my interviewer keeps asking me to help with her work — but hasn’t offered me a job

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.

Good luck!

{ 45 comments… read them below }

  1. AJ-in-Memphis*

    Or – “if you hire me, I’d be glad to help out with XYZ….” :-)
    My sarcasm….

  2. AJ-in-Memphis*

    But seriously, I wonder if working for someone that doesn’t understand the job their managing (assuming this will the job’s direct report) is such a good thing? The “interviewer” didn’t sound so bright. Maybe the OP would be in a better position being a consultant for that company and using their free time to look for a job elsewhere?

    1. Chinook*

      I don’t know if I would have a problem working for a manager who doesn’t understand the details of my job. This HR manager seems wuite aware of the whole in her knowledge and is willing to admit that the OP knows more about the details than she does yet understands the basics of what the job entails. Managers don’t need to knwo specifics, just generalities. You hire people to deal with the specifics and let them do their job.

      1. AJ-in-Memphis*

        I’ve always thought that a good manager understands the work that they are assigning, therefore understanding what it takes to get the job done as well as how to explain the inner workings of their team, projects,etc… to upper management. But I could in the minority on that one as I am a doer as well as a manager….

          1. Jamie*

            This. And that someone managing the IT Director knows it’s a little like herding cats. Provide the right kind of kibble and accouterments and we’re docile little feline angels, eager to please.

            Otherwise…keep in mind we aren’t declawed. :)

            Seriously though it’s a good point. I am so grateful that my boss has enough understanding of and respect for technology that we can be on the same page…but if I didn’t have specialized skills I’d be a lot more fungible.

              1. Jamie*

                Ha – that’s Jamie the Commenter…this is my warm and fuzzy environment. Try messing with my budget…I do not wear a bow IRL. :)

  3. connected guy*

    Couldn’t she at least ask for some type of consulting fee for the time being?

  4. Joey*

    If it were me and it was a good job I’d keep helping on the tiny stuff (while being conveniently too “tied up with my job/job search” to get into the weeds of bigger issues). I wouldn’t see it as helping so much as proving I’d be good while also letting him know he’s not yet my priority.

    1. Liz*

      This seems like a good compromise, if you don’t want to really get into awkward conversations or to raise the payment issue.

  5. Jazzy Red*

    My grandmother’s generation used to say “why would a man buy the cow when he’s getting the milk for free?”

    That’s what’s going on here.

    You’ve already demonstrated your abilities to this person, and now you should be getting paid. I agree with Alison’s suggestions, especially the one about being slammed with PAID client work. You need to let her know that this is how you earn your living and she needs to hire you if she wants your expertise.

    And that “hang in there” comment from her – it’s not worth spit. It means absolutely nothing. Erase it from your mind and practice saying “I’m really slammed with client work, and I have to give paying clients precedence.”

    1. AF*

      + 1 million billion. Also + 1 on wanting an update! This is pretty ridiculous and the OP had better get hired!

    2. Jessa*

      Exactly. There are some big red flags here. The interviewer is not moving forward in the process well and the candidate is giving way too much away for free. Something has to give. Either this needs to go under a consulting agreement, a temporary hire situation or an actual job. And I do agree with the ones saying that this HR person might just be a scoche too inept to work for.

    3. Anne 3*

      I think the “hang in there” comment was from the recruiter the OP is using, not the manager at the company.
      Valid point, though!

  6. Loose Seal*

    Frankly, I’d use the direct statement. The key to saying it would be to keep any sort of resentment out of your voice as you talk. Her response to it would be good information to have as you decide if you want to work for her. For instance, is she the type of manager that is going to accuse you of not being a team player when you inform her you haven’t had a raise in three years/need to take vacation/are submitting your notice.

    1. KimmieSue*

      I agree with Loose Seal. I’d tell her directly (kindly but firmly) that you appreciate her reaching out but her requests have gone beyond a standard interview process. Wish her luck and let her know that you are still interested in the role, but are not feeling comfortable continuing to provide your intellectual property or subject matter expertise, without compensation. If you do receive an offer, you’ve already started off a direct communication and also are beginning to set some firm and reasonable boundaries.
      I rarely disagree with AAM’s advice, but in this case, I have a hard time buying that an HR Director doesn’t know better. I would buy ineptness from a less experienced individual contributor, but an HR Director? I find it hard to swallow.

