what should you do if you’re asked to work for free in a job interview?

If you’ve interviewed for a job lately, you might have been asked to do an assignment to demonstrate your skills and show how you’d approach the job — anything from writing a press release for a communications job to coding a webpage for a web development job.

In theory, this is a good thing. Some people interview deceptively well but turn out to have lackluster skills once they’re hired. And other people don’t do well in interviews but would be great at the job. Seeing how candidates actually approach the work is hugely helpful in making better hires.

But employers often really mess up the execution: giving candidates assignments that take hours, expecting near-instant turnaround time, and otherwise putting overly burdensome expectations on them.

I wrote about this at Slate today, and also talked about what you can do if you encounter excessive demands in an interview process, as well as how employers can get the information they need without unreasonably burdening candidates. You can read it here.

{ 144 comments… read them below }

  1. Alfonzo Mango

    OMG- that scenario with the university interviewer- that’s plagiarism! Couldn’t the LW sue the university or interviewer for stealing their work? Wouldn’t they have a case if all the evidence was in the back-and-fourth exchange?

    1. Lynne879

      I actually find that ironic since universities claim up and down that they’ll expel students if they’re caught plagiarizing.

    2. Harvey 6-3.5

      Also, copyright infringement (since you have an automatic copyright in anything you write, and there is no employer-employee relationship here so it is not a “work for hire”). While probably not worth a lawsuit, a fresh out of law school attorney, looking for a case, might consider it for experience and a share of the minimal statutory damages.

    3. Commenter

      It wasn’t just a university, it sounds like it was a *law school*!

      (“asked me to do a writing sample for him. He wanted it to be suitable for posting on the law school’s website.”

  2. I Should Be Working

    I’d be really interested to hear if there are any hiring managers out there who have read posts like these on AMA and thought “Oh my God, I’m doing that. Should I not be doing that??” and actually changed their interview and hiring practices.

    1. Me

      Me too.
      Although I suspect that it would be a very small #. I venture people who actually think this stuff is acceptable aren’t a) looking for advice on how to do a better job nor b) receptive to being told what their doing is bad.

      1. KHB

        The thing is, either their current practices are getting them the results they want (so they’re unlikely to consider changing them), or they aren’t (in which case they’ve probably already at least considered that they should be doing something differently).

        It’s not quite the same thing, but a big part of my job involves emailing people (mostly academics) and asking them for advice on their areas of expertise. Over my career I’ve probably written to several thousand people. Most of them write back with helpful answers to my questions. Some write back to say “Sorry, I don’t have time,” and some don’t answer at all, and that’s fine. A couple of weeks ago, for the very first time, I had someone ask to be paid before he’d answer my questions. I said sorry, this isn’t something we pay for, and he said, “You wouldn’t do work for me for free, would you?”

        That guy probably thought he was taking a principled stand of the type Alison is advising here. But even if I thought he had a point, we’re not going to start paying for advice any time soon, because what we’re doing right now works just fine. Employers who assign overly burdensome interview tasks are probably thinking the same thing

        1. Me

          Your example is pretty different. That said I do think the line between advice and consulting is pretty thin. I don’t blame the guy who said he doesn’t provide the info for free. I mean becoming an expert takes a lot of time effort and money – I’m not sure I wouldn’t say the same. Especially if a company is using that advice to make money. If your company gets what it need’s I guess that’s fine, but I’m not sure I’d call it ethical. I’d wonder if the intended use of the advice is being clearly communicated.

          Back to hiring land though, I think there is a lot of dysfunctional companies with high turn over and they just don’t get it. Or they attract mediocre employees. Think about how many people write in wondering about horrible horrible behavior that is in no way normal, but need validation it’s toxic before they actively try to leave.

          1. Lizard

            Yeah, but if the “advice” KHB is asking for is more along the lines of “what’s your advice for getting into Field X?” for students or laypeople, it doesn’t rise to the level of consulting. Even something like commenting as an expert for a news segment or article is still expected to be unpaid work if it’s occasional and not time-intensive. A lot of academics are more than happy to provide that sort of thing. They don’t have to, obviously, and it sounds like she takes “I don’t have time” at face value.

            I think it depends on the circumstances, the amount of work for the academic, and the use to which the info is being put, and I certainly don’t see any reason here to think KHB isn’t being up front. I mean, if someone is like “hey, can you comment on the CDC’s new vaccine recommendation for our article on the flu” that’s different from “Hey, can you write a 1000-word article for our website on flu and prevention?”

            1. JSPA

              If KBH / their company is effectively monetizing that free advice, it actually is pretty similar (and similarly suspect in some grand moral sense, though probably not illegal, so long as they attribute the quotes or paraphrase).

    2. Lucille2

      I’d like to hope so, but I think the reality is the readers of this site are more likely people who recognize they are in need of improving and are more likely to recognize they’re doing the wrong thing and adjust. I’ve worked with a couple of hiring managers who had the philosophy that they wanted candidates and employees who really wanted the job which can easily degrade into will-do-whatever-it-takes to be here. Not everyone is open to recognize they might be doing their company or employees a disservice.

    3. ChachkisGalore

      I used to work for a startup that had a pretty onerous “test” for certain (highly-desirable) freelance positions. I was heavily involved in the hiring process – as in coordinating, choosing the test site, etc., but I didn’t come up with the idea of doing the “test” and I highly doubt I would have been listened to if I did try to bring it up. I do have to admit that I honestly didn’t realize just how not cool the whole thing was until I started reading AAM – at the time I just thought “well its a really cool position, so yeah you have to put in some effort to get it”.

      In our defense, the work absolutely was never used, we narrowed it down to a fairly elective group and the candidate could use the work as part of their general portfolio, but still – it was too much to ask of candidates, and I feel badly that I was a part of it all. It was in the height of the recession, so I’m sure a lot of candidates felt coerced into cooperating.

      1. MissDisplaced

        Interesting. Was it a very competitive paid internship or something? I can maybe see that.
        I’ve heard that fashion is that way too.

    4. LQ

      I was working on hiring for a position and wanted to come up with a test that could be done in 30-45 minutes and came here for some input on a Friday open thread. (I stand by that doing a test is a really reasonable thing if I’m looking for 30-45 minutes worth of time, though I got some push back from people saying that it was not.) Not exactly stopping doing the thing, but I did change a bunch of stuff about how I was setting it up and how I was talking about it.

      1. Wintermute

        30-45 minutes is very reasonable at a later point in the interviewing process, absolutely. that’s not a huge commitment and, frankly, I am POSITIVELY disposed to employers that have some minimum things like this. I had to write three short essays on some very basic tech stuff, we’re talking CS101 “what is a hard drive” type things.

        But after working with a lot of technical-minded but functionally illiterate people in my prior role I took it as a great sign they were ensuring basic English communication skills and the ability to format a core dump of knowledge on a topic into a meaningful and logically-ordered statement.

        That said if I haven’t even gotten to the point I’ve been able to gauge my interest in the role and we haven’t at least had a phone screening, yeah, not putting in the time, that 30-45 minutes could write three cover letters for three other jobs and apply to them. Same goes for long applications or requiring me to fill out long forms with info already in my resume, or asking for references before an interview, hard pass.

