should you do free work as part of a job interview?

A reader writes:

I’m a content specialist who does a lot of writing and SEO work. I currently work full-time, but am looking for a new full-time opportunity.

I’m finding that as part of the hiring process, a lot of employers are asking me to complete an assignment for them. I’m not against the idea, but the assignments I’m being asked to do are getting more and more laborious. They often have multiple parts to them, sometimes requiring me to research, strategize, ideate, format and write entire pieces, then explain my reasoning. One assignment I was told should only take me less than two hours, which was absurd for the amount of work it required. I’m often given these assignments despite providing plenty of writing samples and a detailed portfolio. I’ve even been asked to do one as the first step in the hiring process, before having as little as a phone interview!

Are these reasonable requests? Considering it’s a tough job market and I do need the work, should I just roll with the punches and agree to do these assignments? Or should I say no, and if so, how? I already work full-time. Doing these assignments is getting tiresome and time-consuming – especially when no job offer results from it.

I’m going to use this question as an opportunity to talk about this topic generally, since it comes up a lot.

Employers are increasingly asking job candidates to do work projects and exercises as part of the hiring process. These exercises aren’t the typing tests and software assessments of the past; rather, more and more often, they’re mini-projects designed to see your work in action so that the employer gets a firsthand look at how you approach work challenges. For example, if you’re applying for a communications position, you might be asked to write a press release or create a mock publicity plan for an event. Or if you’re applying for a research analyst job, you might be asked to write a memo on the ramifications of a particular piece of legislation.

In many cases, this trend is a good thing. Seeing candidates in action helps employers make better hires. After all, some people interview beautifully, but don’t have matching skills once they’re on the job. And other people aren’t at their best in interviews, but would excel in the role. Seeing how candidates actually approach the work is one of the best ways for employers to get good data to use in making hiring decisions.

But in some cases, these requests go over the line, such as by asking candidates to invest an unreasonable amount of time or to perform free work that the employer will actually use.

Here’s how to know whether or not an interviewer’s request for a sample work project is reasonable:

  • How much time will it take you? Asking you to spend an hour or two on an exercise is reasonable, but asking you to spend a day on a project generally isn’t.
  • At what stage of the hiring process is the request being made? If the employer hasn’t even interviewed you yet, asking you to do a short 15-minute writing sample is probably reasonable, but asking you to invest two hours in a project isn’t. Once the employer has invested real time in talking with you and determined you’re a promising candidate, and you’ve had the chance to ask your own questions about the job to determine your interest level, they have more standing to ask for a bit more of your time.
  • How does the employer plan to use the work? Employers should use hiring exercises for assessment purposes only, not as a way to get free work from candidates. If you’re unsure how an employer may use the work you produce, it’s okay to ask. (You can say, “Can you tell me how you’ll use the work I produce? Is it for assessment purposes only?”) If an employer ends up liking something you produced enough to actually use it, you should be paid for that work.
  • Does the employer seem considerate of your time? Good employers will be thoughtful about the amount of time they ask you to invest in their hiring process. They’ll make a point of streamlining exercises, and they won’t assume that you can give instant turnaround on a work sample without advance notice. It’s a bad sign if an employer seems to assume that you can produce a work sample immediately, with no consideration of the fact that you may have other commitments in that time period.

If an employer asks you to do something that you think is unreasonable or excessive, you’re in an awkward position because pushing back may mean that they remove you from the running for the job. One option is to try offering a less time-intensive version of what they’ve requested, by saying something like, “Because of other commitments, I don’t have time to do the full scope of what you’re asking. I can’t really spend more than an hour or two on this, but I could do (name a smaller piece of the work) to give you a feel for my work. Would that work for you?” You could also try saying, “I can’t invest that much time pro bono, but I can send you examples of similar work that I’ve done in the past.”

But ultimately you may need to decide if you’re willing to walk away from the job if the employer holds firm.

{ 131 comments… read them below }

  1. katie*

    I’m having a similar problem with a company wanting an hour long presentation before interviewing me. I’ve had a phone interview with the head of the department but haven’t met anyone in the group or really know what my day to day activities would be. I don’t know if I want to put the effort into putting together and preparing an hour long presentation for a job that, once I get there, I might not want. What if I hate everyone? I’ll probably end up doing it but it makes me annoyed when I’m expected to put a lot of work into an interview before I even know if I want the job.

    1. LawCat*

      Super annoying. I was once in an identical situation and I withdrew my candidacy because of it.

    2. Jesmlet*

      Just say no. If they’re this inconsiderate of your time and lack the common sense to know this is illogical, you’ll probably not want to work with them anyways. Imagine all the ridiculous requests they’ll be making once you’re actually hired.

    3. Bye Academia*

      For other people reading, this kind of requirement is really field dependent. Coming out of academia, it is so normal to be asked this because it’s expected that everyone gives enough talks they always have slides ready. This is especially true of academic jobs (of all kinds). However, for-profit companies that are looking to hire people with advanced degrees also regularly include these talks as part of their interview process.

      I would assume people already in this kind of field would know if it applies, but I thought I’d point it out because it would look really weird to push back against this in such fields.

      Not that it doesn’t suck to put together if you DON’T have that kind of talk ready to go…

      1. Jesmlet*

        Is it normal for this to be asked before you even meet people though? Seems a little odd to commit yourself to listening to an hour long presentation from an applicant before you’ve even had an in-person interview.

        1. deets*

          I just watched a good friend finish her PhD and apply for professor positions. They all involved one or two phone screens, and then bringing her to campus to do her presentation/job talk and in-person interview. As Bye Academia noted, my friend used slide decks she’d previously prepared for conference presentations or for courses she adjuncted. But I think academia, and particularly tenure-track professor positions, is an entirely different world than what most of us will go through while interviewing.

        2. LadyKelvin*

          It is normal, and it is usually part of your interview. Even for non-academic interviews. I usually gave an hour talk and then spent the rest of the day/half day interviewing with various team members. Often when you are asked for a talk it means the interview is not just a short hour long interview.

