Decorative Side Bird

Can your job interview tests be going too far?

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For Christine (not her real name), a social worker looking for work in the nonprofit sector, having to complete assessments and questionnaires in order to be considered for a job is just par for the course. But when she was asked recently to prepare a presentation that took over a week to complete and required in-depth research using confidential information, Christine wondered whether the employer had gone just a bit too far.

Requests from prospective employers have become more intense of late, she says, requiring her to go above and beyond what would have been considered reasonable years ago. Perhaps it’s the new normal, a reality stemming from a surge of applicants and fewer available positions, a scenario that requires newer ways to filter out candidates. Problem is, it also potentially enables organizations to take greater advantage of that imbalance.

Is it reasonable to ask a candidate to complete a project or assignment prior to being considered for a job? Most of us would say yes, as it can be a valuable part of any interview process, helping an organization whittle down its list of candidates while getting a good sense of how one would fare in any given position.

But as these requests seem to be rising in the sector, they require some thoughtful and careful examination. Some questions that emerge include: How extensive can the assignment be for it to be reasonable? Should it take an hour? Two? Five? A week? And here’s where it gets even more interesting: What if the employer asked the candidate to complete an assignment that they could then put to use at a later date, even if the candidate didn’t get the position. Does he or she have the right to be credited or compensated for their work? And to take it even one step further, if they provided vital information in said assignment, is it really clear who now owns that intellectual property? Moreover, does the candidate have a right to ask for clarity on these and other issues prior to completing the requested assignment?

Straying into ethical grey areas

These issues can fall into a grey area, says Peter Caven, director of Launched, a career advisory for young professionals, but sees some requests as more black and white. For example, if an organization were to request candidates to make presentations on a relevant topic, without asking them to divulge intellectual property or information that will be of any significant value. Assuming the candidate took the time to research the industry, employer and position at hand, the exercise is simply a smart way to test the candidate’s presentation skills, commitment and interest.

Caven offers another example along those lines, of a client who applied for a PR position at an association and was asked to draft a press release during the interview. The hour-long assignment was a fair assessment given the nature of the job and the requirements of the test.

But where it gets problematic, says Caven, is if a candidate is asked to undertake an initiative that is going to take more than two hours of work. “I also think it’s inappropriate to ask a candidate to undertake work that has potential commercial value to the hiring organization, without compensation.”

It may be surprising to a lot of employers that they are, in fact, moving into an ethical grey area when making certain requests and that these requests likely require a lot more forethought than they may be being given. As for applicants, they may be equally surprised to learn that they have a right to ask questions where the situation seems unreasonably unbalanced in the employer’s favour. Speaking up allows candidates to request clarity, and to suss out (depending on the employer’s response)- whether the job is a right fit.

Take Jennie (not her real name), a copywriter with over two decades of experience, who was asked to produce a communications strategy for a prospective employer, along with writing samples. The latter was a no-brainer but the assignment required a significant amount of work and, more significantly, the final product could very possibly have been put to use – whether or not she was hired, which made Jennie uncomfortable. That the request came prior to the first interview, giving her little chance to gauge whether a mutual fit even existed, made Jennie all the more reticent to commit to such a big project.

She decided to empower herself with information, reaching out to the employer to inquire about the project – and whether she would be credited or compensated were she not to move forward in the interview process. That’s where the process broke down. The employer viewed her request adversely and Jennie was told not to come in for the interview. “It was actually a relief”, she said later, explaining that the experience allowed her to see the employer with open eyes. “I would never want to work with someone who wasn’t transparent and didn’t respect my right to ask for clarity.”

Clarity is the key to fairness

For Nancy Ingram, president of Foot in the Door Consulting, it’s perfectly fine to test candidates but you should always disclose who owns the material and whether there can be a negotiation as to whether there’s a fee or credit if it’s used. Either way, she says, “it should be transparent so someone could knowingly choose; I think it’s a conversation.”

She reiterates that it’s fair to ask applicants to complete an assignment that shows the candidate can strategize, analyze and produce content when needed, especially if hiring for advocacy, strategy or communications positions. “But what’s fairer is to ask them to critique an existing strategy, not create new content,” she says. “The employer is basically trying to see, ‘do they get it, do they see the same flaws as I do?’”

No matter the ask, be sure to be clear with what you’re doing with the final project, she says. If not, candidates like Jennie are probably better off. “It says a lot about the organizational culture if you can’t get at least attribution, about what it would be like to work there.” After all, while employers need to test for the right fit, there needs to be balance and respect, which is always dictated by organizational culture and values. “There’s nothing wrong with an honest, professional question about process,” she adds.

Caven takes it a step further. “If I were a candidate and an organization asked me to undertake something of significance that would be of value to them, I would say, ‘sure but you have to pay me $100 an hour as a consultant.’” If a candidate is fearful that asking to be compensated would jeopardise their candidacy, Caven offers a counter argument. “An organization might be very interested in someone who values their time, believes they would make significant contributions - and has the chutzpah to say no.”

Of course, the candidate may be in a particularly desperate position and will agree to do the assignment even if their questions don’t return the answers they hoped for. That’s understandable but Ingram advises to ask for clarity nonetheless. “Negotiation has to be practiced even if you don’t like the results. That’s how change happens in organizations.”

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is president of Elle Communications and Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of SEE Change Magazine and can be reached at:

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This is really interesting because time is the most valuable piece in our human existence and if employers ask too much of their candidates, it is simply unfair. I am thinking of the people who are already working another job trying to move up in their career, with projects pilling on from work, personal and family life, where is someone expected to fit extensive amounts of time creating with any form of compensation. In my opinion, a well-crafted resume already takes enough time, as it is important to select the proper job and volunteer experience to highlight appropriate work experience and then add time researching the company or organization to really nail that cover letter. And if you want to really prepare additional preparation time rehearsing potential responses to the interview questions.

We live in a very demanding, highly stimulated society. Self-care is so important and employers need to recognize this.
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