and above-board, it’s safe to assume that they’re just being thoughtless with these requests, not deliberately seeking out free labor under the guise of job interviews. I’m not saying the latter never happens, but it’s far less common than employers just not thinking the situation through.