employer asked me to produce free work as part of hiring process

A reader writes:

I am searching for a new job in marketing. One of the companies that I applied to recently is a technology company that is looking for a marketing person to manage their website, social media, and email campaigns. I sent my resume along with a few examples of my work in, only to get an email reply back after a phone interview that said the following:

“At this point, you are in a group of candidates that are on the fence and we need you to complete the following request before we move on with the process. To help us better compare you with the other candidates, we would like you to send us a sample of what you can do with website design. One of the possible early projects for this marketing position is redesigning the look of the website. I would like you to take our homepage and create an image (JPG/GIF/PNG) of what you might suggest as our new look. It can be as simple as just moving some things around or redesigning the footer or as complex as a completely new look. I have listed some websites that are examples of websites in our space.

Thank you.”

I really don’t have a problem completing this task from a skills aspect. I just am hesitant because in a past job interview, a similar task was asked of me … which I did complete, only to be told I was not selected and the job was going to a current employee’s child. A few weeks went by after all this, and I saw online the design I had submitted during the interview process was now being used by this business! It was clearly a ruse to get free design work. I am worried that this is the same scam.

I know the economy is still bad and small companies are struggling, and I really hope that this is legitimate, but my gut doesn’t think so. What advice do you have on how I can protect my work if I decide to pursue this opportunity? I thought maybe I would not send my submission via email as suggested but rather in person on my own computer? Or is my gut right that this another disaster or am I overreacting?

Well, first let’s talk about this kind of thing in general and then we’ll come back to this specific request.

As I’ve said here many times, it’s crucial when hiring to see candidates in action — to see them actually doing the work they’d be doing if hired. Often someone has an impressive resume and interviews well, but when you see them actually doing the work, you quickly realize they’re not as strong as they’d appeared. (And vice versa too; sometimes this can identify a candidate who’s stronger than her experience might have led you to assume.) My book co-author is fond of comparing this to how a football coach holding try-outs wouldn’t ask a player whether he could make a tackle; he’d ask to see him do it.

Additionally, having candidates do a piece of work similar to what they’d be doing on the job has the added advantage of letting candidates get a better feel for the work and self-select out if it’s not for them.

However, you have to do this carefully. You can’t ask people to do real work that you’ll then use in your business (or if you do, you need to pay them for it). For instance, I’ve asked candidates for communications positions to draft fake press releases for events that will never happen / asked analyst candidates to research and summarize their findings on a particular law or bill (work that my staff had already done previously, so I knew the correct answers) / asked admin candidates to write an email in response to a tricky and sensitive hypothetical / etc. None of this is work that I’d ever use, and candidates in these cases get that it’s not “real” work; I’ve had maybe two people over the years refuse (out of hundreds).

Employers also should think about how much time they’re asking candidates to spend on an exercise — an hour is reasonable; a day is not. And the less time an employer has invested in someone, the less time it’s reasonable to ask the candidate to invest … so, for example, you might ask someone to do something that might take two hours after a second in-person interview when they’re a finalist, but you wouldn’t ask that of them before even talking to them.

Okay, now let’s get back to your situation. First, I’m suspicious of the request simply because of the way it’s worded. There’s something about those first two sentences that just hits me the wrong way; it’s just … unprofessionally worded. But even leaving that aside, it’s not a reasonable request, because they can see “what you can do with website design” by looking at what you have done with website design — by asking for samples of previous sites you’ve designed, something that any strong candidate for this job should have.

Plus, it’s ridiculous to ask a designer to redo a website without knowing anything about the site’s goals and what the client wants to achieve with a redesign — the most basic questions any designer is going to ask at the outset of such a project.

Instead, it would be far more useful for them to sit down with you and your portfolio and have you walk them through the design decisions you made and why … and if they’re not ready to invest that time with you yet, then they could ask you to do a write-up like that in writing. Or if for some reason that’s not an option, they could ask you to pick any other website of your choice and redesign its home page. But not theirs. Asking you to work on theirs is too close to asking you to produce free work.

So what, then, should you do? You’re in an awkward position because if they don’t intend to act unethically and instead are just naive or inexperienced, you risk missing out on the job opportunity by refusing. So you’re stuck in a position where you have to decide if you’re willing to potentially forego the interview if you say no, without really knowing their motives.

One middle-ground option would be to say something like, “I don’t usually do spec work, but I’d be glad to send you examples of redesigns I’ve done in the past, along with commentary on what choices I made and why.”

If that’s not good enough for them, you probably have your answer about their intentions.

(Probably. Not definitely … but probably. But grrr, the lack of total certainty is why it’s frustrating.)

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