        3. Bye Academia*

          Yep. My current position is academia-adjacent and I had to give a talk at my interview. It was lunch with the search committee, the talk, then an afternoon of meetings.

          They had already done a phone screen, though, and only brought 3-5 candidates out for the in-person interview.

        4. cataloger*

          I’m in an academic library, and we require something like this for librarian positions (and a few staff positions, like marketing), for candidates that come to campus for an interview (decided after a phone screen). Here, it’s more like a half-hour presentation, on a topic specified by the search committee, and the candidates have 2-3 weeks to prepare. The presentations are open to all faculty and staff to attend, so if it’s a topic you’re interested in, you can see two or three presentations on it in relatively quick succession.

      2. katie*

        It’s not quite academic, but it’s engineering so it’s not crazy for this to be expected. But we’re in a defense related industry so it’s very hard to find things to discuss from my past work experience. I think they assume I’d have something easy to throw together but I don’t so I need to decide what I want to do. If I was able to go and meet everyone and learn more about the job first, I”d feel more comfortable about putting the time in first.

        1. Bye Academia*

          Yeah, I totally understand why you’re reluctant. It’s a lot of work to put together that kind of talk! I was still in grad school when I did my interviews, so I was able to talk about my current research. I did already have slides, and it still took forever to polish it and focus on techniques most relevant to each position. I imagine it’s much harder in your case because your work is proprietary/confidential.

      3. Nye*

        I’d add that while it’s very normal for academic positions, a job talk is a little different from a regular seminar and it’s expected that you’ll put some extra work into customizing it. Plus there might be a chalk talk, which is a totally different hour-long talk (less formal) which you do have to make up from scratch unless you have one from a prior interview. But academia is its own world, and they’re not going to use your interview work for their own profit.

        They’re also usually looking to hire you for the rest of your career, and will often offer a lab startup package of $100-$500K+ plus renovate a lab for you, so a big investment of the candidates’ time doesn’t seem out of line. And, except for the application, this doesn’t happen until you’re on the shortlist and they’ve paid to bring you in for a multi-day interview, so it’s a big investment of time and money for a university, too. I guess my point is just to reiterate that academic interview requirements are much more extensive than for most jobs, but I think it’s understandable.

    4. Nerfmobile*

      I work in user experience design, and this is totally normal for my field and adjacent ones (research, graphic design, etc.) It’s part of a day long interview process after the phone screen, and is so you don’t have to walk through the basics of your portfolio with each and every person you are going to talk with. Usually you outline one or two major projects and how you approached them and then there is question time. If it is a typical part of the interview process for your field, you have to have this prepped because you will need to do this for every interview. You might tweak it a bit depending on the specifics of who you are interviewing with (are they more interested in chocolate teapots or rice sculptures?), but it is primarily about you and your work and not the company you are interviewing with.

  2. Elemeno P.*

    I get wanting to see a sample of work, or certain skills in action, but there’s definitely a line. When I was scheduled for my first in-person interview with a company for a trainer position, they told me that, should I proceed to a second interview, I would have to give a training presentation as a demonstration…but also stressed that I should feel free to use a presentation I’d given before (without any confidential information included, of course), and that it could be on whatever I wanted. Giving me such advance notice allowed me to edit a presentation ahead of time and also didn’t feel like I was being used for free labor.

    1. cleo*

      That’s similar with my experience in higher ed, where even adjunct faculty usually have to give a guest lecture as part of the interview process – but it’s a known part of the process and the topic is usually open.

    2. Parenthetically*

      Yeah, absolutely. Sample work is great. I wonder what potential employers are trying to get around by requiring new work? Like are they being told that applicants will (or do they have experience with people trying to) use plagiarized materials if they don’t have to create from scratch? Or…?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Sometimes there aren’t likely to be existing samples that will get at the thing they’re trying to assess, or where they won’t be able to tell how much input other people might have had into it.

        1. designbot*

          Also it just really helps to see how somebody thinks, even with the simplest test. I used to have to administer AutoCAD tests back in the day, I’d give the applicant a sketch of a kitchen and ask them to draw the floor plan. This is something that happens all the time in that office environment, a principal drops a sketch on a junior designer on their way to a meeting and isn’t available for a bunch of questions so you need to figure out as much of it as possible on your own. I remember one guy sat with the sketch for five minutes and then asked me what part of the room he should start in… that told me everything I needed to know.

  3. Anonymous Educator*

    I’m getting an error:

    Access Denied

    You don’t have permission to access “” on this server.
    Reference #18.a764a76b.1491843553.4496c7e

    1. Antilles*

      Opens just fine for me. Are you at work on a work computer or your smartphone on work-WiFi? Could be your local network blocking access.

  4. Some2*

    I’ve done analysis and suggestion work as part of a hiring practice before that was then used without my knowledge or consent. And I didn’t get the job. To say I was displeased would be an understatement

    1. JeanLouiseFinch*

      I can understand your being angry, but would you really want to work for someone who did that? Maybe in the long run, they did you a favor, like getting mildly ill from a vaccine prevents you from getting a terrible disease.

  5. Elizabeth West*

    Exjob asked me to do an editing test before I interviewed; they sent a page or two of sample text and I had a week to get it back to them. Because I had never really done that kind of work before, I did spend more time on it than I would have to now. Instead of just giving them what they asked for, I even did a simple format edit. Later, my boss told me I nailed the test–my sample blew away all the other applicants. :) It took me several days–with more experience under my belt now, I could probably knock it out in an hour. And when I did content work for a website, they paid me for my test post.

    Doing a bit of work on a fragment of dissociated material to test my skill was fine. If they’d asked me to do an entire 200-page report, I would have said no way. I would think twice about any employer who asked me to do this.

    This has been a problem in creative work for a long time, along with a slow devaluation of the work itself. It really chaps my britches to see that it’s becoming a thing in other jobs as well.

