Should Candidates Work for Free?

By Jason Elrick

I recently was referred to a great article written by Kinzy Janssen. It talked about scamming applicants into free work. I could not believe that organizations would do such a thing. As it turns out, it does happen.

Janssen revealed that some organizations are taking candidates to the second- and third-round interviews and then asking them to complete an assignment or project to demonstrate their skills. They give the candidates the impression that if they do a great job, they will get the position. Even though the employers have not paid the candidates for this work, the employers will then use the candidates’ work as if it were the company’s. To make matters worse, they tell the candidates that the position has been closed or filled by someone else. In short, these organizations have abused candidates and stolen their intellectual property.

If you’re an employer, does this mean that you should never ask candidates to demonstrate their skill by completing a sample project? And candidates, should you flatly refuse to comply with such a request for fear of being taken advantage of?

In my experience as a Staffing Manager, I have had some clients who have required some homework or even asked candidates to complete a project during a paid working interview. This is a great way to get a feel for how candidates communicate, problem-solve, think creatively, and exhibit various other skills that employers might be looking for. The insight gained really helps employers make better hiring decisions, and as far as I know, the ones I’ve worked with have never misappropriated the candidates’ work.

Employers, if your interview process includes requesting a sample work project, you need to think through the issues this could create. If you’re asking the candidate to perform time-intensive work, is it fair to pressure vulnerable candidates who need the job into working for free? If the work product turns out to be valuable to the company, will you pay candidates for their efforts? Obviously, it’s unethical to use their work product without paying for it, and doing so could cause severe consequences for your organization. For instance, you could be taken to court for copyright infringement. Also, your reputation could suffer greatly, causing you to lose out on attracting top talent.

As for candidates, Janssen suggests that if you decide it is worth the risk to produce a project for free, you should submit your work to the U.S. Copyright Office if possible. From my experience, it would also be a good idea to have the organization email you some instructions or additional information so you have on record whatever arrangement you made with the employer.

The hiring process is complex. In order for a great match to be made, employers must treat candidates with respect, and candidates must be transparent. Honesty is still the best policy to get what you both want.

Candidates, now that you have a job offer, what’s next?

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