In the October 15, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader wonders whether he’s being asked to do a job interview or to work for free.

Question

work for free

I’m interviewing with a large start-up co-working company. The position is in part a strategy role. They asked me to create a fairly involved business plan for a product launch that they are planning to offer in a few months. I am concerned that this is an effort to get free analysis out of me. They’ll take my plan and then leave me in the cold. Do you see a way to move forward without providing free consulting services?

Nick’s Reply

I think it’s actually a good sign when an employer asks you to “do the job to win the job.” In fact, I teach job candidates to offer to do the work during the interview process, to show they’re worth hiring. (See The shortcut to success in job interviews.)

But I draw a clear line between a demonstration and working for free.

Start doing the job

I suggest you take them up on their request. Tell them you’re excited about the opportunity.

How to Say It

“I’ll prepare a plan and show you what I can do. And by the way, if I can’t demonstrate how I can do this job in a way that will bring more profit to your bottom line, you should not hire me.”

That’s a very unusual, powerful position to take that will make you stand out. It also requires that you are prepared and know what you’re doing — or why attend such an interview?

Stop doing the job

Then deliver a skeleton of a plan — just one or two powerful pages — that will leave them wanting more. Yes, tease them. Leave plenty of room to hang details on the bones later. Don’t explain why you cut it short. Let them call you to say they want the rest.

When they ask you where “the beef” is, chuckle, then say the following.

How to Say It

“I love you guys and I think I could make a big impact on your launch. I’ve got the rest of my plan outlined and I’d be happy to flesh out the details for you when I start the job. Of course, I’d be glad to complete the plan in any case if what you really want is a consulting engagement. My daily consulting rate is $2,000 remote and $2,500 on-site.”

Say no more than that. Don’t quote an hourly rate. The best consultants quote daily. Then let them decide what they want to do.

Now wait for it

What’s important about this approach is that you’re not saying “No” to their request. You’re saying, “Yes, BUT.” Yes, you’ll produce what they asked for, but it’s not free.

Then wait for it, because it’s their move.

My guess is you’ll hear nothing back. If I’m right, I’d forget about them. They know you’re smarter than they’d guessed, and they’re cheapskates who aren’t going to pay anyone fair value even if they make a hire.

If they’re really interested in your ideas and willing to do business with you on the up and up, they will respond. They may not want to use you as a consultant, but they may suggest an alternative, fair way to proceed — as you just did.

Work for an offer but don’t work for free

Never work for free. I’ve seen this “put a plan together for us” gambit from unscrupulous employers many times. It doesn’t turn out well.

But give them a chance to appropriately explore with you the possibilities of working together. Determine whether they’re ready to pay you, one way or the other. Maybe they have integrity. This is how you find out.

Have you gotten burned by employers that want free work? How did you handle it? Do you agree that it’s a good idea to actually demonstrate how you’ll do a job? How do you tease without giving it all away for free?

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36 Comments
  1. This pimping job candidates goes beyond annoying, it’s downright unethical and repugnant! I’d tell a perspective employer to take a hike If they pulled shenanigans like this. Back in 2010, in the throes of the mancession, I Was laid off, and I landed a part-time gig, but I spent 13 months on the unemployment line. I had employers pulling sleazy things like demanding I give them sales leads, or calling me in under the guise of interviewing for a fake position, only to try and extract intel out of me. I know what it’s like to be desperate, but I think candidates are way to tolerant of aberrant behavior as this.

    • @Antonio: Sales leads?? That’s a new kind of extortion!

      • Yes sir! Come bearing gifts if you want a shot at interviewing for a fishing expedition job interview. Like a third world country. Here’s one for the record, prospective employers requiring you submit a one page essay on why they should hire you, or worse yet, a one page essay describing a family vacation you went on in your childhood. Still yet, requiring copies of your W4s for the past 3-4 years. I discovered all this is legal too. What I did as a child with my family is of no concern to some HR person or hiring manager who’s a total stranger. Nor what I’ve earned the past three years is any of their business. What happened to trusting your gut and determining if a candidate is a good fit during the interview process? Now it’s weird psychological profile tests and mental gymnastics like writing intrusive essays. Oh, and demanding account lists and sales leads.