      2. Artemesia

        If you have a couple of finalists then asking more is fine I think; the real abuse is when it is asked of large numbers of people before finalists are chosen. When I hired professors, they all had to make a public research presentation as well as teach a class. We found an undergrad class that they would be teaching if hired and was in their domain of expertise and assuming they had a lot of experience they should be able to adapt things they had already done. It was still a lot of work, but we would not consider hiring someone to do this job who could not demonstrate they could do it. But there were 2 or three people doing this; it was not something demanded of everyone who applied. And it is also within the norms of the field.

    5. Washi

      I did! I inherited the hiring process for a particular position around the time I started reading AAM. I think otherwise I wouldn’t have thought too much about a hiring exercise that took 2-3 hours for an entry-level, $12/hour job.

      1. Me

        Good for you!
        I’d be curious as to a comparison of before/after candidates. No change in quality, better quality because the good ones weren’t thinking your company was nuts and bowing out, worse change in quality because of the lack of screening?

    6. NDC

      Don’t forget the other audience: job-seekers who learn here just how absurd these hiring practices are, and push back or withdraw. Might also lead to some changes in hiring practices.

  3. JR

    How does this advice change if you are interviewing for a leadership role? For instance, for a CEO-type role, I’ve been asked to present on how I would approach several challenges the organization faces. On the one hand, that could easily take more than a few hours (though not drastically more). On the other hand, that seems like something the decision-makers would definitely want to consider in the hiring process for an organizational leader.

    1. Lily Rowan

      I mean, I figure the higher level the role, the more work both sides are putting in, right?

    2. fposte

      That kind of presentation is pretty common. Any time you’re applying to lead something, they’re going to reasonably want to know where you might take the thing, and we’re talking positions where you’re going to have to do a lot of public representation. Such a request should be limited to finalists, of course, but otherwise seems pretty on par.

  4. Rachael

    A bakery near me opened up and advertised a big, group interview the week before the grand opening. About 40/50 people turned up. They announced they didn’t believe in ‘old-fashioned’ interviewing and that ‘seeing you in practice’ is the only way forward. All 50-odd people who showed were placed on a rota for the next 4 weeks, during their very busy opening period, COMPLETELY staffing the place and then some. Nobody was paid despite some practice shifts being 6 hours long. At the end of 4 weeks, they hired a few family friends, as they’d obviously always planned. I wish I’d reported them somewhere but I was sixteen and a bit naïve.

    1. wittyrepartee

      Bakeries have weird and interesting hiring habits in the first place. When you hire a baker, the baker is supposed to come in for a day, potentially unpaid, and work with the head baker so that they can test their chops. It makes sense in that as a baker, it really really doesn’t matter what your education is as long as you can do the thing?

      HOWEVER, that’s not front of house, and you don’t completely staff your bakery with slave labor. It just make it a little harder to suss out as a scam early on.

      1. MissDisplaced

        Yeah, chefs and bakers are expected to cook or plan a menu and cook. But I’d think that should only happen to a shortlist of 3-4 candidates after first round interviews.
        My friend is a chef and he once had to buy like $50 worth of food for an interview. That sucks they’re often expected to buy the supplies when you’re out of a job.

  5. Dodged a bullet

    I was once asked to write up a full marketing campaign for products for a company I interviewed for. I complained about it online (foolish, I know now, this was years ago) without naming the company, stating that it would take ~15 hours to do a project like that and what would stop them from just taking my campaign and not hiring me (which they almost certainly would have done)
    The company googled my name extensively and found that post and rescinded my 2nd interview.
    I dodged a bullet but learned a lesson not to whine about these things on the internet (and never work for a company that thought asking a candidate to write an entire marketing campaign just to get to the second round of interviews was reasonable).

    1. MissDisplaced

      Holy crap! So they’re actually having someone CHECK UP on the applicants. Creepy!

  6. CatCat

    I’ve had a couple of skills assessments that I thought were handled well each time.

    First, I was told in advance that a skill assignment would be part of the interview process. Second, the assignment was built into the time scheduled for the interviews (so think 2 hour time slot with time for the skills assignment and interview) so I didn’t have to make some sort of extra time in my life to get it done. Third, they were short (60 mins max). Fourth, the assessments were actually discussed during the interview (what was your conclusion? what was your approach? how did you get there?) so it was highly relevant to how I might handle things on the job.

    1. Ra94

      Yep, I had a lot of similar experiences at big law firms. (Say what you will about the big firms, but most of them put a lot of thought into their hiring processes). The typical set-up was an assessment day that involved an interview, a group exercise, and various assessments; often analyzing a contract and getting quizzed about it, or pitching to a fake client. Each exercise was short, obviously made-up, and could never have possibly been of real financial benefit to the firm. And in exchange for the full day commitment, they would treat us to a very fancy lunch and bundles of branded swag.

    2. Teapot marketer

      I have had this as well – during an interview I had to write something in 30 minutes (on a laptop which had the spell-check disabled), and give a 10 minute presentation. I could present / write about anything, provided it was somewhat related to my field. I also had another assignment where I had an hour scheduled after the interview, and they emailed me with instructions on writing up a document, and I emailed them my response within the hour. These worked out well as they were timed, I knew about them well ahead of time, and they were part of an overall process which took maybe 3 hours (including an in-person interview). The skills were also very relevant to the job!

      1. WellRed

        Did you know ahead of time about the 10-minute presentation? Cause that sounds like a lot for something to do on the fly!

      2. Elizabeth the Ginger

        I had to do a writing sample during an interview, too. It was short and self-contained. In my case it was a teaching job and I had to write a sample report card comment about an imaginary student. Aside from the “imaginary” part, it’s something I’ve had to do literally a thousand times since getting the job.

    3. Elizabeth the Ginger

      It’s standard practice for candidates for teaching positions to do a demo lesson as part of their interview. You’ll find out ahead of time what grade level the kids are and might get some kind of info like “We’d love to see you do a social studies or math lesson – we’ve been studying immigration and fractions, and reading biographies, so feel free to tie into any of those if you’d like.” Prepping for this does take time, but if you have teaching experience you can often adapt one of your existing lessons, or use the same demo lesson to interview at different schools. (I’ve also put my old demo lessons into my curriculum once I got the job!) And having been on the other side of the interview process, it’s HUGELY helpful to see how the teacher actually teaches and interacts with students.

    4. Rose

      Yeah, one time I had to recreate an Excel document as part of an interview (for an assistant-type position), but I think I had half an hour to do as much as I could, and I didn’t have to prepare before the interview. Including that, the whole thing took maybe two hours? So that was fine time-wise.

      I didn’t get the job but honestly I was in that post-college phase where I was trying to figure out what the hell I wanted and in the long run that wasn’t it.

      1. Kaffeekocherin

        At my last job interview for a PA position in a large international law firm I had to do short (15 min each) tests for Word, Excel and PowerPoint (e. g. recreating documents, fixing charts, inserting formulas) as well as a document amendment. This is pretty standard for law firms here, but I was also warned in my first interview that I would have to do that test in the second interview and how much time to factor in.