  6. Manders*

    I’ve been getting a lot of these requests before employers are even willing to consider a phone interview or disclose a salary range–and they’re fairly in-depth assignments, like researching one of their current clients and then writing a 500-word informative article in the style I would use if I were hired to work with them. Thank you, Alison, for giving me that list of questions to consider the next time this comes up.

    Does anyone have any advice on how to judge whether it’s worth it to complete these assignments if the hiring manager is being cagey about salary? I don’t necessarily mind putting in some extra legwork for a job in my desired range, but I keep running into an issue with hiring managers refusing to even discuss the range until I pass the test.

    1. Jesmlet*

      My advice would be to always say no. Cagey about salary + asking for free work = scam IMO

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This falls under the “Does the employer seem considerate of your time?” bullet point in my article, I think. A considerate employer will understand why you might want info about the salary range before investing time in an assignment. They still might be cagey about it, because that’s just how many employers deal with salary, but they should be willing to have at least some sort of conversation with you about it — even if it’s just to confirm “yes, the range you’re looking for is in the ballpark on our end.”

      1. Manders*

        Thank you! I tried asking the last two times I saw it–one did give me an answer about the range when I asked directly, the other said that salary would not be discussed at all until I had completed the assignment, a phone interview, and an in-person interview.

        I withdrew from the second process without taking the test. There were other red flags. I don’t think it was a scam, but the test was a “do work for our actual current client for free”-type assignment and that seemed like a big ask from a company that hadn’t even done a phone interview yet.

  7. Melissa C.*

    I once applied for a PR job with a music organization in my town, and was asked to create 5 writing samples unique to the organization about a variety of different scenarios—before I was even interviewed. I spent a few hours getting them done, sent them in, and then (surprise, surprise) never heard back from the organization again.

    The hard thing for me about completing these samples was that I didn’t have all of the insider information needed to write them well. So frustrating!

    1. Manders*

      Yes, that’s what bothers me about writing sample exercises! They often seem to require an understanding of the subject that you can’t get from a quick glance over the information you’re given.

      I had one data analysis exercise where I was asked to predict sales trends far in the future in a fashion-related field. Every answer I gave was hedged with, “To be confident in this prediction, I would need to know more about whether industry insiders are predicting any changes in trends in the shoe industry…”

      1. Breda*

        The best I’ve had was at an interview for a position at a publishing house, where they asked me to write sample cover copy for a classic novel as though it was being published for the first time today. This was great for a bunch of reasons: a) I could use something I’d already read, b) it was obviously for assessment purposes and not free labor, and c) it was actually a fun task!

      2. Not a Real Giraffe*

        I had this happen with an event planning role as well. I was asked to plan 3 fake events, but given no key data (budget, format, # of attendees, etc.). I prefaced my entire submission with all the assumptions I had to make and what questions I would have asked about the event in the normal course of business, but then was dinged by the hiring manager for not miraculously reading his mind or knowing what his events looked like. (These were all private events, so it’s not like I could look at past examples on their website, either!). I did not get the job, and I would have turned it down if it was offered to me.

      3. Melissa C.*

        Yes, exactly! From looking at the website, I had no idea which events they wanted to play up, which events from the past year they were really excited to highlight, etc. Most importantly, there wasn’t much on the website for me to look at to see how the organization communicated in the past (tone, style, etc.). It took me a LONG time to do, and then I never heard another peep.

    2. 2 Cents*

      Wow, I can’t believe they wanted you to write the samples instead of just generating 3-5 PR ideas, which seems more reasonable to me.

      1. Melissa C.*

        Just looked up the email. They asked for: a 500 word press statement around a concert cancellation (to demonstrate crisis management), a letter from the board co-chairs to subscribers to announce the new season, a 200 word blog post about a specific concert, a media pitch about a specific concert (can be TV, radio or print), and a short thank you letter to donors. Oh, and I could replace one of the requests with a sample of my own writing.

        I write a lot. But each organization has their own tone and style of communicating that often takes a while to learn and have down cold. This request just seemed excessive to me.

        1. MillersSpring*

          Completely unreasonable. I would only give an assignment if it was fake and brief and if I’d already met the candidate in person and provided a salary range.

          Also, I prefer to give brief writing tests in person (for a communications/marketing position) because then I’ll know that the candidate is not getting external help.

  8. Sans*

    We’re having this situation in our dept. My boss asked the two finalists for a position to provide a project plan. It wasn’t expected to be complete, because of course the applicants don’t have full information. But he wanted to see the outlines of what they would do, and how they would present it. One of the applicants did it, and did a great job. The other replied that they would have to charge an hourly (exorbitant) consultant’s rate. My boss, who has no intention of using the end result, except as a way to judge the candidate, was shocked.

    I notice that the suggested approaches to dealing with an assignment does not include saying you’ll do it for a very, very, (VERY) high hourly fee. What do people here think of that? Is that pretty much a sign that this person is just not the right candidate for this job?

    1. Caro in the UK*

      I don’t think the second candidate went about it very well, no matter whether your request was reasonable or not.

      But it would be worth considering whether the project was reasonable, using Alison’s guide for candidates as a starting point; think about how long candidates would realistically be spending working on it, whether it was clear to them that the work wouldn’t be used outside of the selection process (even if that was obvious to your boss), etc. That might help you to judge if this applicant’s response was way off base, or just a bad way of framing some valid criticism of the selection process.

    2. Formica Dinette*

      IMO it could be any number of things. They might not be the right candidate for the job. Or if the project plan was going to take more than a couple hours to complete, they might think it was too much work for a sample assignment and not know how to say that. Or anything in between.

    3. Kathleen Adams*

      There is, IMO, nothing wrong with asking finalists to present an outline or plan, assuming it doesn’t take them more than an hour or so. So for what you describe, the candidate was way out of line getting all huffy like that.

