The 'working' job interviews that go too far

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To prove jobseekers' worth, some employers are asking candidates to work before they’re even hired – sometimes, on tasks that take hours, even days.

Tahlia was tentatively hopeful when she saw the ad for a senior role at a major trend-forecasting company. Her freelance design career had been curtailed by post-Brexit trading restrictions, so she was working in a minimum-wage job, while seeking avenues more aligned with her skillset.

“I thought it was worthwhile giving it a go, because the salary was £55,000 ($67,600) a year, and similar to my earnings before,” says Tahlia. “They told me I would have five interviews, and if I made it through the first three, I would be required to do a lengthy research project.” Tahlia reached the task stage, and took a week off work to focus on it wholeheartedly. 

As requested, she says she submitted a 25-page document with extensive annotations and full graphic-design elements. The next step was a face-to-face interview with two senior managers at the company, although Tahlia felt uneasy when she arrived to find only one was available. “I answered lots of searching questions about my research methods and work,” she says. “When I asked about the role, it was very vague – but it was clear I was down to three candidates, and would hear the final verdict in a week.”

The company never responded to Tahlia, despite her best efforts to make contact. “I heard about someone who’d been through the exact same thing, so it’s clear the company is garnering research for free by pretending jobs are available, and not actually following through,” says Tahlia.

Factoring some form of working task into the recruitment process has long been a way to assess a candidate’s suitability for a role. Along with being a chance for employers to see how their potential hire would approach aspects of the job, these ‘working interviews’ also enable the candidate to flex their skills, especially if they don’t thrive in the interview hotseat.

But the take-home assignment is growing to mammoth proportions. Some candidates are expected to put in days – sometimes even weeks – towards ‘proving themselves’ fit for the job. And it’s a problem, in more ways than one.

Would-be employees are finding themselves working overtime to complete take-home assignments, many of which take hours (Credit: Getty Images)

Would-be employees are finding themselves working overtime to complete take-home assignments, many of which take hours (Credit: Getty Images)

A sour taste

Whether it’s journalists pitching reams of daily story ideas; accountants taking part in two-day ‘assessment’ centres of psychometric tests, role-play tasks and presentations; or designers delivering a complex prototype, the extraction of free labour during the recruitment process can be insidious. There are very few industries absent of the practice, and it’s certainly not limited by a candidate’s level of seniority.

There are many reasons jobseekers bristle at these intensive interviews. For one, loss of time – and sometimes earnings, as in Tahlia’s case – is perhaps the most pervasive problem. Even for roles without prolonged test projects, candidates must set aside time to prepare for an interview (and if doing it face-to-face, factor in a commute). Then, piling intensive interview work on top eats up more bandwidth. And although some candidates can meet these time requirements pre- or post-work, others don’t have the same flexibility; for some, these tasks could require unpaid time off from a current job, or special childcare arrangements.

Another major issue is candidates are ostensibly doing paid work without the compensation. “Asking people to complete a test project or having them come in for a working interview isn’t unethical in itself – the problem lies in not paying candidates,” says Latesha Byrd, CEO of talent-development agency Perfeqta, based in North Carolina, US. “No matter what term you use, asking candidates to complete working interviews without pay is simply unpaid labour.”

However, beyond time and pay, proceedings can take an even darker turn when candidates discover companies are using the ideas they submit, free of charge, without permission.

Olivia, who is based in the UK, wasn’t looking to move from her company, but a former colleague invited her to apply for a role at an agency. “I met the strategy director, and was assigned a task to write a year-long social strategy, with campaign activation tactics, for one of their new clients,” she says.

After spending three days on the project, she presented it to a rapt audience, and was soon offered the job. While reflecting on whether to accept the role, the company requested Olivia send over her deck so the company’s CEO could see it. Uncomfortable with this, she offered to present it herself, to which the company declined.

Asking people to complete a test project or having them come in for a working interview isn’t unethical in itself – the problem lies in not paying candidates – Latesha Byrd

A few months later, after ultimately declining the role for other reasons, Olivia spotted a piece of influencer content on TikTok she says was based on the idea she had proposed. “Then I saw a follow-up campaign on the exact same idea,” she says. “I thought, hang on – that’s my strategy.” Although she’s glad she refused to send the entire body of work, she says she will never share any work at all with a potential employer again.

 ‘Thoughtless and indefensible’?