    5. cncx

      yup, i had a skills assessment for a paralegal job that was fine and fit within a normal interview time slot. They had me take a typing speed test, a lexis nexis test, some computer literacy stuff (putting a formula into excel, formatting something in word like you would a court letter) and hten some translation of some basic legal terms (it was a bilingual position). it wasn’t like they asked me to write a brief for them, but it was enough of an assessment for them to figure out how i would do the job without like, making me do work for them. For me where i would draw the line would be producting actual creative output.

    6. M&Ms fix lots of Problems

      CatCat, my hubby had something similar in a final round interview for his first job out of university. They told you in advance that if you made the final round of interviews you would need a full day for the interview, and two hours would be set aside for a practical assessment (and to bring suitable clothes to change into including safety shoes). The test took place in their facility and they gave you everything you needed (including all the tools), and was never something that could be used by the company in their business.
      Only three people would do that final interview, and this was a fully remote position with a ton of engineering and quality control experience needed, and in a very, very niche field. Hubby was also a non-traditional student who had experience in the field as a mechanic before going back for the engineering degree.

  7. Happened to a friend

    There are companies out there who actually have the gall to *patent* things shown durning the interview process, and unless you’ve got the documentation and a few hundred grand for a lawyer to fight it, there’s not much you can do. It happened to a friend of mine at Really Big Tech Co but they’re not the only ones doing it.

  8. Jennifer

    I still remember the poor kid who had to cook and serve dinner for 30 people as part of her job interview.

        1. Temperance

          It’s 100% something that happened! I don’t want to link the charity, but yeah, other articles came out about it around the same time.

          1. your favorite person

            OMG! I did some googling to find out what charity it was! I didn’t realize more was known. That’s nuts.

      1. Antilles

        I think it’s just so bonkers off-the-wall that it would dominate the article and blur the point. You don’t want people to go “wow! Compared with making a candidate drive to the grocery store and cook a formal dinner, our requirement to write a 20-page report is downright reasonable!”.

    1. General Ginger

      Yeah, and didn’t that charity come out and say that they stood by their crappy interview process and this is how they’ve always done things, and it’s a fantastic opportunity, et cetera? I feel like I recall that being the case on Gawker, at least.

  9. MaureenSmith

    When I interview to fill a position, I do like to create a task based on the skills needed. Database entry & report generation. Using hand tools to make part of a widget. Remove & re-solder a component. All to be done onsite during the interview time. The only time one of these tests took longer than 30 minutes was when the candidate did not have the skills they’d claimed on their resume.

    The candidates time is valuable and so is mine and my employees. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time on long, complex tasks when a short example will suffice.

    Probation periods are also useful to weed out any issues that make it through the quick test. Think of probation as being a long test, that’s when you’d assign the 40+ hour tasks – because that is paid work, not free.

    1. TootsNYC

      I hate probation periods, because people have already left a paying job to take mine.
      If they don’t make it through probation, they are out of work!

      That’s a helluva price to pay.

      So I try to make sure I know as much as I can, because I would consider it such a colossal failure on my part to hire someone and then cut them loose.

      1. RandomU...

        I’d hope that most people are reasonably sure at the time of hire. That being said, probation periods are nice to see if the interview matches reality. I’ve seen people who interviewed well and there weren’t any reservations at the time of hire who fail to execute on anything* during their first 60 days.

        So it’s nice to be able to have that longer evaluation time. Trust me, no employer wants to let an employee go during the probation period.

        *tenure appropriate things

    2. Rhymes with Mitochondria

      Sore spot hit!
      “Probation periods” are also useful for refusing to give benefits for as long as possible, use a series of suckers to fill a job instead of actually hiring someone, and all kinds of other crap treatment. I personally would not take a job that had a “probation period” because I have seen so many companies abuse people during them. Companies I’ve worked at and saw how they treated people in their probation periods, companies friends have worked for, and one awful dinner party where an acquantance’s husband waxed on and on and on about how much money he saved on benefits, etc by having a quarter of his employees always rotating “probationers” who didn’t stand a chance of ever being permanent.
      If an employer wants employees to be committed and loyal, they need to be the same. Commit to your employees, and be loyal and honest with them.

      1. so many resumes, so little time

        Someone I know left a job when their probation period kept getting extended. The employer never offered an actual contract and kept saying, “we’ll discuss it when X returns from vacation” and things like that, and meanwhile didn’t give the employee regular hours/shifts and wouldn’t approve time off requests because the employee was still “on probation.

      2. Cyrus

        “I personally would not take a job that had a ‘probation period’ because I have seen so many companies abuse people during them.”

        Really, you wouldn’t take it at all? Wow. I’d agree it’s a red flag if an employer makes a big deal out of the probation period or starts you doing one thing but promises that you’ll be doing something completely different when the period is up. And your acquaintance’s husband sounds like an asshole in addition to his policy as an employer. That being said, the basic concept of a “probation period” seems logical enough. An interview can’t cover everything. It’s good if it’s hard to fire people, in general, but without a probation period, employers would just be stuck with every idiot or asshole with some flaw that was missed in the interview.

        Personally I’ve seen a probation period invoked exactly once. I was glad when it happened. I could believe that the guy was competent and had a good resume but I wasn’t in a position to evaluate those either way, but I can definitely say he was very hard to work with. A lot of my coworkers suspected he was a compulsive liar. It was never work-related, and I wouldn’t go that far without actually catching him in an inconsistency, but it sure was weird how he ALWAYS had an exciting story about everything. He was gone about 2 months and 2 weeks after he started.

      3. I See Real People

        I’ve been let go from a job on the 89th day for “not fitting in”. Funny it took them three months minus one day away from getting benefits to decide that.

        1. Rusty Shackelford

          I agree that it looks fishy, but it could also be that they decided on day 35 that you weren’t fitting in, but wanted to give you as much of a chance as possible.

      4. Watry

        There are jobs without probation periods? Is this just something I don’t know about because I’m coming out of retail/call centers into entry-level admin jobs?

      5. Seeking Second Childhood

        I’ve been st my employer for nearly 20 years. We do have a probation period, but benefits start right away. What the three months is for, that’s if something egregious is discovered.
        It has been invoked only once that I know of and that was 21 years ago.

    3. Kristine

      My boss, who joined the organization a few years after me, starting implementing 3-month probationary periods for new hires on our team. She has yet to hire any of these probationary people full time and they are always let go for the dumbest reasons. One person misplaced a comma in a flyer she was making (which was caught before it went to print, all was well) and that was enough for my boss to pull her full time offer.

      My team spends SO. MUCH. TIME. interviewing and training new people for these constantly churning roles and so much work falls through the cracks in the process. Plus, my coworkers and I are asked to pick up the slack when a role is empty, which is usually 6+ weeks at a time.

      I loathe probationary periods with a passion and will never work for a company that uses them.

        1. Perpal

          Yeah wow, I think that “probation” should mean full pay/benefits but just easy to fire if something is horribly wrong; and maybe there should be some rule that if at over 10% of your “probations” get fired before leaving probation, the hiring process needs to be reevaluated…

          1. Merci Dee

            My company has a 90-day probationary period when new hires first start, but insurance and 401(k) eligibility kick in after the normal 30-day waiting period. I’ve worked here for almost 9 years at this point, and I can only remember 1 person who didn’t make it through his probationary period. The guy who didn’t make it through was nice, but just wasn’t cut out for the environment we work in.

