Discussion: March 16, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter

In today’s newsletter a reader says:

I work as a design engineer in an industry where projects are typically confidential. However, prospective employers frequently ask to see a portfolio. I am comfortable showing one in person, where I can control its dissemination, but do not want to e-mail or send a hard copy. How do I let them know that without sounding like I’m trying to weasel my way into an interview?

How to Say It: So… your portfolio of work might help you land a great job, but showing it might also get you fired or sued.

Okay folks: Can this reader reveal the evidence of his abilities without adverse consequences? Is there some other way to leverage his portfolio without leaving it lying around?

Or, should he just spread his stuff around and stop worrying about it?


  1. He shouldn’t spread his stuff around. Rather, he should be able to say that his work requires someone to help guide through an understanding of the work and that as the work is usually confidential, this means face to face meetings keeping an eye on the release of such material.

    Another way to think of this is that some employers may view someone that spreads their stuff around as someone that doesn’t uphold the confidentiality of the work. IOW, an employer may see this as a test of whether or not you protect intellectual property so while there may be some adverse consequences, I’d rather uphold my principles and understand that not everyone works that way.

  2. I agree with JB King that it is imperative to handle private and confidentiality (P&C) information with your upmost care. A breach of confidentiality would result lost of the hard-earned professional designation in my profession.

    In the past, when I was asked similar questions in my interviews, I always politely explained my concerns to the prospective employers and followed immediately with a suggestion list of appropriate scope for discussion. For example, I could and was happy to discuss the concepts, issues involved and steps that I took to resolve them.

    The risks involved go both ways: either offend the interviewers or lost my professional qualification. I chose to safeguard my integrity and kept my figure crossed. Afterall, one would never know if it was part of the test like JB King said.

    Not all interviewers appreciated this approach of course. But it is the best that I could do without compromising my profession code of ethics. I believe that I could better please an ethical employer for the benefits of my long run career.

    I am interested to learn from your experience if you have approached differently and ethically.

  3. A smart hiring manager knows it’s not “design” capability that make the difference in a good hiring decision but whether or not a candidate’s “designs” created business value. (As in top line growth and bottom line earnings). The first order of business is not for a candidate to divulge proprietary info in the interest of advancing their career but to show the business value (preferably in dollars) their designs created. If that’s not enough initially to attract an interview, then that’s a strong signal the hiring manager is a card carrying member of the dumb-hire crowd. Do you want to position yourself for that crowd or the smart-hire crowd?

  4. As the other commentators have noted, it is integral to uphold confidentiality agreements. Let me propose a solution from my own experience in a similar situation.

    Create an online or offline design portfolio of your own projects. This step shows initiative and that you respect confidentiality. I used to write online help files for a software firm. I could not distribute an actual sample except for a few approved screen shots that were in the public domain. I created a small help file as part of my overall writing portfolio.

    Another suggestion, if your company has such things, it is to present a seminar at annual client/user conferences. Those are usually not covered under confidentiality agreements if they are held in a public locale. Or you could ask permission beforehand to use such a presentation in your personal portfolio. Especially if you select a topic or project outside of your normal scope of expertise. That would provide you with an actual work sample for future employers or clients.

    For example, one year I did a seminar on Ergonomics. Another year I presented Gender Communication styles. Both were outside of my normal job tasks; however, provided actual technical work samples for my writing portfolio.

  5. As a technical communicator and business analyst, it is expected that I have samples of work to share. I do, but they come in two categories: publicly releasable or confidential.

    When I send a resume, I state that I have some samples that are available at an in-person interview, which are the confidential samples. There are also samples that I have either retained copyright on or that I have permission to show on my web site that are viewable with a link, which is sent to a prospective employer or client if requested.

    The confidential samples go with me to an interview. They don’t leave the room. They are not available to copy. And I don’t leave them!

    If asked, I say, regretfully “I am very sorry, but I can’t do that. My past client/employer allows me to show these samples as long as they are not reproduced or left anywhere. I am sure you understand this, and would want the same consideration for your confidential materials as well.”

    What can they say at that point but “ok”? If they don’t think that’s ok, and they insist on keeping copies of what I have explained is confidential, then they aren’t ethical enough for me to work for. I thank them, gather my materials, and leave. End of story.

    I hope this helps. Oh, and as a postscript, I don’t leave any samples behind any more, because some of them were lost by the prospective employer. They can print copies from the non-confidential samples on my website.

  6. Allowing someone to see or read a confidential document or presentation is NOT protecting the confidentiality of the information.

    Confidentiality means not sharing it with anyone that the owner of the confidential information (i.e., usually your client or employer)has not specifically given you permission to share it with.

    Sharing it with a not approved person can cause you to be legally liable for any damages that the owner of the confidential information can substantiate to a court. This will cost you time and probably money as well as damaging your reputation.

    Do NOT share confidential information with anyone other than your employer or your client.

  7. On a radio show dedicated to careers, I recently heard that employers are requesting work samples more regularly.

    At first I thought, “Wow! This is great!” To get the work by showing how you’d do the work, very ATH-like.

    Then I heard more details about this. The job candidate was in the fashion industry. She was asked to submit some designs to show that she had what it takes to do the job. She never got the job, yet some of her ideas were actually were used in that outfit’s clothing lines.

    I tried to call in, yet the show ran out of time. The career couneselor said that with today’s anxieties in getting a job, some candidates are out to demonstrate all kinds of enthusiasm, including working for free. He also spoke of how some unpaid internships specifically take advantage of this desperation, verbally promising to introduce the candidate to a new line of work if they pay their dues. The employer, however, never pays.

