Should You Agree to a Trial Assignment When Interviewing for a Job?

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  • Many companies these days are asking job candidates to do actual work to vet their competence.
  • It's important to know where to draw the line so you don't get taken advantage of.

There's a fine line between proving your skills and giving away work for free.

A friend of mine recently submitted an application for a copywriting role. After getting through a few interviews successfully, the company she was in talks with asked her to put together a mock marketing sheet to gauge her capabilities.

It was a bit of work, but my friend was willing to put in the time because getting hired meant snagging a higher salary and better benefits. In the end, she wound up getting hired, so she was happy she agreed to do the work.

But some companies are taking the concept of having job candidates demonstrate their skills to an unfair degree -- namely, by asking them to perform actual work to vet their performance. Now on the one hand, it's understandable that companies would want to see how well candidates do before extending an offer.

But what about those applicants who do these assignments and don't end up with an offer? At that point, it's easy to argue that those candidates gave away free labor.

If you're in the process of applying for jobs, it's important to know how to respond to a request to do a trial assignment. Otherwise, you could easily end up getting taken advantage of.

When companies cross the line

It's one thing to be asked to complete a short assignment, or a mock assignment, in order for a company to decide whether you're the right fit for the job at hand. But it's another thing for a company to ask you to do actual work that you may not end up getting paid for. And you should make every effort to avoid that situation.

So what should you do if you're asked to produce work in the course of an interview process? A good bet is to assess the situation and try to gauge how reasonable the request is.

Say you're applying for a copywriting role, and you're asked to produce a single paragraph about a product your potential employer needs to market. While that might take time, a single paragraph is a pretty reasonable ask. But if you're asked to develop a full-fledged marketing campaign that will take you hours to put together, you may want to push back.

In that case, you may want to explain that while you're certainly interested in the job at hand, you have a packed schedule and can only devote a certain amount of time to a trial assignment. The company you're talking to might accept that as a reasonable response. If it doesn't, and it throws out your application due to that pushback, then it probably wasn't the right place to work anyway.

Similarly, let's say you're applying for a role and are asked to do a short mock assignment. That's not such a far-out request. But if you're asked to do actual work that the company in question will then get to keep and utilize, that effectively crosses the line into unpaid labor. That's a situation you may want to back away from.

Make the right call

It can be difficult to determine which candidate is right for a given job based on a series of interviews. And it's understandable that employers want to see the skills candidates claim to have demonstrated. But if you're applying for a new job, it's important that you not get taken advantage of during the interview process.

It's one thing to do a short assignment, or a mock one, to prove that you're capable of the work at hand. But if you're asked to spend many hours on an assignment, that's a whole different story. And unless the company in question is willing to deposit a modest sum into your bank account as a consolation prize should you not get the job, you may want to pass on any assignment that will take up more than an hour of your time.

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