I was asked to do free work at a job interview

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.

{ 50 comments… read them below }

  1. Joey*

    Depends on the context to me. If there was a greater purpose I wouldn’t necessarily see it as a bad thing. For example if this was the quickest way for you to get to know your potential team. Or if they wanted you to see your workplace in action and it was crunch time. But if they just stuck you in a room and said “there are the files, start filing”, that’s totally different.

  2. ProcReg*

    I’ve been given a template, and told to do some basic work with it. Not to get work done, but to prove my competency with the material.

    Not more than 10 minutes, and it got me the job.

  3. Portia de Belmont*

    When I was just starting out in the law, I went on a lot interviews. This was the strangest one: it was at a small firm, in Chicago’s high-rent legal district. Antiques everywhere, gorgeous rugs, etc. The interview went well, and then they dropped the bomb: the final interview phase was three days of unpaid work, “to see if I picked things up fast enough”. My first (well, only) thought was that if they could afford that rent and those furnishings, they could afford to pay a temporary employee, which was what I would be. I respectfully declined and never regretted it.

    1. Ruffingit*

      That is completely ridiculous. Three days of unpaid work? No way. Sad thing is, I know there are many candidates who probably accepted that and that firm has been getting free work for years. Glad you declined.

    2. Miss Displaced*

      I once went to work at a high end ad agency that told me they do a paid “trial” week with all potential interviewees.

      I worked at that place two days, doing about 5-6 layouts/ads for them when I realized the atmosphere sucked and it was all a scam to get FREE work from designers hoping to get a foot in the door. Needless to say, I never got paid… and I never did it again!

    3. Wren*

      Amen. At the place I work, we don’t hire without a test drive because it’s the sort of job where it’s difficult for either party to see if it’s a good match without doing so. And we pay for that day.

  4. Mena*

    I think Alison is being generous when she say they were probably not intentionally wrong – I think they probably were intentionally wrong here. And this says something negative about the organization.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I really don’t think they were. It doesn’t cost that much to hire temps for this type of project — I used to hire them for $10/hour to stuff mailings. But besides that, it would be very rare for a legit organization to do this for no purpose other than having work done for free — misguided, yes, but not deliberately intended as wrongdoing.

    2. Ariancita*

      I agree with Alison that it probably wasn’t done with ill intent, since the benefit to the company was appears rather negligible. But at the same time, how could the company NOT know this request was absurd? I try to imagine the request coming from my mouth, and I immediately cringe. I don’t think, however, that it was particularly exploitative given that it was such a minor ask. I’ve had a company I interviewed for make a completely over the top request (that I’ve written about in comments before) where it was clearly a situation of the potential employer trying to exploit candidates.

      1. fposte*

        What puzzles me is I’m not seeing what it really tells them about the candidate. I initially misread it as having the candidate design the flyer which was going to be disseminated, which is also pretty dubious, but at least it was clear what the process would tell the prospective employer there. But even if this does tell them that a candidate has crack folder-stuffing skills, how much of the job is really devoted to that?

          1. fposte*

            Ah, that makes more sense. I can see it happening in a communication chain, too–Person A thinks they’ll have her do something and never figures out what something would be, and Person B just grabs folders.

            1. Jessa*

              That makes a lot of sense from that perspective. I can see that. OMG we have OP sitting here doing nothing while we’re gearing this mess up, okay here do this for me.

        1. Ruffingit*

          The OP does mention that the folding task is something her role would handle a lot. Still, I don’t think that’s reason enough to have her demonstrate that she can do it. I tend to think they wanted some free labor, but that’s my jaded dirty lens talking. :)

        1. Ariancita*

          They wanted me to produce a major event for them in my city, which would take months of time and planning and had nothing to do with the job I applied for.

  5. Mary*

    I agree it was inappropriate – I interviewed for a temp two-month contract job. I did a phone interview, in person and another phone interview with the overseas folk. All through these interviews I stated how I would do the project within their timeline. After the last interview, the hiring manager asked to write up a timeline and on when phases in the project would be done. I was a thrown off by this and called my former manager. She said if for a permanent job maybe; but for a two-month temp job and you have already told her the timelines, don’t do it. Just call her and tell her that you have already discussed the timeline. I didn’t do that and replied to the hiring manager that I had not yet been offered the position and therefore was submitting a rudimentary timeline. She never replied.

