If you’re in the market for a new role, you know job hunting takes a fair amount of effort. From sending out your resume to networking to updating your LinkedIn to completing applications, it’s always good news to hear that a hiring manager is interested in interviewing you.
However, before the initial interview (or maybe prior to a second round interview), the hiring manager sends you a request—an assignment to complete. You don’t even know if you’re a serious candidate yet and you’re being asked to do work for free.
My advice? Proceed with caution.
What are Job Interview Assignments?
Often referred to as job or pre-interview assignments, projects, assessments, or even tests, this kind of work is more broadly defined as spec work. Common in the creative and media disciplines (graphic design, blogging, social media), spec work is defined as work submitted to a prospective client (or employer) for free, prior to securing the position as a way for a client to see if they want to proceed with the candidate.
For example, a graphic designer might be asked to draft a logo design. A social media strategist might be asked to come up with ideas to engage a new audience. A writer might be asked to write a short blog post. However, spec work isn’t limited to creative fields—I’ve had a client receive a project to create a 25 question survey complete with a methodology and analysis of data (!!!). Folks in the business field might be asked to prepare a growth plan or product audit. Candidates are given a short amount of time to complete a project like this, and sometimes are given the stipulation that they must finish it in a limited number of days, otherwise they won’t even be considered.
Why Hiring Managers Send Interview “Homework”
There are a few different reasons hiring managers send interview assignments. If they’re looking at a bunch of candidates, this will help determine the skill sets and abilities of everyone in the applicant pool. Projects during the interview process help the hiring manager get a firsthand look at your approach, originality, quality of work, communication, and presentation skills. They also analyze the effort put in and turnaround speed to gauge how serious you are about the position. In short, an interview project can reveal a lot about a candidate.
By sending out a project that mimics the kind of work you’d be expected to complete in a role, hiring managers can analyze who would be a good fit and be able to succeed in the role. Some people exaggerate their qualifications—a project will help weed those people out. If the work is particularly hard for you, it may be a sign this role isn’t a fit. You and a hiring manager both have an interest in avoiding finding out a role isn’t the right fit for you after you sign on. Oftentimes assignments are built into the interview process as the “test portion of the interview,” almost like a case interview.
These types of assignments also help distinguish you as a thinker and show the unique style and creativity you bring to your work. This is a time to let your skills shine. It’s also a way for hiring managers to see if you and your thinking will mesh with the team—with smaller companies and start-ups, finding the right culture/work flow fit is a priority.
On the flip side, hiring managers can be operating with more manipulative intentions. There are lots of companies that use spec work from interview assignments as an opportunity to generate free content and ideas. Oftentimes, the companies never have the intention of making a hire. In the case of start-ups, they simply don’t have the budget to pay for the work from a contractor or fill the role. The more elaborate the assignment or higher emphasis on specific details, the more suspicious the request is. If you feel like you’re being used, trust your gut—they may in fact be trying to capitalize on your skills.
How to Handle the Request for Interview Assignments
Because it’s very difficult to discern if a project is being requested in good faith to determine the ideal candidate or get free labor, I recommend avoiding these types of projects whenever possible. You want to protect your intellectual property and your time.
Here are some strategies to consider when asked to complete spec work:
Point the hiring manager toward relevant links in your portfolio, work samples, similar work products from previous roles, or even references to show you have the skills to take on the role.
Ask to be compensated for the time completing the spec work, especially if you expect it will take over 2-3 hours of your time. A brief task to get insight into your thinking is one thing; an in-depth presentation of work you’d be hired to complete because of your expertise is another.
Ask for the employer to sign a simple NDA (there are many template forms online), which will keep your work confidential and protect you from having them use your work without paying for it or giving you credit.
Ask to add the work to your portfolio upon completion.
Ask why they’re requesting spec work and what their intentions for it are after you present it to them.
Decline spec work entirely and ask directly for an interview.
Weighing Costs Versus Benefits
At the end of the day you have to remember this assignment is still part of the interview process. It’s possible you’ll put in a lot of work to create a finished product you’re proud of—and still not get the job. Though job interview assignments can also be a great opportunity to show you’re the best applicant, I recommend you do your best to avoid situations where your talents could be exploited. An employer who is truly interested in your skills won’t make you put in excessive time and effort for work you should be paid for.
Navigating the job interview process can be complicated. If you’re currently job searching, consider enrolling in my forthcoming self-guided job transition program, The Career Blueprint Academy. You’ll access videos, worksheets, and lightening quick coaching sessions to answer your questions, help you through all of the complex steps, and get you on your way toward your next professional endeavor.