I know you have addressed this in the past but it’s the first time I’ve encountered an employer that wants me to do free work to earn a job interview. I applied for a senior marketing position and, after an initial phone interview (with HR, who couldn’t talk about marketing), I was told that the next step would be an in-person meeting with the department.
Instead, I was sent three assignments to complete, all due in two days with “no late assignments will be accepted” thrown in. Having many years of senior-level experience, I was insulted. Very nicely, I told them I would share examples of previous work and even talk to marketing department members to show how I could increase revenue. I ended stating that, if that was not acceptable, that I would withdraw my application. I heard back that I was (surprise!) “No longer in consideration.”
Do you have any good ways for job candidates to express to employers how insulting it is to make people do free work for them in the hopes of maybe, possibly, getting a job?
Love your column! Thanks for all the great advice.
I don’t know one company whose executive team, or board of directors, ever reviews the recruiting practices of their HR department. They have no idea how many good candidates they’re losing over poor practices. This is why in many instances good headhunters decline to work with companies via their HR office — they’re not going to waste perfectly good candidates.
Can they ask me to do free work?
While testing your skills and knowledge shouldn’t be a problem, no employer should assign substantial work tasks to job candidates in whom the company has not yet invested any of its own time!
So, what do you, as a job seeker out there on your own, say in that situation? Here are a few suggestions.
I don’t do free work
How to Say It
“I don’t work for free. But I’d be happy to do your assignments at my normal $1,000/day rate, and if you hire me I’ll credit that against my salary.”
If you’re willing to compromise in exchange for a talk with the hiring manager — before you do any of that work — this could give you a substantial edge if you ever get the interview. However, you must be ready to ask a pithy question or two that will impress the manager.
How to Say It
“I’d be happy to do the assignments but I have a few questions about X, Y, Z [where X, Y, Z are highly technical marketing issues that HR could not possibly understand.] If the hiring manager would call me, I’m sure they could provide the information I need in about 5 minutes. No, I can’t submit the questions in writing because that would just result in more questions and require more follow-up information.”
One of the best responses is exactly the one you offered: “If that’s not acceptable, I will withdraw my application.”
Be ready to walk away
I give you credit for being explicit about withdrawing your application. HR already wasted your time in the screening call simply because HR is not qualified to discuss marketing. More to the point of your question, you have no idea who is going to review your “assignments” or even what they’re really looking for. There’s just too much chance you’ll be dismissed by an unqualified judge for the wrong reasons!
You must be ready to walk away if the employer is intent on violating your ethical and professional standards — and if it is wasting your time. The next step is to find a more worthy employer.
Ask about the free work policy
If you have no future designs on this company, I’d send a brief e-mail to the CEO or chair of the board describing what happened – with no complaints or recriminations, just the facts. Close with something like this.
How to Say It
“I wish I’d had a chance to meet with your marketing manager so that I could present the mini-business plan I created showing how I can do the job to add more profit to the firm’s bottom line. In today’s economy, when filling important jobs is so difficult, do you keep any metrics on how many excellent candidates you lose because HR doesn’t know anything about marketing when it conducts screening calls?”
Too busy to do free work
To avoid a “next time,” don’t agree to be screened by HR for any job. Tell HR you’d be happy to talk with them after you and the hiring manager have determined there is a mutual interest in investing more time.
How to Say It
“As a senior professional I’m extremely busy. I’m interested in your job opportunity, but my time is limited. I’d prefer to talk with a marketing peer at your company before taking time for discussions with HR.”
Fielding solicitations from recruiters and HR does not require that you suspend your standards of what’s reasonable, or that you jump through hoops or that you do free work to earn a job interview. I think you already know exactly what to do because you already did it! Again, my compliments. The loss is theirs.
For most employers, it’s a long way to acquiring the skills necessary to go out and find the best candidates who are worth recruiting, enticing, cajoling, seducing and convincing to take a job. What candidates like you are subjected to is embarrassing. That employer wants you to do all the work of assessing whether you’re worth talking to. The shame is the HR clerk’s for rejecting you because you won’t do their work for them.
Thanks for your kind words about Ask The Headhunter!
We’ve discussed doing free work before
And my good buddy Suzanne Lucas (a.k.a., The Evil HR Lady), offers some perspective, too: Job Interview or Bake-Off?
What’s your experience with “Do these assignments first!” Have you ever refused? Have you done the assignments only to get rejected without an interview at all? Where do such interview practices belong in the hiring process?