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How to respond if a potential employer asks you to work for free

Interviewers often ask candidates to complete a test assignment before they make an offer. Here’s how to know where—and how—to draw the line.

How to respond if a potential employer asks you to work for free
[Photo: Parker Byrd/Unsplash]

It’s not unusual for employers to assess job candidates through video chats, phone calls, face-to-face interviews, written tests, and portfolio reviews. In recent months, we’ve also seen an uptick in the number of companies asking candidates to complete assignments representative of the type of work they would be doing in the position under consideration.

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Candidates have mixed reviews of this approach. Some look at it as a welcome opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities. Others feel that they are being taken advantage of, as they are committing time and talent to a task that doesn’t guarantee a job offer, but that certainly provides the company with ideas and solutions they can use free of charge. Still others would be delighted to complete the assignment—if only they had the time.

What’s the best way to deal with this type of request? Let’s look at some important considerations:

The mutual benefit of a test assignment

When a company asks you to complete an assignment, they are testing you in a few ways. First, they want to see how interested you are in the position. They figure if you’re truly interested, you will be willing to make this investment. This helps them weed out less serious candidates.

Second, although they have likely already seen examples of your work in your portfolio, they want to see how you would approach projects that are unique to their brand and to the position you’ve been discussing. Third, they want to get a sense of your work ethic: Do you go all-in on assignments, or do you just do the bare minimum?

But a test assignment doesn’t just benefit the interviewing company. Working through an assignment is a good way for you to understand what your day-to-day responsibilities might feel like were you to land this position. If the job is a great match, you will enjoy doing the work, and have the knowledge and skills you need to complete it (although it’s not a bad thing if it causes you to stretch just a bit beyond your comfort level). If you don’t enjoy the work or, worse, have no idea where to begin, then maybe this position isn’t a good fit for you right now.

What’s a fair request?

An assignment that feels fair to one candidate may seem onerous to another. If you have a particularly demanding schedule with your current job, you may not be able to complete a pro bono marketing campaign in a week’s time. On the other hand, if you don’t currently have a job, maybe you would welcome the opportunity to exercise your expertise and showcase your talents by taking on this type of challenge.

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As you evaluate the assignment presented to you, consider what’s realistic given your schedule. Say the interviewer asks you to complete work that will take two or three hours, and they would like to see your work in three days. That’s probably a reasonable expectation even if your schedule is somewhat hectic. If they ask for something that’s going to take 10 or 20 hours, that may be unrealistic, even if they give you a week. It’s all up to your discretion: If it looks like you will need to overextend yourself to complete this project, then you should share these concerns with the interviewer.

How to negotiate without losing the opportunity

In an instance where you decide the assignment is too large for you to complete at this time, be honest with the interviewer. You won’t be doing anyone any favors if you accept the task but then don’t have the capacity to do your best work. Communicate your boundaries in a straightforward yet respectful statement such as this:

I’m extremely interested in the position and will be happy to complete an assignment, but I feel that this particular request is going to be overly labor-intensive for me, given the responsibilities of my current position. Would it be possible for me to take on a comparable project that is less time-consuming?

Typically, an interviewer will be respectful of your concerns. If they are not, and they insist that this work is a requirement for all candidates in the running, then you need to weigh whether landing the job offer is worth this additional commitment of time and energy.

How a recruiter can help

If you are working with a recruiter, they can offer support in this type of situation. By serving as liaison between you and the interviewing organization, your recruiter can often (a) let you know ahead of time when a company is likely to make this type of request and (b) help you navigate any tough conversations that might ensue. An important aspect of the recruiter’s role is advocating on your behalf and making sure you are well-prepared to represent yourself in the best possible light.

The bottom line is that you and the company that’s hiring both want the best fit. If you need to invest a little more time and effort to make sure that happens, it might pay off in your long-term job satisfaction.

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Ariel Schur, LCSW, is the CEO and sole founder of ABS Staffing Solutions.

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