        • I wonder how they’ll take it when someone writes an essay that simply says their family was poor and did not go on vacations.

        • I had to visit with a psychologist as part of an interview. The visit was 30 minutes in the psychologist’s office. This visit was to determine if I were an honest person. I asked the psychologist if he could really make that determination in 30 minutes. He replied he hasn’t found a dishonest person in any of his assessments.

    • When I worked in sales a small business owner expected me to bring my existing accounts and sign a noncompete. Uhh…no.

      • The small mom & pop guy, I would almost wager, would have taken your account list, cherry picked it, then terminated you in 90 days or less on some wishy-washy reason once he had that info. I wonder if saavy sales folks ever sell their account lists? This whole non-compete thing is modern day slavery or indentured servitude. I’ve been forced to sign several in the last few years. I’ve heard of some employers going after ex-employees who violated them, while others waved a big stick, then did nothing. But to terminate an employee under at-will, then prevent them from earning a living? I’ve heard judges coming back on employers more. I’d venture to say take your chances, call their bluff, and violate the NCA.

      • Tell them you can’t bring any existing accounts because you signed a non-compete…. ;)

    • Get a contract. Do some sample work to show your chops, but remember: there are people/companies that will walk you down 90% of the project(s), then pronounce it inadequate, just before it’s finished, then refuse to pay.

      No contract == very little recourse. Two endpoints:

      “He’s negotiating,” one agent told me, after the manufactured boards came in.

      “He threatened not to pay us if we didn’t send him the manufacturing drawings,” another PCB house told me.

      A worthwhile read “What Makes Sammy Run” by Bud Schulberg, then remind him/her self that high tech employer games can make those of Hollywood studios look gentle by comparison.

  2. I interviewed with a company 3x and was expecting a job offer as the CEO told me an offer would be made the next day. Instead they asked me to create a business and marketing plan for a new product. They wanted details and market research performed. This would have cost me $$$ out my own pocket as well as my time. I politely told them I would give them an outline of the plan and any more would be charged at my consulting rate. Well they of course said no. I had a bad feeling about this company and thought they wanted free information.

    I found out later there was no job at all! They wanted multiple business/marketing plans for free.

    I just saw that fake job listed from the same company again. I even received an email from the CEO on LinkedIn about coming in to interview. He doesn’t even remember me? I don’t intend to answer him at all.

    • Again, this is par for the course. Interviewing for non-existent jobs, and trying to get free consulting out of job candidates. The rub in your situation is that it’s perfectly legal for employers to do this. Again, I go back to employment laws that clearly favor employers. Another tactic employers use are posting false jobs on job boards to gain free intel on what competitors are doing, what they’re paying, or anything else that can benefit their bottom line. Years ago, I worked for an unethical mom & pop steel company that pulled these shenanigans. The GM would post job ads in the local newspaper (pre-internet days) then run candidates through a fake gauntlet of interviews to gather market info. The rub was, they were very open about it, and mocked the poor suckers who sincerely were looking for employment. When I was out of full-time work in 2010-2011, I ran into this as well. One sleazy plastics supply company called me in for an interview. The GM pointed out his office window and gleefully told me they were looking at terminating some guy who was sitting at his desk working. On his desk was a photo of his wife and his small children. I asked why they wanted to replace him. The GM said “I don’t know why, he’s just not performing”. Wow, really? Heard that before. Lived through that before too. Like maybe you didn’t vet him, nor train him? Maybe didn’t manage him, nor direct him? Then the GM asked where I’d been interviewing at, and told me if they were to proceed with the interviewing process that I’d need to supply him with at least six sales leads and contact names. Huh? Finally he told me “do I hire a kid out of college for $30K, or do I hire an older guy like you who wants more $”? My reply was “hire the kid, then good luck with that”. Fast forward a couple years later. They let the GM go, and I heard he landed at one of their competitors, and he was pulling the same fool’s errands there.