      1. PJ*

        Having been in HR for many (many, many) years, I can tell you that HR Director is often just a title, and may be held by someone doing generalist duties in some companies.

        Although I will say that a company who has a need for an HR person with international skills is probably large enough to have an HR Director who knows what s/he’s doing.

        1. Jamie*

          I’ve seen this in smaller companies, but like you said I can’t imagine a company large enough to have international labor issues having a generalist without experience in those matters heading HR. Although, maybe they are just now branching out? Or maybe they are replacing the one person there who handled that?

          Goes to show why redundancy is so important for the big ticket stuff.

          1. Anonymous*

            I have 2 people at the place where I work who do business internationally. It’s them, 1-2 other people in the US, and a small team in another company or an outsource company. Total number of people employed by the “company” is <15 in both cases.

  7. MR*

    I would probably decline to proceed further in the interviewing process. It’s one thing to know more about a particular industry/job/whatever than your supervisor. It’s a completely separate thing for the supervisor to be incompetent. The supervisor in question is incompetent based on the information provided.

    This will not end well for the OP, if a job ends up coming from this. You will eventually run circles around your boss and once your boss notices, she will be threatened, and will then make your life hell and/or fire you because of that threat. It happened to me. It’s happened to others, and I’m sure it will happen in this case once she wises up.

    You seem to have a good head about yourself and seem to be quite competent. Go some place that will appreciate that in you.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s possible — but it’s also possible that the HR director is covering the vacancy that the OP is being hired for and that’s why she doesn’t know this stuff and isn’t threatened that someone else does, or that she’s not someone who gets threatened by someone doing better in these areas than her (many people don’t get threatened by that, although some do).

  8. jfq*

    The interviewer/employer very possibly knows that she is taking advantage of the letter writer, who is clearly in a tenuous situation.

    The owner of my company has done something similar on several occasions, though not over such a protracted period of time, when he knows that someone won’t be hired but he still wants to pick the candidate’s brain for ideas and advice. I don’t think that picking has extended beyond the interview, but he has prolonged interviews for that reason well beyond when he’s already made his decision.

    1. Ruffingit*

      That is really crappy. He’s taking ideas from people he knows he’s not going to hire while making them think they have a chance and therefore they give those ideas. Just can’t get on board with that.

  9. Lily in NYC*

    I worry that this is a red flag that this person will have no concept of boundaries if OP does start working there. She seems like a disaster and the type to have you do all the work and take credit for it.

  10. Lar*

    “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.”

    While I do believe that all 4 of AAM’s suggestions are good ones, I think that there is some risk of jeopardizing this opportunity if you stop. This is a tough situation and I understand the concern. Not sure what I would do but if I had to speculate it would probably be to keep providing assistance until I knew that an offer was never coming or it became a burden.

  11. Forrest*

    I think everyone is jumping to conclusions by assuming that the LW will out shine her boss or knows more than her. In this one area, yes. But the LW said that what is does is unique skill set. This doesn’t mean the director is stupid – it just means she doesn’t have that experience. Which is why she’s hiring someone who does.

    “Never hire someone who knows less than you do about what he’s hired to do.”

    1. Jazzy Red*

      So she should hire the OP already!

      As for your last sentence, I would hire a surgeon to operate on me, and I don’t know one thing about surgery (except that I want to be unconscious when it happens).

      1. Forrest*

        Well hopefully you’d know why the surgeon is operating on you.

        Additionally, I think you misread the quote. It says to hire people who know more than you do, which is exactly why you’re hiring a surgeon and not just doing it yourself.

        Finally, I agree the OP should be hired and the HR manager shouldn’t be using her like this. My comment didn’t imply or say otherwise.

  12. Liz in the City*

    OP, use #2 and #3 together. “So sorry, but I’m absolutely slammed this week. I’ve found this organization’s website to be very helpful with some of the issues you’ve been facing.”

    It’s not clear from your letter whether you’re currently employed or could have other “work” things going on, but really, you should be compensated for your time. Every hour you spend answering this person’s questions is another hour you’re not job searching / doing your own work / spending your time as you see fit. Good luck!

  13. Jamie*

    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

    Even the best team players in the world don’t play for teams they aren’t on.

    If you want the job I personally think it’s a great opportunity to show what you bring to the table – because the issues you’re speaking of seem like they’d need someone knowledgeable in an ongoing capacity…not like in programming where they could just steal your code and not hire you because it was a self-contained problem. But it’s a fine line to walk between that and doing this part of her job for her.