  6. Construction HR*

    Perhaps, just perhaps, they wanted to see how the OP interacted with the folks while ‘working’, but in a less formal setting. Perhaps.

    If give it a 3 on the oddometer (the oddometer goes to 11).

  7. CassJ*

    (note: I’m a software developer)

    For one job I interviewed on, I spent the day with the team I’d be working with, doing real work for the team. It was a good way for them to see how I’d jive with them, and vice versa. Plus, they had the opportunity to see how I work: do I ask questions? do I ask for help? et cetera. Sure, they got a few hours of free work from me, but candidates that reached that point were at the last phase of the interview cycle. (I was later hired by this company)

    So for this situation, it see it as beneficial, but not sure how beneficial it would be to see if the candidate knows how to stuff folders.

      1. CassJ*

        I don’t know what I would have or wouldn’t have done had I not gotten the job, but looking back on it, if I didn’t, I would have assumed that I wasn’t a good fit for the team.

    1. Cathy*

      Were you actually able to be a productive software developer on your first day? Typically on my teams, adding a new person gets us negative value for the first week (training and orienting them costs more than the value of any work they can perform); then they slowly ramp up, reaching full productivity after 3 to 6 months. I could see how the candidate might feel like they were doing free work, but I bet the employer didn’t get any net benefit out of it.

      That said, I’d like to be able to do this type of extended interview, but unfortunately, our employees are required to have U.S. security clearances; so we can’t have someone in our code until they’ve been through a preliminary background check, which is just too expensive for candidates we might not hire (not to mention the inconvenience to the candidate who would have to be fingerprinted and drug-tested).

      1. CassJ*

        They had me doing some really, really easy bug fixes. (The kind that would take someone who was familiar with the application 30 minutes to fix it). I got about two of them done in the day, and one of them wasn’t really a bug, so that one took the most amount of time to get through just because I wasn’t familiar with the application.

        I totally agree though, most software devs require a fair amount of time to ramp up and be productive.

        This type of interview worked really well for this team, but I’m sure it won’t work for everyone. It was an agile team in a “meadow” set up, so if I had a question, I could ask the entire team, instead of having a team member sitting with me in a cube and watching me work. This allowed them to work on their things, and me to focus on whatever issue I was working on during my interview. This gave the team and I a chance to see how I would work with them in the environment and vice versa. I know there’s folks out there who don’t like the whole “meadow” environment, so if I were one of them, it would be a good way for me to say, “this isn’t for me”, if it wasn’t.

        Also, the first step in the interview process for this company was a “take home” coding assignment. Basically, you could choose to code it however you wanted, but you needed to send it in by a specific time the next day. I know those don’t always work because someone without integrity could have someone else do it for them, but if you’re going to lie that much on a coding test (I’d assume is similar to providing writing samples), then how would you expect to make it through the rest of the interview and be able to do the job?

      2. Wren*

        I said in a comment upthread that we test drive people, but we pay them. I didn’t specify above, but yes we go into it knowing we’ll get negative value out of the day, except for what we learn about the candidate, and what they learn about us. It is exploitive not to pay even if the work product is unusable. The same thing would happen in training, and I don’t know about other jurisdictions, but where I live and work, you must pay people for onsite training. If the candidate is doing tasks of a job, even if they’re doing it like a n00b, they should be paid.

  8. Audiophile*

    I saw a job ad a while back and it forewarned candidates to be prepared to do the job. As in they expected candidates to spend a good chunk of time doing the job, as part of the interview phase. And it was clear they didn’t mean 10-30 minutes either, they mentioned half the day being spent showing them you could do it. I didn’t apply and I did see the ad posted for a while.

  9. Chris G*

    My question is was there a period of waiting for something else involved? Such as you had the morning meeting, prepared the writing sample, and had a 2:00 meeting with the interviewers to go over the sample? Or something like that.

    What I’m getting at is maybe the person the OP was to meet with had a 1:00 already scheduled and wasn’t available, or something else was holding up the “interview process” so they just gave out something to keep from sitting in a chair, waiting. Or were there other people in the room doing the same thing? People the OP would be working closely with? Because then, it could have been more about the team seeing if they thought she would fit in with the group.