    So in regards to this question of giving free samples, leaving portfolios behind, etc. I think it’s really up to each individual to consider the specific opportunity at hand beforehand. To what extent will you give away and where will you stop?

    Because as it also turns out, some employers want to see if you’re willing to give away the store just to land a sale, and that in itself is to some a mark of incompetence.

  8. I said earlier, and may not have been completely clear:

    “If asked, I say, regretfully “I am very sorry, but I can’t do that. My past client/employer allows me to show these samples as long as they are not reproduced or left anywhere. I am sure you understand this, and would want the same consideration for your confidential materials as well.”

    I DO have permission to show the samples, just not to allow anyone to reproduce them or leave them with anyone. Most people won’t remember the details of an API document that I created if they just give it a three-minute look.

    Hope this clears up my statement. I don’t provide–or show–any samples that I don’t have permission to do so.

  9. Diana O’s approach sounds very good to me. I would also suggest taking steps to build a collection of public samples already when having a job. As already mentioned, presentations in conferences or meetings is one possibility. Another idea would be to select a recent project in which the client was particularly satisfied, and suggest to the communications staff that it would make a good “success story” for company marketing purposes. If they and the client decide to go further with that you’ll soon have a nice article to point at, and you can describe to prospective future employers how you were part of that successful project.

  10. Another approach when asked for samples is to offer to outline how you’d tackle a live problem the employer is facing right now… Don’t give away all your ideas, but show how you would use which tools to get the job done. If the job and company are very appealing to you, offer to come in for half a day and work with the team. You might spend that time job hunting, but if you’ve got a live one, feed it! (Again, be careful. Don’t give away free work. Use the opportunity to suggest what you can do.) An employer that brings you in like that is also making a commitment of his/her own time… putting you on more solid footing for an offer.

  11. He already said it. It’s not that he doesn’t want to share it electronically or otherwise; it’s that he CAN’T.

    “I’m comfortable showing some of my portfolio that my confidentiality agreement allows me to do; there are other things I’d love to share, but there’s no way I will violate the confidentiality agreement I have with my employer; I’m sure you’d understand.

    As far as how I share it, I only feel comfortable sharing my work in person where I can control it’s dissemination; I don’t email it or send hard copies.

    My fear (and I may be offbase) is that this might be perceived as a “hook” tactic to get an interview and because of this, you probably won’t invite me in at all. Do you get the feeling this is a show-stopper?”

    It’s candid and he brings up the possibility of it being a show stopper first (guts and credibility). He’s in control; if it’s really a show-stopper he gets to call it first, not the other way around. How he delivers the line will probably get him the interview, since he’s already gone to the most negative first, and the interviewer will want to pull it out and make it a positive.

    Good luck.

  12. I worked in the hi-tech industry for over 40 years in R&D. A common trait is that IP (Intellectual Property) is sacred. One company was paranoid about it with a degree of secrecy that the military would envy.
    I’ll give them this too. Integrity. In an interview of course you’d talk about technology and you couldn’t always 100% keep away from someone elses, nor avoid some discussion of ours. But by and large 1) we never asked for evidence of know-how in the form of revealing IP, 2) we definitely didn’t want to see hard copy portfolios, 3)if you spilled your guts on someone else’s IP, you were out of there.
    We felt if you talked about your employer’s IP, you’d talk about ours & in our business it was a given you’d have signed a non disclosure with your employer & you were violating it.
    hence we definitely weren’t offended if you said you couldn’t talk about something nor would it be likely that we’d be probing in that kind of direction. We’d check out your prowess without going that route.
    A safer example would be your involvement in released products, backed up with a lot of publically disclosed information that did not violate non disclosures.
    And if you plan ahead and be pro-active, start authoring white papers which as a matter of process must get corporate approval to be published. Authorship/co-authorship of these give you excellent fodder for interviews as again they are in the public domain.
    And a point to consider: You don’t have an opportunity for a good job, if you get asked for or about IP in its pursuit. It’s not a good company. Walk away & don’t look back. They know better.
    In life, timing is everything, so wait until your work is a released product and public, get published, other-wise keep your portfolio to yourself. And by the way that guideline includes after you’re hired. The right kind of company will walk you to the door if you drop someone’s IP on the table. You can’t be denied your experience & knowhow, but it’s use is generalized and assumed derived from your work. But when you specifically relate it to someone elses protected IP e.g. here’s what we did with product X or here’s what they are working on, you’ve cross a line.

  13. @Don: Very nice summary of the issues that should matter to people (and employers)!

  14. As Diana said above, I created an online portfolio including some magazine publications of mine, two bits of training software I had permission to share, and a manual I had written that is now in the public domain. (I wrote it for the Feds, who by law can’t hold a copyright.) It worked.

  15. Instead of saying it, show it.

    Even though it would take a lot of work, I would build a device that shows your skills, prototype it, and show it to potential employers. A prototype printed circuit board with components costs less than $200. A small mechanical device can be machined for around the same, provided you write the g-code yourself. There is lots of free design software available on the internet. Even if you are an integrated circuit designer, if you can get academic or entrepeneurial support, you can prototype an IC in older technology for under $1000 through MOSIS.

    Yes, it takes a lot of time and money, but it is concrete proof that you can go from an idea to a functional prototype. Even if you spend your evenings for a couple months designing and documenting a device, the document demonstrates your skills and how current they are. (You are doing ongoing professional development, right?)

    Few engineers would spend the time and money doing something like this, so this would knock an employer’s socks off. Just be careful and review your employment contract for things you create on your own time.