One of my favorite job-advice pundits is The Evil HR Lady, Suzanne Lucas, who calls ’em as she sees ’em. In her current post, Job Interview or Bake-Off?, she deals with the subject of employers who tease job hunters with interviews… if only they will do some free work first.

Say what?

It happens more often than you’d think. The employer wants to see samples of your work. Well, not just samples, but, Here’s an assignment that will take you a few days to complete. Bring us the results… heh-heh… and we’ll see which “candidate” did the best job.

Then it’s off to the bank with your work… while you cool your heels “waiting to hear back.”

ConmanI’ve known a handful of people who have actually worked for a few days at no charge, to show an employer that they are really expert at the work. (In every case, the person got the job, and also got paid for the time they invested. Why would anyone even try this if they weren’t 100% confident of the outcome?) But it wasn’t because the employer asked them to — it was because they suggested it. It was never a case of, Do the work, or you get no interview.

My bet is that the “creative” job hunter in the Evil HR Lady’s column is being scammed, whether intentionally or not.

While I advocate “showing the employer what you can do,” I draw the line at doing free work, unless the integrity of the employer is beyond reproach. This reader wouldn’t be asking the question if it were.

If the employer here is merely naive, I’d like to know whether “the work” to be delivered is something the employer can actually use and profit from, or is it merely a demonstration of your skills? Even if there’s nothing in the work that the employer can profit from, the problem is that “2-4 days of work” is going to cost the job applicant a lot.

It’s simply unethical (and perhaps illegal) to ask job candidates to deliver actual work like that. But it’s not uncommon. It’s part of Deceptive Recruiting, a topic I’ve already covered in its myriad nasty forms.

If I were the applicant, I’d offer other means of demonstrating my abilities. If the employer insists on a bake-off, I’d submit a bill in advance for my time and ask the employer to pay it prior to submitting anything.

What if the employer says no dice, as the job applicant in this story fears? Then I’d submit a detailed non-disclosure agreement for them to sign — along with an agreement that they will not use the work product in any way, shape or form except to evaluate you.

Let’s see how ethical they really are.

There’s nothing wrong with showing an employer what you can do, and the extent to which you do that must be based on the employer’s integrity. And there’s nothing wrong with walking away from jerks who want free work. Because, what do you think they’re going to want from you if they hire you?


  1. I’m a consultant that teaches agile software development. This approach to building software is highly collaborative and team based. It is almost impossible to know how a person is going to perform in this environment without working with them a bit. Several companies I know have the applicant come in and do a day of ‘pairing’ with the team to see how they do in real life situations. This is only after a series of phone interviews, and maybe a face to face to make sure we have a fit. The intent is to hire the person if it works out… it’s an expensive exercise for both sides.

  2. I’ve had a # of candidates who offered to do this, when I was in a company & a hiring manager, ran across some fellow job hunters when I was job hunting who thought this a good tactic, and as a recruiter.
    It sounds like a good idea, but in the world I lived with, even if legal, working “free” would bring the HR/Administrative arms to their knees. Just think of on the job injuries for starters.
    “Try before you buy”/contract to hire has a lot going for it and will accomplish the same thing, even if for a day. Why mess around with the kind of dancing it takes to set up some kind of free “sound of one hand clapping” work arrangements.
    We know new jobs and new hires have a certain amount of risk, no matter how well you think you interview, or how well you assess a new employer. It’s simply not as good being there with feet-on-the-ground.
    So if both parties are really sincere and someone is actually willing to work for free, then pay them. You’ll both find out what you want to know and hiring/acceptance transactions can be based on informed decisions. You’ll only have to ponder duration.
    This is a real issue where I work. We’re a very small privately owned company. We’ve been working at building a sr mgmt team (i.e. a bunch of VPs). In this economy we get a lot of response from people who’ve worked in the fast lane in mega corporations or simply “big” companies compared to us. Sure we’d like to inject that know how into our company. But from painful experience there’s two factors at negative play. Transitioning from big to tiny, and high stress fast pace to a slower pace. I don’t think anyone’s fibbing when they say they not only can do it, but welcome it. But it hasn’t been working and we’ve had turnover with related frustration among the troops. It comes down to we’d like to KNOW people (and vs versa) before that step’s taken.
    So we’re going to change our hiring model to introduce an intermediate step. We’re thinking of bringing candidates for VPs aboard in an interim value-add role (e.g. program manager) during which they assess us, and vs versa. Probably contract to hire. I’ve tested the idea out with some potential candidates and they don’t run away screaming. At the very least if they do the job asked, they’ll add value, have something meaningful on their resume, & at the most transition into the target job (VP). If they don’t adjust, can’t do the interim job or with feet on the ground they get a reality check that I don’t think I’d like working here. we both find out what we want to know.
    Further this approach won’t whipsaw their departments around with a “new man, new plan” effect.
    When I started here we didn’t do any contract hiring at all for any role. The boss is beginning to find it more attractive.