    1. Lee*

      (OP here) That’s what I thought at first as well, that they were just killing time, but after I made up the packets I met with the main interviewer for a few minutes to sort of recap, then met with an HR person and then I was done.

  10. Not So NewReader*

    FWIW OP, I think you made the right choice. I reread your letter and there does not seem to be anything else that is off about the interview.
    Matter of fact, you seem happy about the prospect of working for these company.
    The combination of no other red flags plus the fact that you like the company, it just seems wise to overlook this one thing and keep the interview moving forward.
    If you get the job (I hope you do) then it will have been a wise use of your time. If you don’t get the job, it is a learning experience and you will have a crisper idea of how to handle a similar situation. (And some of us will, too, because you shared your experience. If this happened to me, I know that at my next interview I would be a lot less nervous because I would feel that I’d be sharper about how to handle some curve balls.)

  11. huh*

    First of all I don’t believe in unpaid internships and I cringe every time I hear them recommended. But really this workview isjust the logical outcome. Id pass on job at best. The workview just a doofus’s idea.

  12. Elizabeth West*

    Creatives have to be very careful about this. There are companies that do solicit free work from candidates. If they’re concerned about the competency of your work, its scope, and experience, well, that’s what portfolios are for. I’ve seen a lot of these postings on writing boards–“Please submit three original posts with your application–” ZING! Free content. It may not be rampant, but it’s definitely out there.

    I wrote for wiseGEEK for a year and one of the things that made me decide to take the job was that they actually paid me for the test content. And my instincts were correct; working for the site was a good experience.

  13. AB Recruiter*

    I helped manage a specialty sports store for a few years, and when we hired we would always have candidates do a small project with hand tools (putting bearings in wheels, putting the wheels on a skate, take them back off again). We always took it all the way apart afterwards because we really didn’t want people to feel like we were making them work for free (and it helped re-set for the next candidate).

    Then, we also had them do a writing sample on our computer, again, a document that could not possibly be used by us for anything.

    I always felt really uncomfortable with taking advantage of people’s time for a hiring process. Plus, we didn’t have the kind of time to spend half a day with top contenders before making a hire.

  14. holly*

    that sounds like an unprofessional company. i’ve never had something like that asked of me, and i would never ask someone i’m interviewing to do that. it’s so weird, and not at all testing a specialized skill. everyone knows how to put paper into folders.

  15. Elizabeth*

    There’s a tiny part of me that wonders if they previously had someone so incompetent that they really couldn’t put papers into folders, and they wanted to make sure they avoided that happening again. I’ve done some seriously unskilled, a-monkey-could-do-this type of work, and I was always amazed to find that some predecessor had still managed to mess it up spectacularly in some way.

    But most of me agrees that it probably wasn’t really an intentional decision on anyone’s part, just a “uh-oh, Bob’s not ready to interview her yet, what should we do with the candidate now?” moment.

    1. CassJ*

      When I was a teen, I worked in the front office of a doctor’s office. We had a gal come in to help us out a couple days a week as part of a work-study program. Her very first assignment was to collate two piles of papers and staple them together. Not even a minute after she was given the task (and I had turned around to help a patient or something), she says, “Okay, I’m done!” I looked at what she “finished”, and all she had done was stapled each pile of paper together. I figured she had misunderstood the instructions my boss gave her, so showed her how to collate and staple. Over the next year or so, we learned that wasn’t an isolated incident of first-day jitters.

    2. Chinook*

      “I’ve done some seriously unskilled, a-monkey-could-do-this type of work, and I was always amazed to find that some predecessor had still managed to mess it up spectacularly in some way.”

      When I was a receptionist, I once had an accountant come up to me and ask me to mail something for him (he was suppose to do this through his AA). He then looked at me and said “please put the address on the outside of the envelope.” I was speechless.

      When I told the Office Manager this, she said that a previous receptionist had been handed confidential folders and told to mail them but didn’t bother to put them in an envelope and address them. Wow!

  16. TychaBrahe*

    I was “hired” as the office manager for a major west coast city’s office of a national non-profit. My first day coincided with an office move. I spent two days unpacking boxes and organizing without ever seeing paperwork or the chapter president.

    After two days I told the accountant that I had to support myself, and if the president was still interested in hiring me, she could call me, and went and begged for my old job back. I never heard from her.