    • Unfortunately, when in the throes of excitement about an “opportunity,” even very savvy people succumb to the pressure to “perform” to keep the employer interested. They suspend their common sense. And many employers abuse this. These stories are excellent lessons for everyone!

  3. This smacks of the “faux interview” syndrome.

    https://davidhuntpe.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/cartoon-of-the-day-the-faux-interview-plus-commentary/

    I concur with Nick. It’s great to show you can do the job. Don’t give away the one thing you AND ONLY YOU have: your intellectual capital.

  4. Always learning good stuff when I tune in here. Thank you, everyone.

  5. This is rather ironic because companies try to do it to each other all the time. Ok, so maybe it’s not ironic.

    I get prospective customers all the time who want me to do their market analysis for them or tell them what their customers would want in a product. (My company sells equipment for them to make the product to sell to the market.) I tell them that they have to tell me that; I don’t know their customers or what part of the market they’re trying to target. And even when I do know, I generally can’t speak to it because of an NDA with another customer. I don’t think that customer would appreciate me giving a competitor a bunch of free information that my existing customer spent the time and money to develop.

    I can smell these from a mile away. They try to flatter me by saying I’m the expert and want a bunch of information/data before even considering spending a tiny fraction of money to engage our services.

    Prospective employees should treat these companies the way I do, which is pretty much what Nick recommends. Put out an appetizer; when they want more, give them the menu with the pricing. Watch how fast they suddenly find themselves full. Honest companies will pony up.

  6. This is more about consulting than job seeking, but the same basic issue — several years ago, I submitted a detailed proposal to a prospective client. I did not get the gig. But I saw that they had hired a staff person to do the task and it was obvious that my proposal was the foundation of that person’s job description.

    I will no longer answer RFP’s for that reason. When a prospect asks me for a proposal, I submit a very brief overview of what I would propose to do, with some basic deliverables, and the bulk of my document focused on my qualifications. If that’s not good enough for them, then sorry.

    • I, too, eschew RFPs and refuse to do spec work. Many years ago, a colleague in the consulting arena gave me a terrific piece of advice concerning RFPs: “Keep your proposal to one page. If they want more than that, charge for it.”

  7. A prospective client usually asks for a writing sample. This prospective client asked me to write up page three of a “test manual.” At the time, I wasn’t familiar with Ask The Headhunter, so I wrote up the page and submitted it. Then I asked around my writing community to see if anyone else had heard from this client. Turns out that the client had approached many writers. He gave each one a different page number. In the end, the client got a free user manual, and we got nothing.

  8. Why am I not surprised at the number of outright scams some employers run to get free work by conducting “interviews” for what turn out to be fake jobs?

    @William R Husa: Yours takes the cake. Any employer who takes the time to break down a job into sections so he can give each to a different “mark” so the entire project will be done for free deserves to be reported to his state’s department of labor and employment. Perhaps there is no law against fleecing job applicants, but somewhere there’s an appalled bureaucrat who will make that employer’s life miserable.

    • What if they simply had spent that time writing the manual?

      • >What if they simply had spent that time writing the manual?

        Would be terrible as that requires people with manual writing abilites.

        Any idiot can run an interview.

  9. Not the same exact thing, but does “never work for free” apply to volunteering too? I’m long term unemployed, and people keep insisting that I MUST volunteer somewhere so I have something to put on my resume. Problem is, I did a ton of volunteering and a couple unpaid internships in college, and I was never able to get a job in my field. All that free work didn’t do anything for me, and I remember a few interviewers asking me if that work was paid or not, and then being dismissive since it wasn’t. I don’t think being able to list more unpaid work on my resume is going to make me seem valuable, it’ll just show that my work isn’t worth paying for.

    • Sorry to say, the assumption now is that only the unemployable/wealthy retired/housewives volunteer. I volunteered a lot in addition to FT work throughout my career, and none of those connections paid off when we hit the great recession. I do think you can volunteer with coworkers to build teams, and work on professional issues or to “test the waters” of leadership, for example–hard for women to get those opportunities so some of us build skills that way. However: you may make lasting friends and be around great people while volunteering, which is something. Try adding something like “I do a pro bono project every year for a different nonprofit; this year it was XXX”. Make it a distinct project, and make sure they will be a reference for you, or see if you can attend an event and meet people.