            1. RandomU...

              This is how my company works. The biggest thing about a probation period is that if you onboard with certain goals and milestones, you are able to bypass a lot of the rigmarole to let someone go if you can prove training and some type of plan.

              Like you, I’ve been around for a long time and only seen 1 person who didn’t make it.

          2. londonedit

            That’s how (in my experience, at least) probation periods work in the UK. You’re a ‘real’ employee, with holiday allowance, pension etc, but the notice period on either side is much shorter. Usual notice periods for employees here are one month; during probation it might be one or two weeks on each side. It’s more of an insurance policy for employer and employee in case it’s immediately clear that things aren’t going to work – otherwise, where I work, I’d be stuck with a three-month notice period and my employer wouldn’t be able to fire me without having serious grounds to do so and without going through a lengthy process of escalating warnings.

              1. Tom

                Netherlands too – the ‘probation’ or ‘trial’ period is usually 2 months – in which time both sides can decide “nope” and walk away from it all. (or get sent away).
                The only exception to this rule is, if one has been working as external contractor in a company, and the company decides on hiring the contractor as internal – there is no probation period, as the previous work as contractor is being considered that period.

            1. Queenie

              UK based human here. I’ve had probation periods in every (software-related) job I’ve ever had and generally don’t get full benefits until I’ve passed. In my last couple of jobs I got annual leave but no pension or health insurance until at least 3 months had passed.

      1. Legal Beagle

        What RandomU said. Your boss is awful, and she’s abusing people. I’d be tempted to start warning candidates off from the organization; she is risking people’s livelihoods and it’s just wrong.

    4. Delmarvelous

      I agree that 90-day probation periods are useful (as long as you’re giving benefits etc. from Day 1) but I think they serve really different purposes. The default assumption during the hiring process is that we are not going to hire you, and the test is a way to prove that we should. It doesn’t take much to knock a candidate out of the running.

      The default assumption once you’ve started is that this is your job, and you’re going to keep it, and it takes a LOT for that to change. If it’s really a bad fit, sometimes it’s better for everyone to part ways at 90 days, and that’s tough, but it seems bad for everyone for new hires to constantly be worried that they’re putting their job at risk if they make a mistake (because they will, they’re new hires).

    5. Wintermute

      You make a good point about probation periods. Honestly in my field (a subset of IT administration) contract-to-hire is becoming basically ubiquitous for just this reason. It’s way too easy to BS your way through any test you can be given in any reasonable amount of time, and it’s hard to design a test to account for things like ability to think and troubleshoot under pressure, follow complicated SOPs or quickly learn new technologies or how a particular network is set up. Certifications show you can pass a test on the vendor’s hardware, not that you can figure out their own highly idiosyncratic implementation and follow their patterns.

      So they use the rent-to-own plan and get six months where you’re basically disposable, with the option to extend the contract if they like you but they’re not sure how much (or if they can’t find better at the moment) or hire you on if you’ve proven your skills.

  10. SierraSkiing

    The nonprofit I worked for had a pretty good skills test system for research analysts. Once we’d narrowed it down to 5-6 candidates, each of them would be asked to schedule a two-hour block for their assessment – it could be any reasonable time during the day or evening. At the start of their block, we’d e-mail them a couple datasets and a worksheet of questions. They would then e-mail back their answers at the end of the two-hour block. It was enough work to show whether people had the technical coding skills and analysis knowledge needed for the job without overburdening candidates. And since we had refined the coding assessment over several years, we developed clear, objective criteria for grading it.

    1. TootsNYC

      I can’t say enough about how powerful it is to have a test that you, as the test giver, know well.

    2. M&Ms fix lots of Problems

      Agreed. My hubby did one of those very practical two hour tests as well as part of a prior hiring process. The people giving the test knew exactly what a qualified candidate(s) should do and find and approximately how quickly as well. It was a way to prove the skills that you claimed on paper, because there was no way to fake this skill assessment.

  11. TootsNYC

    The one place I did hiring that I didn’t already have good test, my colleagues suggested a tryout during an evening shift (since the candidates had day jobs already).

    I was pleased to discover they meant, “pay him.” This was in the days of non-payroll freelance, so he could just submit an invoice for four hours of work at the standard rate.

  12. Organized Curiosity

    I’m currently negotiating a job offer from a company that had one of these egregious assessment tests (it took me upwards of 20 hours to complete and had to be submitted in a week’s time). Thought I participated and have gotten a job offer as a result, I’d like to broach this subject with the manager (Director) once I have credibility. The process could have been a lot less onerous and remained effective (and they weren’t getting free work from it – the inputs were more than 5 years old and they’ve been using this same test for years).

  13. Delmarvelous

    I ask for a skills test between the phone screening stage and final interviews. Usually 20-25 candidates make it to the phone stage, 6-8 do a work sample, and 3-4 end up being interviewed as finalists.

    It’s very common for candidates I was enthusiastic about based on their resume and initial phone interview to turn in a test that makes me reconsider! It’s also pretty common (if a bit less so) for candidates I was initially wavering on to really wow me.

    So on the one hand, I think I should use the test with a bigger group — they’re the best predictor of whether you’ll do well at the job (and whether you think it’s right for you — it’s a good time for people to select out, too), it’s an opportunity for people whose resumes might not seem like an exact fit to show their stuff, they’re easier to evaluable blindly… it all feels like they’re fairer and less biased.

    On the other hand, it seems unfair to ask for 60-90 minutes of unpaid work from, say, 30 people, if there’s only a 10% chance they even make the final interview and only one of them is going to get hired.

    1. Wintermute

      As a candidate once I’ve been through a phone interview I’m willing to put in a little more work. I would disregard anyone that wanted more than 30 minutes or so from me (including massive application processes where I retype my entire resume, enter all my start/end dates, manager names and phone numbers *without leaving any out* for the last 5 employers, etc) without at least a phone interview, but I feel it’s pretty reasonable once I’ve had a chance to gauge my own interest and gotten some time investment from the company to spend an hour or so.

      Would it be possible to generalize the test a little so it provides some value to the candidates? I spent a fairly significant amount of time taking a test for a recruiting company once but it was a general Microsoft Excel 2016 skills test, so even though it was an investment I can now say I consider my skills “expert” level and I have taken tests that rank me in the top 10% based on my ability to do things like pivot tables, macros and in-cell formulae. Because of that I wasn’t salty about spending two hours on the test.

      If not, maybe you can widen the net just a little? Use the phone interview to determine who might be worth assaying and of the 20-25 maybe ask 10-12 rather than 6-8? that increases your sample size significantly but doesn’t really drastically increase the burden on candidates.

      Another possibility is to use a mini-screener version that all 25 get, a stripped down version of the whole enchilada test that just assesses basic suitability, with some pitfall questions to weed out people that are obviously resume padding or not a good fit, but can be done in 10-20 minutes or so?

  14. hayling

    As a hiring manager, I’m glad my company has finalists do an exercise. We dodged a bullet with one candidate who interviewed super well, but fell flat with his exercise. His presentation was so bad that we barely asked him any questions, it was so obvious that he had done poorly. On the flipside, another candidate knocked it out of the park and she has been an excellent hire.