    She shouldn’t be putting you in this position – but at least if they make an offer you’ve got more insight on the job…just looking for the silver lining.

  14. Ruffingit*

    As an attorney, the product I offered to clients was my expertise. And I charged for it. That is what the OP needs to be doing as well. The product she has to sell is her expertise in this area. I would not allow someone to send me a list of legal questions to be answered and then also meet with that person again to clarify if I wasn’t being paid. That would be taking my time and my “product” with no compensation.

    OP, this needs to stop. Now. Otherwise you are going to be caught up in a consulting situation without a paycheck. I’d combine Alison’s suggestion (2 and 3) and also see if you can get some clarity on when the interview process will be moving forward/when you can expect to hear about the job.

    It’s so ridiculous to me that anyone would think this was an appropriate thing to do with a candidate. But as this letter shows, there are people out there who are just that ignorant or that manipulative. Either way, it needs to stop.

  15. Another Reader*

    And who knows if the OP is the only candidate the HR director is doing this with? She could be doing it with other candidates and comparing the advice/guidance she gets. And maybe this isn’t nefarious or intentional, but at a minimum, it becomes exploitive…

  16. Rich*

    Not that I have extensive background in that situation, but I’d really recommend being direct about it. Mainly because you are essentially doing the job you’re applying for gratis, and I’ve had enough experiences to know plenty of people are using job applicants for free hep before going onto someone “better qualified.” While it might hurt your candidacy, at least you’d have brought it to her attention that she’s asking you to work.

  17. Elise*

    I would keep the attitude casual, but stop the free advice. What is wrong with: “I’m sure we’ll have lots of time to get these issues worked out once I start my employment at your company.”

    1. Rana*

      I have to admire the way that phrasing puts the interviewer in a tight little spot. Either she has to admit she’s not going to make a job offer (in which case the OP is off the hook for the help) or she has to shift gears to an offer conversation (in which case the demands for free help also stop, and maybe the OP gets a new job).

  18. Alan Wexelblat*

    Two things I haven’t seen mentioned yet: First, since this is HR-related there’s an obvious dodge in that you can say “Since this is related to HR I’m concerned we’ll be dealing with things that ought to be confidential or are sensitive. I don’t feel comfortable doing that before I’m hired.”

    Which leads naturally to #2: “I’d be happy to help you with that once I’m on board.” That latter needs to be a little more delicately put, but the gist is still the same. I did something similar in an interview recently – I work in User Experience and an interviewer asked what I thought of their current UI. I said something along the lines of “It looks like there’s a lot of hard work in there. I had some questions about why things are set up that way, which I’d love to ask once I start working with you guys.”

  19. EEOGURU*

    My only comment would be that any novice HR Generalist would know that it is illegal to have someone performing work and not be paid. Being in HR for 20 years, I have come across many users that have advanced in their careers by using others knowledge, skills and abilities. This HR Director is obviously one of those individuals.

  20. Editor*

    Having seen cases where people at the level of this HR person were maxed out in their jobs — not hired past their level of competence but clearly pretty much not able to handle more — I am not sure the HR person is being manipulative or consciously pushing boundaries.

    I wonder if this is one of those situations where the HR director is being pushed to provide certain documents on a predetermined project timeline even though a key employee is gone. At the same time, the HR director is being allowed to fill the job — but on a foot-dragging timeline that disregards the project timeline. Basically, someone higher up has decided to save money by letting the position go black longer through a leisurely hiring process, while ignoring the practical implications of that cheese-paring.

    Not that anyone who posts here has ever encountered such conflicting decision-making from higher ups (eyeroll).

  21. Michelle*

    The last option offered is the one I would go with. I understand the LW wants the job, but I don’t think one is legitimately on offer, or they would have hired her by now. I would strongly urge anyone being put through something like this to really consider whether this is the kind of organization you want to work for. I once had a job interview where the hiring manager asked me to prepare a complete promotional plan for an event the organization was having, including proposed media schedules, sample press release, etc. I politely bowed out of the selection process. I later found out that the hiring manager took all the candidates’ ideas and then announced that they did not have funding for the position after all, and did not hire anyone. They used all the ideas generated by the candidates – which they got for free – to promote their event. There are unscrupulous jerks out there, unfortunately, and I think the LW has found one. Run, run, run away.

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