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Private Channel: How much free work should you do for a job interview?

Try to spend your time only on the jobs you want (or need) most

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October 20, 2023

I just got asked to complete a “sample project” for a job I’m applying for that would take up a significant amount of my time. I’m in the second round of this interview process, but sometimes I’m asked to submit sample work with my initial application, before anyone even gets back to me. How much is too much? Do I have any room to negotiate the scope of what’s being asked of me?

🤑 Unfunemployed

The interview process is a lot of work both for prospective employees and their prospective employers. For folks looking for a new job, there can be the (significant) added pressure of financial need. Yikes! I am stressed just thinking about it.

It makes sense that an employer might want to see the kind of work you do. Employers want to avoid the lost time and expense of hiring someone unable to do the work the role requires. But because prospective employers aren’t doing the work they’re assigning to interviewees, they have no incentive to guard against scope creep. Adding a few bullet points to a list can feel like nothing for the list-maker; for those tasked with completing that list, each addition can represent a significant time commitment. These concerns can be (unwisely) dismissed by employers who assume that the best and brightest—and most desperate—will power through a 10-hour project, if employers are even aware it will take that long to complete. And everyone else? They just didn’t care enough. This is obviously untrue, and a lose-lose situation. It removes plenty of talent from the application pool who would have ample time and energy for the job but have little to spare for free work. 

Complicating matters, the more complex the project (and the more thought required to complete it well), the more dubious it can feel for applicants wary of doing real—not sample—work for their prospective employer for the low low price of $0. They are right to be cautious: the internet is full of anecdotes of job applicants who have found their ideas or words used without their knowledge, permission, or compensation.

So: be careful. I’m also mindful that you still want a new job. In the broadest terms, if you want an employer to hire you, you need to meet the criteria they set: they say jump, you ask how high. Depending on your rapport with the people you’ve made contact with at the company, there may be some wiggle room to ask how your work might be used, or—if you are feeling really brave—to share how much time you estimate the project to take and propose a less time-consuming alternative. But be aware that either of these questions, especially the latter, might negatively affect your application.

It ain’t fair, but what you can do as you navigate your job search is to set up—and honor—some reasonable guardrails. Don’t apply to jobs that require you to do original work just to submit an application. Opt out of application processes that ask you to do more than two hours of work in the second round of a multiround interview (or without knowing that you’re among a single-digit group of remaining candidates). Only do the stupid long projects for jobs you want—or need—the most.

And when it’s your turn to do the hiring, remember to do better by your applicants.

This is the end mark. You have reached the end!

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