    That said, wow, some of those examples. I did interview at a place once for a marketing generalist position and they asked me to write a social media plan—which I felt fishy about later, because it would be very easy to take that and apply it directly!

    1. Alina

      Sometimes it’s hard to tell how you’ve done! I had a data test where the interview actually ended before the 1 hr they’d given to go over the code, but I was just offered a final interview.

  15. so many resumes, so little time

    I ask for a writing sample after the first interview from candidates I expect to go through to the second round. It is intentionally not something we would actually use but at the same time it definitely gives us a feel for the candidates’ creativity and ability to write concisely and informatively. Usually the end result is under 500 words. I ask for a 48-hour turnaround but have no problem extending that another day or two on request.

    I feel like that’s not too onerous and it’s definitely been helpful to me in hiring decisions.

    1. boo bot

      I actually think a 48-hour turnaround is too short for candidates who haven’t been planning on an assignment like that; it’s nice to extend the deadline on request, but a lot of candidates will not feel like they have the option to ask. It’s not egregious, and I definitely wouldn’t walk away from a job I wanted over this, but I would be frustrated by the immediate (surprise) deadline.

      That said, if you told me when scheduling the first interview that the 500-word follow-up assignment would be a possibility, I’d be fine with that, and possibly that is precisely what you do!

      1. so many resumes, so little time

        That’s a good point, and I thank you. We are soon to hire for this position again and I’ll discuss making this change with the other person involved in the process.

    2. another option

      Would it be possible to ask for a writing sample of something they have already written instead of giving them a whole new writing assignment?

  16. KayEss

    I had kind of a funny situation along these lines crop up the other day… when I was interviewing for the job I’m now in (so, spoiler: they hired me), I did a skills assessment/test project. I spent a lot more time on it than I probably should have, and since I knew that a big part of what they were looking for in the position was the ability to create custom graphics, I specifically created a bunch of custom graphics for it. They were impressed, I got the job, I’m very happy here, etc.

    Fast forward to a few months later, and I overheard one of the people involved in hiring me talking with someone about a project on a tight deadline that needs some graphics–which it’s possible I won’t have time to get to because of other project obligations–and suggesting that they just… use the graphics from my interview project. While I certainly wouldn’t deny my now-employer permission to use them (it’s not like I’m licensing them to anyone else), as someone who has to be aware of copyright legalities I’m kind of mentally side-eyeing that possibility. (Also I made those graphics to be intentionally kind of ridiculous, so I don’t think they’re the best/most appropriate options for the material at hand.)

    1. MissDisplaced

      Ew…. I’d not feel that’s very appropriate unless the graphics were really a great match and you volunteered them.

  17. Anonforthis

    I’ve interviewed for companies that insisted on a “personality” test as part of the hiring process – for an HR position, no less! I have never understood how these are related to the skills and abilities required for a job and when I would question the interviewer, they were never able to tell me. Lesson learned, if a company asks you to take a “personality” test as part of their process, they have no idea why they’re doing it and you should move on if you can.

    1. Wintermute

      I hold out very high hopes that “disparate impact” suits will eventually force companies to abandon these ridiculous personality tests. If professional researchers attempting to apply scientific rigor to a well-understood field like memory and cognition cannot design an IQ test that doesn’t have massive racial and cultural biases in it, then some amateur at an HR outsourcing company has a snowball’s chance on Venus. And if people start getting serious about saying that’s not acceptable, maybe they’ll be forced to implement better hiring practices.

      1. BookishMiss

        I had to do the full Meyers Briggs battery as part of a last ditch effort to save my branch staff once. Fine, I’ll take the test on work tone, whatever. But then! We all analyzed/discussed everyone’s results together to give us a better understanding for how best to work together, bring us closer, warm fuzzy nonsense, etc etc etc…
        Spoiler: it didn’t work. It actually backfired, really amusingly. But this place didn’t really live up to the “inclusion”part of their mission statement, so…shocker.

        1. Former Employee

          Myers Briggs is yet another bogus way to “assess” prospective employees. This mother daughter team became fascinated with the theories of Carl Jung and created this “test” based on their understanding of Jung’s theories. Of course, neither was a psychologist or psychiatrist nor did either have any formal training in the mental health field. You might as well have someone who never went to medical school come up with a test to determine someone’s physical condition based on their having read a medical textbook.

  18. Anax

    IT folks, how much time is ‘normal’ these days for associate/senior-level positions?

    I wasn’t given onerous take-home assignments, but in my last job hunt, it felt like a lot of jobs wanted a lot of contact, especially for associate-level positions – like, two recruiter interviews, a hiring manager interview, a check-in with the recruiter, a one-hour at-home skills assessment, another check-in with the recruiter, and then five back-to-back in-person interviews with team members.

    Oy vey, y’all, I’m not sure what they got out of me by throwing standard string-manipulation puzzles at me for four hours straight, from 9-1, without a lunch break, that they wouldn’t have gotten in two hours.

    (Except that I get hypoglycemic and didn’t feel comfortable asking for a lunch break, when each person only had 45 minutes scheduled with me, so I was too tired and woozy to show off my skills effectively by the end.)

    Equally important, I think – all those interviews meant that these companies were taking ages to fully evaluate a prospect, and I got sniped by a lovely company which moved much faster.

    Is this just a standard tech industry thing? Are there positives I’m not seeing?

    (And what IS it with the string manipulation puzzles?)

    1. Amykins

      Four hours in office just doing string manipulation puzzles is *definitely* excessive.

      Anything in an office, I haven’t seen more than an hour or two on any kind of exercise. If it’s written, usually 30 mins or less, otherwise they should have you at a computer.

      The take home exercises I’ve been assigned have either been timed (e.g. “get as much done in 2 hours as you can”) or an exercise that shouldn’t take more than 3-4 hours to complete.

      As for number of steps/interviews – I’d say roughly 4-6 “steps” (a phone screening, 1-2 in-person interviews, 1-2 assessments etc) has been average for me with companies that have been serious.

      1. Anax

        That sounds pretty sane to me. The number of steps feels like a lot, but I can see why it’s useful – it’s these crazy long interviews and technical tests that have been baffling me.

        (I just moved to… well, near Silicon Valley, which is very different from where I grew up and had my last job! I think there might be a strange microculture in this area for obvious reasons – not for all companies, but certainly enough. I’ve heard about the whiteboard-heavy, intensive interview processes at places like Microsoft and Google – I just didn’t think those processes were common.)

        I am not a fan of whiteboarded string manipulation puzzles. A lot of them aren’t very well-designed, so they end up being more about remembering specific syntax (which would be autocompleted by my IDE) and finding the “trick”, rather than logical thinking.

        Seriously, just give me a computer and… I don’t know, ‘Write javascript to address these three business needs, and manipulate the page to make it look more fresh and user-friendly.’ Something vaguely real, not ‘write code to find the longest palindrome substring within an arbitrary string.’

        1. Wintermute

          you just nerd-sniped me, I found myself sitting there trying to figure out an elegant way to use nested for loops to find arbitrary-length palidromes. I think you can do it with two if you allow the built-in Python string-reverse function, three if I have to deconstruct the substrings by popping the ends off recursively.