  3. Killer idea, Don.

    I might also add that this would work for an “overqualified” candidate too. Rather than turn away someone with “too much” experience applying for a lower level role, let them work contract to see if they can handle the reduced status and pay. You might acquire some bench strength you didn’t anticipate. And if they are truly overqualified, the training curve should be short.

    It’s just plain dumb to turn away someone with excess experience simply because they used to make 2x what you are willing to pay. And if they are going to have a chip on their shoulder for taking a “lesser” job, that will become apparent in team interviews and you don’t proceed.

    It’s time for creativity and thought in the HR and recruiting process. Your approach shows just that.

  4. Good point Spencer. I hadn’t connected those dots. Fortunately my boss/President is in your camp. He just doesn’t buy into the overqualified concept. He’s in to value-add & treating people like adults. He can’t understand why you wouldn’t be very interested in someone who brings extra value into the company.

  5. Mike-

    Having people pair program to see how well they work together is a great idea as long as you don’t cross the line into “work for us for nothing now and maybe we’ll pay you later”. An hour or two at most counts as interviewing but a full day does cross that line, I think. If your candidates are young/naive/desperate enough to fall for it it may work but you’re not behaving ethically so you’re going to lose the more experienced/sophisticated/in-demand candidates.

    I know one software company that demands that job candidates work there for a week before deciding to hire. This is pretty extreme but not unethical because they do pay them for that week.

    It all may seem a bit hazy in the software world where open source work IS done for free, but the line should be pretty clear when two people in the same room are doing the same pair-programming job and one is being paid and the other one isn’t.

  6. Speaking of software, when I was a manager in computer companies, in their high flying days internal competetion was intense for good talent. One way I won out was to offer candidates the opportunity to shadow my team or in academic terms monitor the course. I knew that my recruiting was visionary, blue sky level, selling mission, concepts, …the spriit of the business. That’s nice & I wanted new hires to know it. But on their side that and a dime would get you a cup of coffee. Other than the generally implications of programming (testing actually as I was software QA), were understood, it didn’t give them an idea of what a “day in the life of someone working for me was like” what we actually did, how we did it, and so forth. So if I liked them, I had them interview with my managers, (still nothing new there) AND if interested to come back and sit with a programmer, attend a staff meeting. This was their option, not a requirement, and they did no work. They observed and asked questions. Questions are in many cases a much better source of information, than answers. You got a good feel for their smarts, and interest.
    It worked really well, as they had a very clear idea of what it would be like to work in my team, and vs an imaginary idea of what it was like working for others they talked to.

  7. @Don: Gee, why just pay candidates to try them out? Why not pay them to interview?

    We discussed this a while back: Get Paid to Interview for a Job?

    And I covered it in the newsletter, too: What if employers had to pay for job interviews?

    It’s not so crazy. Think of all the wasted interviews that would be eliminated. Think of the work employers would have to do to prepare for an interview they were paying for. Think of how they would research candidates before bringing them in.

    (Isn’t it hilarious? Job candidates are warned to “do their homework on a company prior to the interview. Read the news about them. Check their stock. Study the annual report. Get to know the products, etc. Yet, what kind of research do employers do before they bring in a candidate? NONE. They read the resume. What a crock. It’s embarrassing. Show me one HR exec who teaches HR staff to “study the candidate.” To borrow a quote from Lenny Bruce, in a “bit” he did about how new inmates are prepared for live in prison… “Scrub ’em up and get ’em ready!”)