      We seem to be at the depths of self-centeredness now in the U.S.–I keep hoping that people will start looking up from their phones and start valuing each other again! Sigh.

    • I’m sorry that happened to you, but I’m glad you shared it. People need to understand that volunteering often doesn’t “pay off” for one’s career or job search and can even count against you.

      • I am on the board of two 501c3 charities. I don’t do it to brag, I do it because I am committed to these causes.

        If you’re volunteering to make contacts – only to make contacts – IMHO you’re not understanding “volunteering.”

        But… I am surprised at the above claim that it can actually work against you!

        • 1) Volunteering is regularly recommended to people as a way to make contacts.

          2) Here’s how it can work against you: In some people’s minds, working for free devalues your work. Like you had to give it away because it wasn’t good enough to pay for. I know I know – “you wouldn’t want to work for people like that anyway”. But most of us can’t afford to pick and choose employers according to their attitudes towards volunteering among all the other factors we must consider.

    • I’ve done plenty of volunteer work in between contracts, sometimes for a period as long as a year. I highlight new or relevant skills to my profession on my resume which I hadn’t obtained from paying gigs. My take is this: I’m showing initiative in continuing to do SOMETHING with my time while unemployed (and for causes I truly believe in) and I’m continuing to hone skills that are applicable to any job. Discipline, perseverance, problem-solving, leadership functions, and team work will always translate to a paid job.

      There is often some grunt work in volunteer roles, things most people don’t want to do, but volunteers are not too proud. Volunteerism shows a kind heart and helpful, humble spirit – traits any wise employer should recognize and desire in a candidate!

      I think any employer who asks if the work was paid is someone I wouldn’t want to work for anyway. As an aside, I think everyone should experience unemployment for at least six months once in their life and maybe then there would be more compassion toward those who are doing their best to use their time and talents wisely while continuing to job-hunt.

  10. As another commenter mentioned this smells like fishing for free work. If I had a legit idea of the offer. If I felt this was the final phase of the process and this was a final proof point I may consider providing some things but frankly they should have already established you can provide the plan they are asking does. Too many red flags here. Now what we need is a registry for companies that try this nonsense so others don’t fall into the same trap.

  11. So many companies pull this stunt, that there are even job boards that let you report fake jobs now.

    My trouble with this “show your work” appetizers is I can never work out how to show enough without giving away too much.

    Showing demos and samples of past work is one thing(and a very understandable request) but doing the work specifically for them?

    It is something I’m trying to work on. The line seems rather blurry.

    • Where are these fake job job boards? I would love to contribute structural engineering firms that do this.

  12. I just had an interview with a structural engineering firm that was hiring a senior engineering position. The interview started out well. In the interview, I was told that the head of the firm needed design samples of my engineering work. He asked for my calcs and plans as well as a sample plan review I did. I asked him why he did not set up using Zoom where I could project the plans. He refused to. So then he sent me an email asking me for my plan review checklists. I knew he was using the interviews for free consulting.

  13. I do take a “do the job” approach to interviews. For me, a reasonable place to draw a line is to lay some issue or problem during the interview, and then ask for insights that can be prepared in 10-15 minutes using references (maybe a map, or a page from a spreadsheet) that I provide. I’m then assured that the applicant did the work and get a sense of approach and efficiency.

    My industry also relies on RFP’s extensively to select design firms, but I make every effort to stick to questions that will highlight potential differences in the final products and the construction and design budgets. I always include an evaluation matrix so respondents will know what we care about. (And that matrix varies by the project.) We ask for interviews or presentations by the proposed team only when that matters. We share the list of those invited to respond so everyone knows who the competition is.

  14. This seems a bit like doping in sports. You may not want to do it, but enough other people WILL do it, so you take yourself out of the running. Tough choice.

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