          1. Anax

            God, did we interview for the same place?

            (Not a real question, but I think that particular question was $LargeGlobalCompany, so I guess I wouldn’t be surprised.)

            I think I just brute-forced it, rather than being elegant. I love writing elegant code, but I’m not actually great at code golf. I like working with UX and manipulating big piles of data, like … say, efficiently parsing legal documents so they automatically check whether cross-references are valid. I’m good at that! Code golf on a whiteboard… not gonna lie, I freeze and then start iterating on a brute-force solution until it’s slightly less awful.

            Still got an offer, but I think I went home and slept for twelve hours after these.

            1. Phrunicus

              “I think I just brute-forced it, rather than being elegant”

              Reminds me of a test during my Automata Theory class back in college. I was the last guy left, churning out each of the six cases I could see for one proof(?) question. The professor at that point is like “there’s an easier way” and I’m like “maybe, but I don’t see it and I *do* see this”, cuz otherwise we’d both be there all night hoping I’d have a lightbulb moment.

              I grant you, when he handed them back, that the 2 cases things simplified into WAS better than my 6, but I got like all the points (or close enough) on that question, so I called it a win.

            2. Wintermute

              Nah, I code for fun but the most code I’ve written at work is some scripting or excel macros. I’m considering going more towards development but to be honest, I worry that the best way to kill your love of any art is to try to do it professionally.

    2. Bulbasaur

      We do three rounds of interviews, which are geared for different purposes. I will occasionally offer small technical challenges, but they are mostly aimed at catching out people who are exaggerating their experience (once in a while I filter out someone who turns out to have been warming a seat for long periods). Typically they take no more than 5-10 minutes and I do them during the interview.

      I don’t work in Silicon Valley though, and everything I’ve heard suggests that it has its own rules and norms. (To be honest I think I would hate it there). Hopefully there are some decent normal companies in the mix and you are able to find them.

      1. Anax

        Started with a great job about five weeks ago, actually; I’m having fun. :) I ended up turning down the offers from those heavy-interviewing companies, partially for my own sanity – they were intense and heavily open-office and not super secure – and partially because… well, current job moved much faster, and they’d made an offer well before the others.

        It was a heck of a job hunt, though – I was doing about 10 interviews per week for a solid month, and it wasn’t uncommon to have one of those four-hour in-person interviews with another hour or two of technical questioning in the same day.

        We may end up moving before I look for another job, so I’m trying to keep an eye on what’s sane in the ‘real world’. Property prices here are just as crazy as they sound.

        1. Bulbasaur

          Good to hear – and wow, that interview process sounds exhausting. If you’re doing that much of it I expect you would get used to it after a while, although that comes with its own problems (I sometimes find myself trotting out canned responses that aren’t exactly a fit for the question).

          I hear you regarding the string manipulation problems. I once did one where they insisted I complete the whole thing even though I told them up front that I didn’t know the string functions for the language in question. I ended up doing it all with pointers and direct memory manipulation. The main thing it achieved was to put me right off that potential employer (if I’d been more experienced I think I would have just cut it short).

          1. Anax

            It definitely helped me get over my phone/interview anxiety! I started applying in September due to a cross-country move… without realizing that many companies don’t hire in Q4, especially when they need to coordinate this many team members for interviews. Everyone got back to me in January, all at once; I think I had eight positions actively interviewing me at once, at one point.

            That sounds awful, goodness. I don’t mind the technical questions over the phone at all; I go in expecting things like ‘what’s a left outer join?’ and ‘tell me about how you would prevent security breaches for a public-facing website’ and ‘how do you use git’s stash function?’.

            I think you can get a good sense of whether people are lying on their resumes from questions like that, and at least for me, they’re normally information that’s ingrained enough in my brain that I won’t freeze because of nervousness. Remembering old information is much easier than coming up with new solutions on the fly, when I’m already tired and nervous.

            But goodness sake. My current job is the only one of … six, I think, where I got through the in-person without several hours of whiteboard or pen-and-paper puzzle solving.

            It’s good to hear that Silicon Valley is just weird, and this isn’t an industry-wide thing.

    3. Tom

      Define normal?? And combined with IT?? Ha!

      Seriously though – the ‘worst’ i had to do was 2 rounds of interviews for a mid level NOC operative.
      Considering that i had no network experience, as i was a support generalist (still am, of sorts) – it was risky.

      But, my “test” if you wish to call it that, was when i volunteered to be the driver for a team from that company, who needed to be in Paris (France) pretty fast, but 2 of the 3 man team didn`t have a driving license, and the 3rd had an accident making it too hard to drive longer distances. As i could have the time off – i offered to be their driver (great, free trip to Paris).
      Ended up being 4 days, 1 all nighter, and somehow i was reinstalling some servers. All in good fun – and at that time pretty standard for work – but apparently the team was impressed enough – so when I came in for the other NOC role – one of the guys walked out of his office – asked the hiring manager ‘is he here for the open position’? When the manager confirmed, he said ‘hire him, he`s a good one’ – and that was it.

      So – with a little twist and turn – i could say i had a 4 day assignment previous to getting hired – but it was a chance to ‘see Paris’ – but ended up being helpful, a wonderful experience, and i got to have dinner with some really high level specialist at the highest restaurant in Paris – so that`s something:)

  19. Spreadsheets and Books

    My department does this, but to mixed results. We provide an analytical scenario, but it uses a lot of things that are fairly specific to our department but would be easy to grasp once learning more about our business model but aren’t necessarily going to overlap with most people’s related experience at this level. I’m actually glad they didn’t give one to me when I started here – I can absolutely do the job and I have plenty of relevant experience, but the kinds of things we ask on our assessment played no role whatsoever at my last job and I wouldn’t have been familiar with the unique methodology we use here.

  20. That Girl From Quinn's House

    I was in a training about hiring quality staff at a nonprofit going over the merits of a “working interview” for entry level staff, ex: have them sit and do basic desk staff tasks, shadow-assist an employee, or audition to teach a class. They recommended for a full shift- four hours.

    Several of the managers got excited and said, “Oh that’s just wonderful! We’ve been short staffed but had a ton of applicants. We can schedule a bunch of working interviews, and fill in the gaps!” The person running the training was like, “No. That is not what I meant.”

    I don’t see the merits of a working interview, minus instructor auditions- I wouldn’t be comfortable hiring someone who, with minimal preparation, jumped in and started acting as if they were a full employee. That says to me that they think they’re above being trained, learning new procedures, or following directions that are site-specific.

    1. Wintermute

      Well if your hiring manager says “do this” it’s not that they think they’re anything, it’s that they think if they want to have a job they’d better jump in and give it the old college try.

      Honestly though I think you hit on something important, that only works if A) the job is highly menial in which case it doesn’t need a skills assessment or B) the job is very highly standardized. Because I don’t know ANY PLACE in any field where you can just walk on the job. Even if you’re working in your degree field and laden with certs and job experience you’re going to need to be shown the basics like “how do you navigate the intranet here?” “where do you keep your policy documents?” “where are your standards and practices?” and other real basics just to know enough to do the job intelligently

  21. Lily

    How does this change if “work a day or two for free” is part of an informal industry standard? In my industry, about 50 % of the employers use it, and it’s not necessarily the worst ones (more a combination of the old fashioned, the arrogant and the not entirely desparate ones)?