    1. Ruffingit*

      So they told you to come to the office on that first day and, I presume, that you’d be able to fill out the needed paperwork at that time, then they didn’t have you do that and you never heard from them again? Wow. Major jerks there. Were you able to get your old job back?

  17. Lily in NYC*

    OP, please let us know how long they had you stuffing folders – I’m not feeling as charitable as Alison and have a feeling they were using you as free help. There is someone in my division that I guarantee would do this to a candidate on our event days if we let her.

    1. Lee*

      It took about 15 minutes or so? And after about 10 minutes the person who’s currently in the position I was interviewing for came in to give me some more folders as I’d run out. I asked her if she’d had to do this when she interview for the position- she said no, but she’d interviewed under a different manager. Then I mentioned that it was a little unusual to be stuffing folders in an interview and she helped me with the last few. I’m not sure if I should have said that but I felt like I had to say something so I tried to be polite about it.

  18. HardKnocks*

    This sort of weird request often has to do with a weakness of the last person in the position. In OP’s case, it sounds like this is an entry level job, and in entry level jobs you have to do busy work. Everyone does! Maybe the last person in this role complained about these kind of tasks or thought they were above it. My guess is, knowing that this kind of work is part of the job, they wanted to see if OP felt like she was too important for menial tasks. It is certainly odd, but an employee with an entitled attitude may have been a hot button for them.

  19. Andy*

    So this has happened to me a lot.
    I’m in online marketing. The skill set is easy to sell but hard to determine whether or not its useful for the individual company. There are only a few general certifications, otherwise you stand on your portfolio, work history and references.
    So after the first few times giving out free labor I learned to come in with a freelance rate. The article is absolutely correct. Most companies are not malicious, just ignorant. I have a rate and discounts prepared for work they may have me do. Often I’ll do some quick work for free just so they can see how I work my magic. Its equally beneficial for me because I can see how they work with me. Usually they won’t ask for more than one small exercise, but I have had to cordially and positively bring up my boundaries.
    I simply say something like “Absolutely! I’d be happy to do that for you.

    So far I have done… (a quick 2 things I have already done for them). So you’ve seen… ( I list the reasons why they asked me to do the work in the first place- quick 2 things. I’m not trying to make them feel bad I’m just setting the logical stage for the next statement)
    So any further work would require some type of compensation. In the same breath, I say something like. I’m very flexible with however you’d like to work that out.

    I let them ask me what my rates are. Usually they are not at all taken back by this. They usually say something like. “Oh of course.” Then we start talking about rates.
    I have had an encounter or two that the interviewer was perturbed I pushed back at all. Either way I try to remember they are not expecting freelance work they are trying to determine wether or not I am a good fit for their company. So I always bring it back to what they are looking for. Whatever it is I do I try to retain a copy for my portfolio.
    Some times I get my full rate. Most of the time its very discounted just because they are not typically looking for actual work, rather to see skills in action. So I maintain that this is my “typical rate” but I am very flexible with it for this circumstance.

    This is a good issue especially for designers, web marketers etc. It happens all the time.

    Having a freelance rate in the back of my mind, and being willing to be as flexible as possible with has saved me a lot of headache. Especially when I come home to my wife and answer the big eyed question “how did the interview go?” “great… they want me to do some work. But I’m getting paid for it, so its ok.”

  20. stheo*

    I’ve experienced this twice. The first time was because of me being inexperienced, fresh out of school. The second time I was already aware of it – the recruiter did not even bother giving me an in-person interview, but on the phone, very briefly told me to finish a test by giving me two days –

    I thought, two days should be plenty – but not until I start reading the test requirements, I smelled the stench in this scam: they ask A LOT to be done within these two days, saying it’s a test of my ability to FINISH tasks in a very tight schedule (what a fking BS).

    So I immediately searched in detail online for the company’s projects and the recruiter’s experience, only to find out:
    1.) The test is actually part of their ongoing project, meaning I could be working for them for FREE (of course they can reject me right after I finish their ‘test’).
    2.) The recruiter is indeed a newbie in this field, not even having a common sense about what to ask for in an interview; (I searched on linkedIn and google).

    So in response I emailed the recruiter with a list of reasons why I refused taking that test (and the opportunity altogether). If the law can’t protect us, we have to help educate others about those exploits.

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