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Governance Q&A: Is it ethical for employers to ask for writing samples?

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I've been asked by potential employers and clients for samples of my writing, sometimes for something existing and sometimes for something new. Have you looked at the ethics of this?

I have had the same requests, many times, and have many concerns. However, I've also been on the other side and known that glib interviewees may not be able to do what they claim. Overall, I am a fan of writing tests for employment. So I'll try to give some tips on how purchasers and employers can ethically confirm your writing skills.

1. Respect third party confidentiality

If you are asking for existing documents, ask only for public documents and make it clear you are not asking them to show you proprietary or confidential documents. We do not own what we write as employees, our employer does; and we do not have the right to make those writings public if the employer has chosen not to. Understand that some candidates will not have any documents they can share.

As a consultant, I normally do retain copyright for what I write, unless the contract specifies otherwise, but I still don't have the right to freely give out documents prepared to help with internal management! For one thing, the documents will be based on information provided in confidence. For another, the client may wish to release documents at an appropriate time, such as an AGM, not have me choose when to put them into the public sphere. I would need client permission. I would never even ask for permission when the contract was primarily about organizational ethics; I cannot even name those clients without permission.

2. Shred samples promptly

Return or destroy any samples given as soon as you make a hiring or purchasing decision. The documents were provided for that sole purpose, and you have no right whatever to use them for any other purpose. If you think a sample provided by a candidate would be useful to that candidate after hiring, because it relates to a current project, ask for permission to keep it long enough to give it to them when they start. If you chose another candidate, don't even think of giving the other person something an unsuccessful candidate wrote. Yes, I am referring to the hiring of consultants here as well as employees, and it does not matter in the least whether the other consultant is paid or pro bono.

Further, if the decision is not to hire at all, and do the work with internal staff or volunteers, the documents were still provided for the sole purpose of being considered for the job or contract. You have no right to give them to staff or volunteers. You have still violated copyright. And copyright is in place for anything written other than for hire, whether or not you see the symbol. Shred them.

3. Avoid sham competitions

Sad to say, some organizations advertise a position or Request for Proposal with no intent in the first place of ever selecting anyone. They think their mission is so important that ethics do not matter at all compared to the chance to pick the brains of experts for free. They have, of course, forgotten that they are modelling the ethical values for the community they seek to create, and that how they act matters much more than some list of values on a wall. So they are actively working to create a world of deception, lies, wasted efforts and complete lack of integrity. Sigh.

4. Make time for redaction

Candidates may be able to share some documents if they edit out information that identifies an organization or individual, and make the document sufficiently generic. They may need to run it past someone at the organization in question to make sure they have removed everything sensitive or identifiable. It takes time to carefully edit the document or put thick black lines through the problem bits, so it can't be brought to an interview on short notice.

5. Choose irrelevant subjects for new work

By all means give people some sort of case study and ask them to write something short - but not related to a real situation you are dealing with or an upcoming task. This removes the temptation to use the document afterwards. A short document should be plenty. If you want to know if they can organize a report, give them a report and ask for a proposed Table of Contents and notes on how they would reorganize the draft, rather than asking them to write a long report.

6. Avoid giving insiders an edge

If you ask people to write something specific to your organization, existing staff and consultants who have worked with you before have an edge. They will use information not contained in whatever you provide, and it will make their work look better. Other candidates will know you are wasting their time, as they simply cannot find out as much information from publicly available data.

7. Avoid barriers

No matter what you do, you will make it harder for some candidates than others. If you make technology available, the operating system and software will be more familiar to some than others. Handwriting is more difficult than keyboarding for some people with tendinitis, carpal tunnel or simply bad handwriting. People with some types of disabilities may not have the accommodation they need in the software or the working environment, or may just need extra time. Ask people in advance if they need extra time (as I certainly do when put in front of a Windows machine!) and if they need any other accommodation. They may wish to bring their own technology, and if that is awkward for them, perhaps you should provide taxi fare.

Strongly consider also the alternative of giving them an assignment in advance, so they can use their own writing tools and bring the results. It can be much fairer, provided your applicant pool is likely to all have access to technology. Tell them the time you expect them to spend on it; it shouldn't be more than an hour in my opinion. You can even arrange to send the information and get a response within a time frame, allowing for delays in receiving and sending e-mail.

8. Evaluate effectively

You owe it to the candidates to carefully review what they have written and give their efforts a significant weight in the decision. Some panels make their minds up during the interviews and then ignore written work that does not match their first impressions.

9. Debrief

Anyone who makes the effort to attend an interview and is not successful should receive feedback on request about how they could have improved their chances. If you have asked for a writing sample, give feedback on that as well.

10. Be fair

Overall, consider whether you would perceive the process you are using as fair if you were the job candidate or proponent. Did you really need three samples? Was it really OK to ask every candidate to draft a strategic plan for your organization? Will you actually be using the sample to make a hiring or purchasing decision? Is writing a key skill for the opening or is there something else you would have been better to test? Is it reasonable to ask a management consultant with fifteen years experience to prove they can write a report? Think it through.

From the Candidate/Proponent Viewpoint

Maybe these pointers will be helpful if you ever have to explain to a caller why it will be hard for you to provide the kind of samples they want. Offer an alternative if you can. Be willing to prepare new short documents, but point them if you can to your articles, business blogs and columns on the Internet as further proof, or perhaps for them to decide they do not need a new sample. Explicitly copyright anything you provide, or note what organization holds the copyright. If you have special needs to be accommodated, make those arrangements up-front.

By the way, back in my government days, I once got a three-level promotion for what I wrote during the writing exercise. I was given a document about three inches thick, and told to write a Cabinet submission as well as a Minister's letter to the proponent. I had an hour in total. It was a real situation, and they used my documents as the first drafts of the actual ones. Was it fair? Yes, in my opinion. The situation was only too realistic, and they did not make any use of what the other candidates wrote. And, even though there was an insider in the competition, he had no prior knowledge of the situation in question. I know he got a debriefing; we worked together for a year afterwards, and I wish they had had another opening as he was excellent.

Another time, when I was hiring, I asked the candidates for existing samples instead of giving them a test. I asked the references about how well the successful candidate could write and they assured me she could write well, which was the truth. However, she was generally too lazy to ever write anything; she had edited rather than written her sample. I never knew if a writing test at the time would have gotten rid of her and helped me avoid a bad hiring mistake, but I always wondered.

Since 1992, Jane Garthson has dedicated her consulting and training business to creating better futures for our communities and organizations through values-based leadership. She is a respected international voice on governance, strategic thinking and ethics. Jane can be reached at

Because nonprofit organizations are formed to do good does not mean they are always good in their own practices. Send us your ethical questions dealing with volunteers, staff, clients, donors, funders, sponsors, and more. Please identify yourself and your organization so we know the questions come from within the sector. No identifying information will appear in this column.

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Disclaimer: This article is for information purposes only. It is not intended to be legal advice. You should not act or abstain from acting based upon such information without first consulting a legal professional.

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