      Where it gets iffy is when a large pool of candidates is asked to perform the task (which isn’t the case here since it was just the two finalists), or where candidates are asked to do something really extensive (which, again, doesn’t sound like the case here either). So I’d say the candidate was probably way out of line, and you’ve all probably dodged a bullet in not hiring this person. It could be that he or she has just been burned in the past, but it’s at least as probable that he/she is thin-skinned, touchy, and hostile.

    4. KellyK*

      The candidate seemed out of line, for sure. In the future, it might be a good idea to proactively mention that this is just to assess their candidacy and won’t be used. That might reassure candidates that their work isn’t being stolen, which sounds like that candidate’s concern.

    5. Chickaletta*

      Well, I don’t know what you mean by “exorbitant”, but as a freelancer, my hourly rate for billable hours is about three times higher than what my hourly rate would be if I was employed. So make sure you’re not comparing that to what they would be paid once they’re hired.

      The fact that they felt the need to charge a fee is a signal that you should look at how much you’re asking of them. Alison’s guidelines are good. Your boss probably also needs to communicate that this is for evaluation purposes only, and they should also communicate how they think this work is necessary to evaluate the candidates. Because, in reality, creatives often get asked to do a lot of extra work in the job application process by people who don’t know why they want it (I speak from experience), so be sure to separate yourselves from that crowd if you do have a good reason for needing something beyond their resume, portfolio, and references.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        It could be — but it could also be a really unreasonable person. I routinely have candidates do a writing exercise that will take about 15 minutes, tops, and which is clearly just for assessment purposes, and I’ve occasionally (like twice in five years) had someone balk at it and get very indignant about charging for their labor.

        1. Kathleen Adams*

          Yes, exactly. The potential employer could be unreasonable, but it’s very possible that the potential employee is the unreasonable one. Having two *finalists* do an exercise doesn’t sound unreasonable on the face of it.

      2. Sans*

        I’ve done freelance, do I understand that a normal freelance rate is way more than the hourly rate of a salaried employee. Let me put it this way. I’ve been working for 30 years. I get paid well. This person was asking for more than six times what I get paid per hour.

        1. Sans*

          “So” not “do”!

          Frankly, even if the request was unreasonable, I have a bad feeling about how he reacted. If he had offered to present something he’d already done or some other alternative, that would be different.

    6. Astor*

      It might be a sign that the person isn’t the right candidate, but it might also be a sign that your boss isn’t presenting the request thoroughly. If he isn’t already, it’s useful for him to specifically communicate to those candidates that:
      * The committee is looking for an outline of what you would do, and how you would present it
      * The committee is aware that you do not have access to all relevant information
      * You can (or should not) use our website (etc) for additional reference
      * You should spend about an hour on it
      * You do not need to create a complete plan
      * Your end result will not be shared outside of the hiring committee

      I’m basically just suggesting to make everything explicit, so that there’s no miscommunication problems. You will still get the same signals back from candidates who aren’t a good fit, but it will help ensure that all candidates have the same expectations.

    7. Sharon*

      Did your boss make it clear that he just wanted an outline? It sounds by that one candidate’s reaction that this wasn’t made clear, and he thought he had to do a full project.

  9. K.*

    I had a company ask me to volunteer with them for a week in the role for which I was being considered. The CEO didn’t start looking to fill the departing person’s role until too late so there was going to be lag time where the job sat empty. they didn’t want a temp. I think her plan was to have each person in the pool take a week until the role was filled. I declined.

    1. Natalie*

      Ridiculous (and not legal if it was a for-profit). A temp for 8 weeks might actually get something done. I can’t imagine multiple “first weeks” accomplishing anything except slowing other people down.

      1. K.*

        It was a nonprofit. I declined, they declined to move forward with me (which I expected and was good with). It would have made more sense to try to allocate some of the work onto the existing volunteer pool, if they could. No idea if the person who ended up getting the job did the volunteer thing.

    2. Gazebo Slayer (formerly I'm a Little Teapot)*

      Wow, that is seriously brazen. I hope it doesn’t become a trend among “innovative” and “cost-conscious” companies. (And I hope the constant revolving door of newbies messed up everything that role was working on – or everyone just told them to go to hell and they ended up with no candidates at all.)

  10. Andrew*

    When I was previously in the instruction design and training field I had to do a few projects. One I recall they gave me three days to do before having a chance of an in person interview. Project took me hours each evening for the three days I had. Definitely felt like I had to rush to get it done since I was working. I don’t even think they read it. I was hoping to discuss what I made during the in person interview.

    Another gave a week but it wasn’t too bad. I was out of work though so I could pace myself. Didn’t get selected for an in person interview but it gave of additional samples to give out on a software I didn’t use much.

  11. Freetrial*

    I applied for a social media job with a company once. They asked me to submit five sample Facebook posts and five sample Tweets along with my resume and cover letter. That took about two hours all in (researching products, researching their styles, condensing links into bit.lys, etc). I then got a phone interview, and after that call, was asked to submit another writing sample. This one was tied into a new program they were launching, and they asked for 10 sample Tweets, 10 sample Facebook posts, Instagram posts, video ideas, suggestions for social platforms they weren’t yet using, SEM ads, etc. etc. This project took about 10 hours total. I submitted it and never heard anything again. I didn’t even get a response when I emailed back five days later just to confirm that they had received the PDF. It was infuriating.

    A few months later, they laid off about 50% of their staff, so small blessings, I guess.

    1. Is it Friday Yet?*

      10 Tweets and Facebook posts after you already submitted 5 of each is excessive IMHO. I work in social media. You already provided 5 of each, so if there was something they felt like they need more of, they should have asked for that specifically.

      1. 2 Cents*

        Yeah, and like 1 example of each, if they’d already had you doing the 5 each. I’d have been watching their social media feeds to see if they were using my suggestions.

    2. Emmie*

      That’s excessive. You had to create an entire marketing campaign, which normally takes weeks. Congrats on NOT getting that job!