  22. Anon Atty

    I used a law school paper as a writing sample for a state supreme court clerkship interview. The paper suggested the state adopt a certain ethics rule. I didn’t get the job but my state adopted the ethics rule. The rule had language verbatim from my paper. I reached out to the ethics committee because I wanted credit for it (bragging rights on the resume) and they told me their process in adopting rules was confidential but keep up the good work. I still put it on my resume with softening language that it was likely the catalyst for ethics rule X.

  23. Aggretsuko

    A friend of mine was applying at one of the big SF tech companies and she was asked to come up with ideas for say, morale-boosting activities and how to hold work meetings when a good chunk of the staff was tethered to their computers answering the phone lines, at a 24-7 business. Shockingly, she did not get hired, but I strongly suspect they were just fishing for ideas to use rather than hiring.

    1. That Girl From Quinn's House

      Techies call it “brain rape,” it’s such a prevalent thing there.

      Happened to one of my husband’s colleagues. He got called in for an interview, they said, “Oh that’s a great idea, could you write up a proposal of what you’d do with this idea once you’re on board!” He did, they went silent, but implemented his idea. They were stealing ideas from PhDs by holding job interviews for a job that didn’t exist rather than hiring them as consultants and paying them.

      1. BookishMiss

        A nonprofit tried that on me. Asked for sample business development proposals in lieu of a second interview, because board members are hard to wrangle. The only reason they didn’t implement the proposals is that I proposed things rooted in skills I have that I could bring to the staff, not skills already present among their staff. By now, they’ve lost the files for sure.

      2. Cedrus Libani

        I’m pretty sure I was interviewed for free consulting once. The weird part was, it was only an hour of that. (To be fair, I told them what they needed to know in that hour.) Then they palmed me off on the rather confused hiring manager, who was looking for a different specialty altogether. I lived on the other side of the US, and they’d flown me over and put me up in a nice hotel for two nights…for an hour’s “free” consulting. Seriously, they could have just called me! I was still a student, and I was so excited that someone else cared about my research. I’d have talked their ears off.

  24. Long time reader first time commenter

    I interviewed for an online editor/contributor position. The editing test made sense — I’ve administered these when hiring for similar jobs. Writing a sample story made sense — the hiring people said specifically that fake quotes and stats were fine, not to go to too much effort, it was about style. The section asking for ideas was, in retrospect, shady — five fleshed-out story ideas + social media posts for a dozen existing stories + lengthy comments on how to improve the site.

    Needless to say, I didn’t get hired, but spotted four of my story ideas on the site within a year. When I brought it up to a then-current employee — giving the organization a huge benefit of the doubt, “we were at the same events, some of these ideas were obvious,” etc — they responded with “yeeeaaahhh…it’s been known to happen.”

    1. boo bot

      I think this is an example of a bad assignment to give someone. Plenty of stories will be picked up on by multiple reporters, outlets, etc., and it is entirely likely that they could have come up with all four stories completely independent of your input. BUT, it creates a perception problem that they could easily avoid by just not asking that question.

      I honestly don’t understand why sites don’t just have their top candidates pitch and write a story and pay them for it as freelancers – if they’re hiring writers, that’s pretty much the perfect way to find out how each candidate would be as a writer (including how they deal with editors’ feedback, whether their samples are really reflective of their abilities, etc.) If they buy the story, they can just print it, and if it’s terrible, they avoid a bad hire for the price of a kill fee.

      1. Long time reader first time commenter

        Good point. Pitching and preparing an actual story would be a great way to test.

        Forgot to mention that though I was told there would be a test in the first interview, once it was actually given to me, I had only 24 hours to complete it. It may be representative of a typical day’s work, but of course, I was working another job at the time, and a pretty intensive one at that, out of town.

  25. Less Bread More Taxes

    I was asked to complete a 3-5 hour task once before I’d even interviewed. I simply emailed back saying something along the lines of “I was hoping to talk to the hiring manager first to see if this is even a good fit for me. And to be honest, even it is a fantastic fit, I don’t have the time to complete a 5-hour assignment, but I’d be happy to do a 1-hour one after interviewing.” I emailed back and forth with the recruiter for a few days after that – they seemed to be interested in me, but they weren’t willing to talk to me first, so that was that.

  26. mcr-red

    I did a skills test for this job and for another I applied for, and they both were like 15 minutes tops. That seems OK to me. A friend of mine, however, had to do a huge graphics-design type branding project for a job she was applying for, like you have the weekend to do this and turn it in on Monday, and she didn’t get the job.

  27. Jen

    When I was just out of university I got an interview with a small magazine publishing company. They asked for a small writing assignment and some feature ideas, did three interviews with me and then readvertised the role. THEN they asked me to go through it all again and finally dropped that I hadn’t got the job out of the last two people last thing on a Friday, after a process that took a couple of months.

    The worst thing was that the woman hiring, who worked under the tyrannical Director, had done my course just two years earlier. She must’ve known how desperate I was. In the end, I looked at the magazines two months later and they’d used my feature ideas.

    Won’t ever be treated like that again.

  28. xarcady

    I’ve had to take editing/proofreading tests, which make sense to me. I think the longest one took 2 hours; most were about 20-30 minutes.

    I think I posted this on a Friday open thread once, but a friend applied for a trainer position. She passed the phone screen and first interview. Prior to the second interview, they gave her a test to complete at home. This is what she had to do:

    1. Read and understand a chapter in a text book that the company produces, about their very, very niche industry–so most applicants will know little to nothing about the subject prior to this.
    2. Storyboard a lesson plan for the chapter.
    3. Write out a lesson plan for the chapter, going into more detail than the storyboard.
    4. Create 3-4 handouts for the lesson.
    5. Create a PowerPoint for the lesson.
    6. Present the lesson to a panel during the second interview.

    She had 5 business days to complete this. She used a weekend and still had to take off two days from her temp job–so she lost two days’ pay just to complete this task. She ended up getting the job, so she thinks it was worth it. But I just can’t help feeling that the company asked for far too much work on the part of the applicants–even half of what she did is too much.

    In contrast, my sister is a trainer for a software company. Part of her second interview was to give a 5-10 minute lesson on the subject of her choice. She chose making paper airplanes. Other candidates have done making making tissue paper flowers, how to make a sandwich,or how to unclog a drain. The interviewers can get the sense of whether or not the interviewee can craft a good lesson from that, which makes the other company’s marathon test look very much like they are using job candidates for real work.

    1. a good mouse

      That second one also sounds like way more fun for the interviewers, and they probably learned something new too!

  29. Anon Today Anon Tomorrow

    I think skills tests can be useful if they are completed during the interview. If there is a specific time frame (e.g., 30 minutes to code a specific section) and/or a specific skill that the interviewer would like to see performed, then I think that this sort of assessment is highly useful (for example, a teaching demonstration).

    However, aside from very senior positions, I don’t think assessments of this nature are useful. One you don’t know how long the candidate took, what tools they used (and in some cases what tools they didn’t have access to), and what the candidates thought process and approach was to the assessment. I don’t think it’s fair to compare a candidate who perhaps has access to tools other candidates do not, and who can take all the time in the world to complete the assessment when other candidates cannot (well and not to mention people who move slowly don’t do well where I work).