    What a concept: Putting a cost on hiring! (Sorry, HR, but the cost you represent most of the time is a LOSS, not the kind of investment I’m talking about.

  8. the ultimate of preparedness, a true story, is to be asked by the interviewer what he’s interviewing me for, with an obviously unread resume in hand. and this wasn’t a trip down the street. this was a cross country fly in and stay overnight trip

  9. G… I agree that a whole day is a bit much. A few hours has typically been enough.

    I was just making the point that I think some “free work” could be fair for a person very far along in the process. I’ve travelled across the country for an entire day of interviews… is there a difference in your view… especially when being able to pair is an essential job responsibility?

    Is the difference here that work product is being created, not just time spent? I don’t have a strong opinion either way. I’m genuinely interested in your perception of the differentiator.

  10. Mike-

    To me, the differentiator is the work product being created. If you’re having people do real work producing something of value to the company during the interview process then it has to be for a very limited time like an hour, or two hours at most.

    Long interviews, interviews with lots of different people, programmers submitting example programs, writing samples — all of those are legitimate. It’s debatable how effective each one is and how attractive they make your company to the candidate, but none of them cross the line into “work for free” territory.

  11. I believe that part of the problem hails from the days of lifetime employment at one company. Or the factory mindset that Seth Godin describes in his books and blogs.

    Corporate jobs are advertised as “permanent,” but the collective mindset doesn’t factor in that most people don’t spend decades at one job anymore, let alone years. But the hiring equation doesn’t reflect this in most cases. We are taught to view the interview process and subsequent negotiations far beyond likely common-sense scenarios of a few years or until the project has ended. The employer hires “long” instead of thinking about acute short-term needs.

    In my opinion, all jobs should be on a paid trial basis. Whether for a week, a month or longer to ensure a proper mutual fit. Then sign employment contracts instead of “at will” arrangements that mostly benefit the employer. Contracts show commitment on both sides of the equation. When asked, “How long will you stay with us,” the response could be, “At least until my contract expires.”

    I also like Nick’s idea of presenting the employer/client with a bill for the interview.

  12. Many of the ideas presented seem to be applicable to the person who is either currently not employed, or someone willing to jump from position to position. Although I agree that the era of lifetime employment is over, what about the people who are in reasonably stable positions but are ready to move to something bigger? Plus, add in the “family” factor and I wonder if many of these approaches would scare off good candidates?

    Although the idea of “try before you buy” sounds good, would someone looking at a VP level position, who is currently employed and has a family, really be willing to make a jump for a “temporary position” with a promise that it would lead to a high level position? I think many qualified candidates would be scared off.

    What about the person currently employed in the industry? Could they really work a problem for a competitor which is going to lead to something profitable? If it was found out, could it put them in hot water?

    I’ve found that hiring is a risky proposition. On both sides. You need to get as much information as possible to ensure it is a good fit, but at some point, you need to take the plunge. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. Yes, firing someone is hard. Really, really hard. But if you can’t fire someone, are you really going to be competitive in a tough marketplace?

  13. I was once actually hired for a job based on being called in to critique a piece of their software. My critique was good enough that they hired me a Product Development Manager. By the time I was on board, they had already implemented all of my suggestions. Was that a mistake on my part?

    OTOH, during my last job search I applied for a posted writing job, and was asked to show my skills by writing positive reviews of their products at various e-stores. That’s just plain fraud, IMO.

  14. I think this explains best how to handle the situation (or any situation where you’re asked to work for free):

  15. The tech world especially keeps skewing these hiring practices, whereas because engineers can’t seem to get their act together and egos clash making it almost impossible to work as a team.

    The problem is that engineers are getting jobs TOO easily now, they hop from one place to the other because companies are desperate for them, based merely on skill set and hardly even experience, and when they get into a team they are not a good fit! Personality, tem spirit, things that used to be closely scrutinized before making the decision to hire someone are now taking the back seat when it comes to engineers because companies are desperate to get someone who “can get it done” that everything else is being completely overlooked.

    And as a result, the trickle down has begun where other disciplines are being evaluated in the same manner through the means of design tests, art tests, production tests and all kinds of “skill based” criteria which really still doesn’t tell someone whether they can actually work within a team or on a specific project.