It’s difficult to know what kind of timeframe and asks are both standard and reasonable when entering a new industry or level. 

Some experts believe information gathering within professional communities can help determine typical expectations. “If you feel the process of assignment is too much, ask someone in your network what their process was like, and if what [you’re] being asked to do is out of scope,” recommends Chad Leibundguth, who works for the global HR consulting firm Robert Half.

However, Nick Corcodilos, host of the advice-platform Ask the Headhunter, is more resolute. He believes the working interview as a whole takes advantage of people, and falls under the same umbrella as the “thoughtless and indefensible demand to divulge your private salary history”. He coaches candidates to “offer an honest alternative when employers ask for an over-the-top ‘show us what you can do by completing this two-week assignment’”. He adds: “Suggest you’ll do the work on a daily fee basis until the employer decides to hire you or someone else.” 

Byrd agrees candidates “shouldn’t be afraid to put a contract in front of [an employer], or ask them to draw up a contract before starting a project to protect your intellectual property.” She says it’s important to get a clear idea from the company how long the activity should take as well as the overall steps to the hiring process. The inability to provide these details – or asking for an inordinate amount of free labour – can serve as huge red flags for candidates, offering a view into how it might feel to be on their payroll. After all, says Bryd, interviews are a chance for jobseekers to take the temperature of the company as much as the company is doing the same of them.

Along with written work, some applicants are being called into do presentations (Credit: Getty Images)

Along with written work, some applicants are being called into do presentations (Credit: Getty Images)

Yet it’s not always as simple as saying no outright to these projects. Jobseekers, many of whom are juggling multiple applications, ultimately face a Catch-22: slave over the take-home assignment, without any guarantee of feedback or even a response; or refuse to work for free, and risk taking themselves out of the running. While some candidates are spoilt for choice in certain sectors, and can easily choose the latter path, not every employee has the breadth of options – or financial security – to jeopardise their candidacy. Realistically, this means some workers may find themselves with no choice other than to take the taxing working interviews, even against their best instincts.

More than a goodwill gesture

In an ideal world, the onus would not be on the potential employee to request payment for their work – it would be a regulated, paid process, spearheaded by the company. While still a fringe practice, some companies are redressing the power balance by remunerating candidates for working interviews.

For instance, applying for a developer role at San Francisco-based Automattic, the parent company of Wordpress and Tumblr, starts with a text-based interview on Slack, before moving to a code test and then a contracted 40-hour task. Candidates are paid $25 (£20) an hour, and there’s no deadline for completion. It’s not just happening in tech; in March, the Toronto-based non-profit FoodShare began paying $75 an hour for each candidate’s interview as well as the rate of the job they’re applying for, if they complete any presentations or assignments.

Candidates find this to be a much more egalitarian approach. After a global software company recruited her on Linkedin, Ruth did an initial interview, and was paid a flat rate of $250 to complete a five-hour test project, before another interview and a second test project, for which she was paid $500. “It was estimated to take ten hours, but I really wanted to do a good job on the slide deck, so it took me about 12 hours,” says Ruth, who lives in Berlin.

After several more interviews and months of back and forth, she was offered the job. “It was one of my most positive hiring experiences, because they were very professional and always transparent about the next steps,” says Ruth. “To be given the payment (almost instantly after doing the tasks as well) was really appreciated, and made me want to engage in the process.”

Napala Pratini, co-founder of the London-based health-tech start-up Habitual, points out that along with strengthening an employer brand, paying candidates directly can be more cost effective than paying for placement agencies, recruiters or social media posts. Shortly after launching in 2019, her company started paying all candidates a flat fee of £25 per hour for up to four hours of task work.

“It’s not a huge amount of money, but it’s more about the gesture of compensating somebody for their time,” explains Pratini. “As a candidate, it can be easy to feel you don’t have power in the situation and although you’re not risking your life, you are making a life bet on a company, and they should value that, too.” 

As prospective employees navigate wildly different – and sometimes exploitative – hurdles in the recruitment process, safeguarding their time and honouring their value remains a balancing act. Thalia has been getting by doing odd jobs, and although has nothing contracted on the horizon, knows how she would approach a working interview, if asked again. “A small project, or a design or two would be fine, but for a substantial project, I think I’m within my rights to refuse,” she says.

Tahlia, Olivia and Ruth’s surnames are being held for privacy concerns