  30. Free Meerkats

    The skills test we use is for the applicant to review a compliance report from a fictitious company, determine if they are compliant – with criteria supplied, and if not, write a notice of violation.

    What we are looking for is if they recognize the built in violations and can they write in a coherent manner. It doesn’t matter if they write it “our” way, just can they write. They do it onsite in a half hour before their interview. So fir, it’s worked well.

    And the writer who found their work published on the law school’s website should have filed a DMCA takedown notice.

  31. KITH

    In theory, I really appreciate this idea. Have only been asked to do 2 or 3 times over past 15 or so yrs. Most recent was ~8h of work. I admit to going overboard because the description of the output was not clear — I thought defining the output was part of the test itself, so I qualified my answers with the rationale why. Without having done that, the work itself should have taken ~4h. Didn’t get job, asked for feedback, was told I should not have qualified my response b/c was supposed to turn in something polished and usable (note to self – get more info on expectations next time). Also critiqued for asking for clarification about the question asked – it was not esp clear. A 2m phone convo! Also vexing because I wondered if THAT was part of the assessment – was I supposed to go ahead and interpret what I thought the question was? Aka possibly do 8hrs of work addressing the wrong question? The job got reposted before I (and I assume other candidates) had been told we didn’t have the job, which seemed a bit gauche. Short turn around time, rather a big hoop to jump for what was posted as a four month contract, and a lot of stress from, ironically, an org that helps people with their mental health issues. In conclusion, grumpy. Still a fan in theory, however!

  32. Macedon

    I was once asked by a very well-known publication to do a week of unpaid daily reporting shifts, with all stories to be published (and therefore generate them revenue). They were shocked when I said I couldn’t afford to take a week off my actual income-producing work to give them free labour.

    Bluntly, organisations with these kinds of practices always also have other deeply-ingrained structural or entitlement issues, and you are best walking away from thid level of toxicity.

  33. The Imperfect Hellebore

    I once got a job with the help of one of these things. I applied for a tech theatre assistant job at a university. I applied with the usual application form plus CV, and was shortlisted for interview. At that point, they asked me to provide a risk assessment document for ‘using a ladder to change lights’. (Hahahaaaa, you read that correctly).

    I’d never heard of a risk assessment at that point, so I went to the library and looked it up. I responded with a wrtten document that a) stated that I would never use a ladder in a theatre space to change a lantern, but that b) here’s what I would do if a lantern needed changing, and here’s the safety steps I would go through.

    When I went in for my interview, they brought out my “risk assessment plan” about halfway through, and asked questions about it, all of which were easy to answer. “Why would you choose to work with another person while rigging?” (I don’t know, because I’m not a giant fool? Good grief.)

    1. The Imperfect Hellebore

      They all but offered me the job then and there, in part because I’d bothered to provide the risk assessment. At the time, it was genuinely fun and interesting for me to do it.

  34. KITH

    So in summary, publishers appear to be the worst? Which makes sense in a new millennium universe content content SEO advertising sales free fall free labour free labour?

  35. MissDisplaced

    A project sample not exceeding two hours is my limit and never before the interview. Though occasionally I have been asked to create a PowerPoint about myself that I would present during the interview. But those are more rare and typically have happened when I’ve interviewed for higher-ed for some reason.

  36. Kella

    I was applying for a remote writing job and their edits test required me to write *four articles* minimum 450 words, including media and sources etc and *eight pitches* for future articles. That’s like 4-8 hours of work, depending on how efficient of a writer you are. This was for a part-time job and they hadn’t even interviewed me or told me how much the pay was.

    I gently pushed back and offered to do a smaller portion of the work, said I had concerns about investing so much time up front knowing so little about the position, and I asked about the pay rate. They said the full edits test was required, that payment would be based on experience, and then they restated the published job description to me and acted like they had generously answered my questions. I said thanks but no thanks.

  37. londonedit

    I’ve worked in publishing my entire career, and editorial tests are absolutely the norm. However, these would usually take the form of a 30-minute proofreading or copy-editing test at the end of your in-person interview; they’re not usually hugely long and involved, and they don’t usually involve any creative work that could be used by the company involved. It’s more like they print a few pages of an existing book, from an early set of proofs, and get you to spot the errors.

    On a few occasions I have been asked to come up with ideas for new books – that’s been when I’ve gone for roles that involve commissioning new titles, rather than just doing straight editorial work. I can see the point, because they’re looking for you to understand the current market, know what trends are emerging, and understand the sort of books that company publishes. If the company specialises in commercial autobiographies of big celebs, and I turn up with three ideas for really niche historical tomes, then they’re going to think I don’t understand their business model. However, this has always made me feel a bit more uncomfortable, because it’s a reasonable amount of work to have to do, and I’m going into an interview and giving them a load of great ideas.

  38. Marion Ravenwood

    I work in comms/PR/marketing, and some sort of skills test is pretty standard – everything from ‘proofread and edit this document’ to ‘write your version of this news story for our intranet’ to ‘write the statement/press release you’d issue to media about this incident’ (for an emergency services comms role) to ‘write an intro for our newsletter’ to ‘do a short presentation on this issue we cover’. Sometimes you’d get two of these in one test – usually an editing task and a writing task.

    For me the ones that have worked best are those where I wasn’t expected to give up tons of time – either done as part of the interview or with a reasonable amount of time allowed beforehand (either ‘do as much as you can in an hour’ or ‘you have a week to do this’ between the first and second interview). I think that’s reasonable in terms of a test of skills but also recognising that people are giving up time to job hunt/interview, and have lives outside the job hunting process. That said, I have pushed back on these tasks and taken myself out of the running when the time frames just weren’t feasible.

  39. Richard

    I’m part of a group currently hiring student workers, and a coworker in the group really wants to “strongly encourage” applicants to put in significant volunteer hours on a campus event around the same time as interviews. I’ve brought up the ethical concerns and he’s conceded that we can’t make it mandatory, but I’m worried about how hard it’s going to be pushed and how that will reflect on me.

  40. Cynical Writer

    UGH! Pretty much every writing or editing job I have ever applied for involves excessive assignments to evaluate my skills. When I only take a couple hours on them, I never get hired or hear back, but if I point out that these are things that will take up a lot of billable hours, they take offense. It’s almost as if the publishing industry is filled with a bunch of folks who will take advantage of struggling writers. Oh, wait…

  41. Big Biscuit

    “Working interviews” can also be a violation of labor laws. They used to be common in my industry, but we do not use them anymore because of that possibility. To be on the right side of the law, we would need to hire the employee as a temp and pay them for the work they did during the interview and then terminate if we did not hire them. The administrative costs made this prohibitive.

  42. Douglas Muth

    I’m a software engineer, and I happen to write a fair bit of software on my own, which I release as Open Source. If a company I’m interviewing with asks me to write some code, I will respond with a link to my GitHub (https://github.com/dmuth). If the 70+ projects I have on there somehow aren’t good enough for them to judge my skill as an engineer, I politely thank them for their interest and move on.

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