Employers are more cautious than ever about hiring people. The cost of hiring the wrong person is just too great because budgets are so tight. Managers want to get it right the first time.

We all know that traditional interviews are not a great way to evaluate a job candidate. And I talk myself blue in the face suggesting that “doing the job in the interview” is the best way to convince an employer you’re right for the job.

Some employers go about this a bit differently but with the same intent. They want proof you can produce. Some will ask for work samples. And that’s a thorny issue that one reader just asked me about.

I interviewed with a company 4 times. On the 4th interview the hiring manager asked me to provide any kind of document as an example of the kind of work that I do related to leading development of web-based applications. This put me in a difficult spot because a document like the one he asked for is work that I’ve done for previous employers and is covered by non-disclosure and other agreements. There are public marketing materials and web sites for the products I’ve led development on, and I offered my references, but that wasn’t enough for them.

I was surprised by the request and uncomfortable but really wanted the position. So I took a high level document that I created in the past, blacked out any section that contained non-public information, then pasted images of the pages into a new document to make sure those sections could not be recovered. A few days later they told me that they were not going to move forward with me as a candidate.

What do you think of employers making this kind of request, and how should candidates respond?

Respecting confidentiality is a character trait. Some people just don’t have it. It’s surprising when a corporate manager dismisses confidentiality for the sake of expediency. I think you did the right thing.

Nonetheless, I think companies are smart to request work samples. Some candidates just can’t deliver on the promises that are in their resumes. So the burden is on the candidate.

First, I’d make it clear to the employer that your past work is subject to NDA and you cannot share it. Apologize anyway, and explain that you would respect his company’s confidentiality just as you respect your old employers’.

Second, be armed. Prepare some work samples that you can share without risk. What you prepared for this guy sounds legit. But take some time to think about it. Come up with the best examples you can and have them ready. In fact, I’d offer to share them before an employer even asks. It gives you a edge.

Finally, if an employer is unsatisfied with what you’ve provided but you think they are worthy, offer to do a bit of work to show what you can do. I’m not suggesting working for free. Just do enough to show them what you’re capable of. It might mean a couple of hours on site with a team at the company, or a couple of hours working at home on a problem or simple project. In this case, you could ask the manager about a “live” project he’s working on, and then produce part of a project plan to show him how you would tackle it. A manager is not likely to ask for something like this. But he might be grateful if you offered it.

There are always many ways to skin the proverbial cat. My guess is these guys had other issues with you, or perhaps they have an issue with confidentiality. My advice: Move on to the next, but be better prepared.

  1. I’ve long advocated techies bringing a portfolio of work.

    Anyone into programming, system administration or similar techie-related areas can easily create a portfolio of work by helping out on an open source project. The very nature of open source means that you can show your work around anywhere.

  2. Hi Nick,

    Great post.

    I love what you said in the last paragraph about offering to do a bit of work to prove this person’s ability in place of giving up something that contained confidential information. I’ve told a couple of clients in the past with similar situations. In those cases, one got hired, one didn’t.

    I think it is pretty crappy that an employer demands proof of actual work when their own work is just as private. A substitute should suffice, but I guess it doesn’t.

    Interesting topic.

  3. I agree. It doesn’t sound like they had issues with the confidentiality thing (as you were able to come up with a reasonable workaround), at least just based on what’s in the letter here. I’d be more inclined to assume that they decided the match wasn’t right, or that another candidate was a better match.

    I often ask for work samples — I actually prefer new work samples created just for the interviewing process, but I’ll take prior work samples in many cases, such as if it would be time-consuming to produce something new. I think it’s good for both the employer and the candidate, since it’s to the candidate’s advantage too to make sure he/she is well-matched with the employer’s expectations before signing on.

  4. Instead of asking for a work sample, I just give them a simple programming task. I let them ask questions and write pseudo-code on the board so they can talk their way through it. I’d rather an interactive chat about this.

  5. Bob,

    Kudos to you! Working with the candidate during the interview is the best way I know to figure out whether they can do the job… It also often frees them from their nervousness because they get to “do the job” rather than just do an interview.

  6. That whole “cost of hiring the wrong person is just too great” thing is really what’s driving employment decisions today. It’s not about seeing what each person brings. It’s about fear of making hiring mistakes. That’s why some ask for samples of past work.

    Still, it’s too much of a disconnect between the work you did for someone else and the work you can do for them. That’s why I much prefer to generate actual samples that’s related to their company, their project, their industry (that’s the essence of that 3rd “Finally” point.)

    Yes, give a little for Free, not the whole store. Some managers who see you do too much may think you’re too desperate to make a sale and will give too much away to prospective client. We’ll give you 2 free pieces of chicken, and if you want the whole bucket, ya gotta pay!