  12. The Test-Taker*

    I’m an editor/writer in a big city and every job I’ve applied for has asked me to complete a test (which is fine!). The thing is, I’ve noticed that, increasingly, I’m being given less time to do them (it used to be a week — now it’s two days, tops) and employers have asked me to use track changes so they can monitor exactly how long I spent on the assignment. I’m managing okay because I freelance and it’s easier to move my schedule around, but I can’t imagine how people with full-time jobs are doing it. Plus, most of the companies I’ve completed these tests for never get back to me with a response even after three interview stages. It’s frustrating.

    1. Caro in the UK*

      This part… “employers have asked me to use track changes so they can monitor exactly how long I spent on the assignment” boggles me! That seems so invasive. Not to mention it could easily be fudged by working on it in one document then, once you were happy, just doing a new one with those edits.

      1. The Test-Taker*

        That’s EXACTLY what I do, haha. I tend to get very anxious when given formal assignments, so it’s easier for me to work on it separately and then show my best work when I’m ready to. To be fair, not every employer does this. I’d say about half do.

        1. 2 Cents*

          Yeah, I’d do the same thing because, duh, you’d get faster the more familiar you become with the client and the work. Plus, as long as I get it in by deadline, why do you care that I did 5 minutes around noon one day and another 5 minutes at 2:30 and then an hour at 6:30?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            That’s not what they care about — they care about whether it’s going to take you 90 minutes to edit something that needs faster turnaround on the job. This isn’t the way to test that though — the way to test that is by having you do an edit test on-site as part of your interview.

            1. 2 Cents*

              No, I totally agree. An on-site timed test is the only way to really tell. And I appreciate when editors give a time guideline for ones done at home, like “this should take about 90 minutes,” so my Type A doesn’t go crazy.

              But some of the editors I’ve come across overanalyze the time stamp feature on track changes instead of looking at what the actual change was, like The Test-Taker was saying.

            2. Lore*

              I’ve even done a timed off-site editing test. They sent it out at a previously agreed-upon time; I confirmed receipt and then had to return it 90 minutes (I think) after my confirmation. The timed aspect was much more difficult for me than I’d anticipated, and I found that really useful. (Sadly, I never got any feedback on the test, and did not get the job.)

            3. Sans*

              That’s what I had to do for my current job. They gave me one hour, some product info, and said to write the headline and five paragraphs of a brochure, and also a letter to accompany the brochure. That wasn’t much time to do all that, but it’s better than being asked to do something that takes 10 hours.

    2. Parenthetically*

      “employers have asked me to use track changes so they can monitor exactly how long I spent on the assignment”

      Wait, employerS? As in more than one hiring manager has asked you to clock in and clock out for a job you don’t even HAVE yet?! That seems… ludicrous to me.

      1. The Test-Taker*

        Yeah, half the employers I’ve applied to do this. :( It’s mostly the big name companies. Smaller ones / startups never do.

  13. Dizzy Steinway*

    In the media a lot of companies use these sorts of tests as a way to generate a bunch of new feature ideas which really sucks – and there’s no copyright on ideas so you can’t do anything to stop them using your ideas if you submit them.

    1. Sitting with Sad Salad*

      That’s probably true, but it is short sighted for an employer to do so. Someone with good ideas is going to continue to have new good ideas. They blew it by just stealing the work they did for the insterview instead of hiring the person.

  14. AnotherAnon*

    One possibility is that these companies might not realize how much time it takes to do task X (or specifically, how much time it would take for a person who doesn’t work at company X/field X). What might take an expert who works at company X 1 hour to do might take a novice without the specific industry knowledge/know-how 10 hours.

  15. HisGirlFriday*

    In every reporting job I ever interviewed for, I was given a set of facts and told to write a news story using them. IT was certainly timed in the sense that I was doing while the editors were there with me, and I was doing it in the newsroom, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of every day life in a newsroom.

    I never had a problem with it, because it was always clear that they (a) wanted to see whether I could actually write, since for news jobs, your clips are always edited samples that you’re submitting and (b) how I handled pressure and noise, both of which are features of newsrooms.

    It worked well — we had one candidate once who demanded that everyone be quiet so she could concentrate, and repeatedly asked us to turn down the police scanner, to take phone calls outside, and to generally ‘keep the noise down.’

    She did not get the job.

    1. Dizzy Steinway*

      Thanks to this post I’ve finally realised why I never really got the big deal about open offices. I started my career in newsrooms. Now it makes sense!

  16. 2 Cents*

    I once showed up at a company for, what I thought, was a formal interview followed by an editing test. Turns out, it was just the editing test, which took me 3 hours to do. Instead of paring down a normal day’s assignment to a couple of examples to see if I could do the work, they gave me a packet with 3 parts and like 30-40 pages. I never met the hiring manager or anyone from the company, except for the random coworker who administered the test and told me where to find the bathroom. I was so ticked off by the waste of time and waste of my best interview outfit that I decided on my way home that I’d never work for them. Part of me wonders why I didn’t just say, “Nope, not doing this entire thing. I’ve done the 1st two pages of each section. If you can’t tell I know how to spell and edit from that, you have larger problems.”

  17. MegaMoose, Esq*

    I’ve had to do writing exercises a couple of times, but they were both timed on-site as part of the first in-person interview. Anytime you’ve got an open-ended exercise I could see it easily getting out of hand without tight time restrictions.

  18. TeacherNerd*

    What are your collective thoughts on being asked to complete an unpaid multi-week training (held online)? This was something that happened to me recently: I had a phone interview for an online adjuncting position (for those who might not know, this means part-time contractual teaching, no benefits, additional teaching contracts not a guarantee; the contract is “good” for that semester only). The interview went fine; I was approved by two assistant deans, then was told I’d be required to to complete an unpaid multi-week training (held online) before I would be offered a position (which was not guaranteed to be offered, by the way).

    (BTW, I declined. I already have one full-time job and a part-time job that, between the two, would be considered two full-time jobs. I don’t have any issues with training – even though in this case, I was already familiar with the course management system being used, but whatever; ongoing teacher training sometimes overlaps with “new” teacher training – but this seemed excessive to me. Perhaps I’m misreading the situation, though.)

    What are your thoughts?

    1. TeacherNerd*

      As a point of clarification, “excessive” does not mean “we want you to do this training” – teach long enough and you’ll have people who insist you take part in the training that you have many years of experience in (or, better yet, a combo of decades of experience and multiple graduate degrees); what strikes me as a bit much is training that would take a week (about 20 hours, if I recall correctly) that I wouldn’t be paid for.

      1. TeacherNerd*

        So, the two big CMS (course management systems) I know of used in higher education are called Canvas and Blackboard, which is what PotentialNewSchool uses. I’ve used Blackboard (BB) in the past (10 years previously, and not extensively), but am much more comfy with Canvas, which is what I currently use in both the high school and college at which I teach. Since I haven’t used BB in years, I figured, well, okay, it’s been awhile and these systems tend to have “hidden” features, so in that sense, I’d welcome the training.

        So this training take about 20 hours or so over the course of a week, be completely online, required, and unpaid, with no guarantee of a position being offered afterwards.

        Other caveats: Multiple other jobs being held, and the position paying lower than the community college at which I teach. (Adjuncting pays for fwomp, and community colleges pay for SUPERfwomp.)

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Well, that’s not true. I suppose they might want to weed out people who can’t successfully complete it — but that’s going to be so unusual that it doesn’t justify the requirement or the time investment they’re asking for.

          2. TeacherNerd*

            Thanks; I can’t, either. I interpreted this move as a “Let’s see how badly you want this job” mentality, and perhaps to see how actively involved you’d be? Anyway, I feel better now. :) Thx!

            1. Gadfly*

              “How badly do you want this job?” to me always translates in the back of my mind as “How much are we going to be able to take advantage of your desperation?”

          1. gladfe*

            Right? I did an afternoon of Blackboard training (for which I, a grad student, was paid!), and it was pretty comprehensive. That was a few years ago, but the features haven’t changed that much in the meantime. Are they starting this training with how to use a keyboard or something?

        1. BananaPants*

          Managing a course in either Canvas or Blackboard isn’t exactly rocket science. Like, if you have the academic credentials to adjunct, it shouldn’t be too hard for you to go through a 1 hour tutorial on whichever one is used. I think 20 hours would be extraordinarily mind-numbing.

    2. Catnip Melba Toast*

      Two things come to mind. 1) That is a ridiculous request. 2) It can be extremely difficult to get the adjunct faculty to complete trainings that are tied in to accreditation.

      1. TeacherNerd*

        Indeed, esp. #2…which is why “required” trainings are often either held online and/or you’re paid for them. (That said, given the nature of adjuncting, you’re never going to find a time where everyone can meet for this training.) I really did appreciate the online component and am not generally anti-training, but I was a bit put out by requiring this training before being offered a job and the lack of pay. (The community college requires online training for things like privacy, sexual harassment, etc., to be held every 2-3 years, but these trainings are fairly easy to do and take minimal time.)

    3. hbc*

      The only way I would consider it is if it was an advantage to me to complete it even if I didn’t get the job. As in, if you had been out of teaching for a while and this was going to bring you up to date on new methods, consider it a free training, I guess. But I bet there would have been a ton of “How to navigate our particular school” and harassment training and whatnot.

    4. paul*

      Screw that six ways to Sunday. They’re asking a lot for a position that doesn’t *offer* a lot. And multi weeks of unpaid training in general can just cram it.

  19. Pup Seal*

    I’m trying to find a new content specialist job in a different city. So far in this city I’m finding many of the content jobs are from non-profits that have these jobs as volunteer positions. Sigh.

  20. Reade/Writer*

    If you had sent requested writing samples last Thursday, with no confirmation that COO had received the email, would you follow up this week or just wait?

  21. Sitting with Sad Salad*

    I went through a similar experience this past fall. After making it through several phone interviews, I was told I was in the top 3 and was given a week or so to prepare for my first in person interview. For the in person interview, I was given a copy of a grant and a budget. I had to design a program with at least 5 events that supported the goals of the grant, and prepare an hour long presentation, including budgets, timeline, materials, staffing needs, etc.

    I was initially hesitant but decided to throw myself into the process. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Once I decided to go for it, I actually didn’t mind the experience, but it was definitely a lot of work. Like the op, I currently work full time so it was hard to budget my time for this project. I ended up the second place candidate and was told that they would have made an offer had the 1st choice declined. I was bummed at the time but now realize it wasn’t meant to be.

  22. JKP*

    Do you think good candidates would be scared off if they were asked to do an actual work assignment, not for free but at a lower rate of pay than what they would be hired at?

    The last year we’ve been struggling to hire people who can do the job. It’s hard to tell from their work samples how much other people revised it before the final result. There’s no easy, short test for their skills other than proving they can do the work. We end up with too many people whose first assignment needed so much revision/rewriting, it wasn’t worth what we paid them and we just let them go. We’ve been considering offering candidates an initial assignment at the rate of pay that the lower quality of work would be worth, and if they turn in something that needed only minor revisions we would hire them at the normal rate (and, frankly we could pay them the normal rate for that first assignment too), but if their work was subpar, we wouldn’t have paid for both their work and the cost to revise/rewrite on top of that.

    1. Formica Dinette*

      Wait, so you’re offering them a lower rate, but also maybe not going to pay them if it isn’t good enough? As a candidate, that sounds shady as all get out.

      Give them an assignment at the going rate. If it isn’t good enough, you’re only out the cost of that assignment.

      1. Formica Dinette*

        Never mind the “maybe not pay them” part. I misread that. It still sounds shady, though.

      1. JKP*

        They’re complicated technical/legal documents requiring specific training/experience that is hard to find. Usually 1 assignment pays around $3,000-$5,000 and takes around 20-30 hours to complete. Can all be done from home on their schedule. Deadline is usually 4-6 weeks. Many of the people hired have decades in the field and talk a good game, but then turn in work that needs so much revision, it takes the senior people as long to fix it as if they had done it themselves to start with. We think we need to start pricing the 1st assignment lower, with the expectation that if the 1st assignment is well done, we’ll continue to give them work at the higher rate, but are worried that qualified people will pass rather than get paid less than they’re worth for 1 assignment.

          1. JKP*

            Unfortunately, no. The smaller pieces have already been delegated and their job is putting all those pieces together into the final document.

    2. Astor*

      I think that you’d risk losing some strongly qualified candidates. You might do better to pay everyone the normal rate for the first assignment, but make it clear that any future work/contract/position will depend on the quality of that first assignment. Then, figure out how you can build your hiring process to accommodate that. This might mean giving more candidates a first assignment, having rolling advertisement, or otherwise just making it clear how your process works.

      For what it’s worth, I think you have good intentions, just that you’ll do much better to pay the normal rate from the start. Especially because it sounds like you don’t have any positions for people who submit lower quality work.

    3. Jessica*

      Sounds to me like you need better training for the people you hire, before you give them this kind of work assignment. It’s rarely possible for a candidate to be able to walk onto a job and be able to do the same level of work as a seasoned employee.

  23. ThatGirl*

    I’m looking for freelance stuff along with a new FT job, and went through a 3 hour ridiculous editing test for a company only to have them tell me I wasn’t good enough. In retrospect it was a ludicrous hoop to jump through for what was probably a pretty low paying job.

  24. A.*

    Back when I was job hunting, I interviewed for an associate position at a law firm. First, the interviewer sent me a assignment to complete and bring to the interview. The assignment was a personal injury complaint based on a summary of facts. Once I got to the interview, I realized the assignment was actually for an open case and the interviewer was planning on filing my complaint with the court. Then during the interview, he requested I draft a motion for a criminal case. Also turns out it was an open case. The “working interview” as he called it seemed to be a way for him to get free labor from attorneys job hunting. And if that wasn’t bad enough, prior to scheduling the interview he asked me to provide a minimum salary but when he called to offer me the job, the salary was $5,000.00 dollars less than my stated minimum. I told him I was not interested. Looking back, I wish I would have reported him.

    1. Knitty*

      As a client I would be somewhere between furious and apocalyptic that my attorney I’m paying a pretty penny to was doing this. That is mind-bogglingly unethical.

  25. anonymouscontent*

    I hire for positions like these, and we do an exercise, but it’s only 30 minutes, and it’s onsite. We’ve found that we have to do it because there are unfortunately lots of examples of people claiming work they haven’t done, or being great writers but not being able to write to a deadline, etc etc.

    BUT having a take home assignment or even an assignment that takes over an hour seems really unreasonable to me

    1. A.*

      I wouldn’t have minded the onsite assignment but the interviewer actually prepared my work to mail out when I was finished with it. I checked out his firm on yelp after my interview and most of the poor reviews came from interviewees who felt used.

  26. Heart Vandelay*

    This has happened to me twice since I’ve tried to break into user experience design and user research. The first company asked me to provide wireframes and annotations for a redesign of their educational platform. I was given the assignment on a Friday and asked to have it completed by COB Monday. I spent the entire weekend working on it because the project included a short research write up, wireframe sketches by hand and wireframes in balsamiq/illustrator/uxpin. After two phone screens and a three hour in person interview, I never heard from the company again.

    The second company asked for how I would redesign of their website. I did a three page write up (single spaced), research, user testing, sketches and wireframes. Knowing I had to present my recommendations, I also put together a slidedeck and presented it on site. As of today, no job offer and it doesn’t look like one is forth coming. Am I wrong to feel like this is getting old? That is a lot of work to do for free, in addition to taking time off to interview. Has anyone else dealt with this?

    1. Marcy Marketer*

      Yes– I once mocked up a site for a third interview and was asked to present as part of a fourth interview with two other finalists a month in the future. I found a job in the interm, total waste of work. I require a deposit up front for mock ups in my freelance business, I’d never do one without a contract for services. If they want to see your style they can look at your online portfolio. Unless you’re in dire straights needing work, I’d say, “I appreciate getting to the next round and your interest in my work! I don’t currently provide custom wire frames without a contract for services; however, if you’re interested in my design style please take a look at this similar website which is also my work: I think you’ll get a feel for what I can accomplish and how it might translate.”

  27. Bowie*

    I recently applied for a job that asked for me to respond within 2 hours with three subject matter ideas. They would then respond to my email with the subject they liked and I had to write an article about it. It would be due at the end of that business day. No questions or concerns as to whether I worked that day or the next, or had other plans. Needless to say, I declined. A writing sample is one thing, as is understanding if I can work on tight deadlines. But that was excessive.

  28. Marcy Marketer*

    I also work in SEO and I will say that free work is commonly asked of me in the hiring process. However, the job market is not THAT tough where you should do it without even being interviewed yet. When I had less experience I would have, but not after five years or so. I’d take it as a sign the company is difficult or unreasonable and bow out. I like to offer strategy for the specific segments verbally in interview, but I’d shy away from writing it down as part of an assignment.

    1. Manders*

      Ugh, yes, I’m in SEO too. I’m still early in my career, so I think I’ll be taking these tests for a while.

      When in the interview process would you expect to see a test–right after sending in your application, after a phone interview, or after an in-person interview? I’m being asked to take tests before anyone speaks to me at all, and sometimes it’s unclear if anyone’s even checked my resume before sending me the assignment.

      1. Marcy Marketer*

        Honestly, I’ve seen it all three ways. I’ve jon searched three times so far. I’ve noticed that a number of places that bill themselves as “cool” (startups, agencies) require more investment upfront before an interview with free work. I use that as a sign that we wouldn’t get along and don’t apply to those places. (One place asked applicants to write and submit three blog posts for their crowd sourced travel site!)

        Then the larger places or places that have trouble making a decision will ask for free work usually in between the second and third interview. I think in these instances they haven’t planned the free work but got more interest than expected and are having difficulty making decisions on who to move forward, and think seeing work would help. In those instances I think they may not realize what they’re asking is not okay, and pushing back may have a chance of working.

        I’ve also seen tests happen during the first or second interview, but those aren’t free work so much as half hour technical tests (use indesign, crunch these numbers, etc)

  29. KAG*

    For a client-facing engineering position, I was given a case study, which I had a week to prepare a one-hour presentation to present via Skype (read: remotely). I spent at least 15 hours on it, and I thought​ it was a very good idea, as they had the chance to compare my “work” to other candidates’ approaches. Although I ultimately decided not to accept the offer, I think it was revealing for both me and the company, and I still think of it as one of the best interview experiences I’ve had.

    Emphasis on the case study. I’d likely have felt differently had my work been used by the company for their profit.

  30. SL #2*

    I think the easiest “work sample” request I’ve ever gotten was when I came in for a second interview, which went great, and then they sat me down at an empty work station and asked me to send a sample email related to a specific scenario. Something about coordinating an event for a number of high-level stakeholders. I knocked it out in five minutes and that was that.

    Granted, this was for a junior associate position, so a single sample email would suffice, but 1 very quick task, done at the in-person stage, might work in some offices and for some positions.

  31. Erin*

    I’ve done my share of design tests (graphic and visual designer here, with some photo retouching as well). Only one has ever given me pause and that’s because a month after I initially applied I received a design test with no prior communication otherwise. It struck me as odd because it was on a Friday in the late afternoon and they requested it back within two days… on a three-day weekend.

    By the time I saw it I really didn’t care any more. If there was that little communication I realized I’d probably hate how things would work there down the line. Never once did I get any work without specific communication from someone.

  32. Gator Teeth*

    I’m a content creator and I never produce a full work for free. If they want samples, I have some to attach, and I’m not opposed to (tiny) fresh-made samples. Ex: I sent a proposal to write a book about [the country of Chocolate Teapotania] and they asked me to write a brief blurb about anything having to do with Teapotania’s culture, history, etc., so I did that.

  33. that guy*

    I had this interview where the guy introduced himself and said “here’s a test”. Then he just walked away. Then I completely froze, and forget literally everything that two years of training taught me. I just got up and sneaked out. Not my proudest moment..

  34. yabba dabba*

    This is typical in my field (user experience). I was just discussing with a recent graduate the other day. The amount of work he is having to put into finding a job a tremendous. It’s not just about the interviews (often 3-4 with multiple people), or the portfolio, or the linkedin profile, or the resume. Now every position wants you to do a project. They are all different. It would be one thing if it was the same job talk for every team you want to interview with, but instead it is hours and hours of a project that you will never use. All of this while trying to teach and write a dissertation. Limiting where you apply is hard when you are just starting out so it’s hard to just say no to companies when they ask you to do these things. I’ve even seen companies that ask you to do real work for them for free. All of the “design challenges” done or test plans that I have written as a job applicant have been for things that are only tangentially related to the place I’m applying.

  35. Justin D*

    I was interviewing for a job and after phone interviews (100% remote job) and work samples, I was asked to create a self paced, 5 minute (or longer) e-learning tutorial in a customer-facing website. I was given just under a week to do it and told to use my best judgement as to what features I would demonstrate and what tools I would use. I knew it would take a few hours of work per day, so probably 20+ hours, and I was pretty irritated right away that I had to spend anywhere near that amount of time for a job that I don’t even have yet, but I figured as long as I did a good job, I would get an offer.

    I made a solid 8 minute tutorial/simulation with buttons and click areas and instructional text. Tested it a few times, had my wife test it…I thought it was pretty good.

    I sent it to the hiring manager a day early, and the next day he called me to say…”Is that it?” Apparently it wasn’t interactive enough and should have had narration. Of course he didn’t explain any of that when he assigned it to me. And this was after I showed him work samples from previous jobs that did have those elements. I have a few years of experience as an e-learning developer and a solid portfolio of samples. I asked if he wanted me to add more interactions or a quiz or something like that, and he says “I’m at the airport. Let me check with my team to see if that even makes sense.” Overall kind of a rude response to someone who just did a bunch of free work for you.

    He sent me a rejection email shortly after, explaining that he expected more and that the role required concept, design, development, all within a quick turnaround time. This was not explained in the interview, and the job was just supposed to mainly be development and implementation. The funny thing is, I think I was the only candidate to make it that far, as he didn’t mention offering the job to another candidate, just that he couldn’t offer it to me. I would think after making it that far with someone, you might give them a chance to give you a little more of what you were expecting so that it wasn’t a waste of everyone’s time.

    I was pretty ticked off about having my time wasted but I had a funny feeling about the hiring manager prior to this and I probably wouldn’t have been happy there.

  36. JC Wale*

    I agree with the people saying that this is definitely crossing the line. I recently interviewed at a place that tried this and they were already showing many red flags (for instance, they had asked me to come in on a Saturday to do the free work for them to begin with). It was apparent during the interview that literally no one that interviewed me had even taken the time to read my cover letter, let alone my portfolio which should be more than enough for whatever they need to know.

    This company basically wanted me and a bunch of other candidates to compete (literally right next to each other) to do the highest quality work in the shortest amount of time, which I believe is too exploitative to support. I didn’t waste my time or gas going back to take their “tests,” and of course they got a little angry/passive-aggressive about it.

    I had an internship at a law firm when I was younger and was pressured into writing a bunch of free content for their site when I was supposed to be training as a paralegal. When the internship was over they basically laughed at me for being a sucker, didn’t even tell me good luck finding a job or anything. I guess I just may be getting too old now to be chasing illusory carrots the way I used to.

    So many commenters on here seem so eager to subject themselves to ever-increasing levels of unfairness for some tenuous idea of a reward they feel entitled to. Businesses count on individuals’ selfishness and ambition to deprive their whole group of their rights, so you can’t complain if you’re in a degenerate system that you helped support.

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