My Interviewer Wants Free Work. Can I Say No?

What's the difference between giving a prospective employer a sample of your work, and giving real work away for free?

job interview 

(Photo Credit: Mike Licht/Flickr)

It's a question that comes up a lot during the job interview process these days. Hiring managers are more careful about vetting candidates and interviewees are eager to score job offers. Unfortunately, as job seeker, it can be hard to draw the line before you've seen what the company intends to do with your work -- by which point, of course, it's too late.

Alison Green of Ask a Manager addressed this issue in a blog post. Green feels that while sample work is often essential for employers to get a feel for how candidates would do the job if they were hired, companies should never ask anyone to do "real" work for free.

"You can't ask people to do real work that you'll then use in your business (or if you do, you need to pay them for it)," Green writes. "For instance, I've asked candidates for communications positions to draft fake press releases for events that will never happen / asked analyst candidates to research and summarize their findings on a particular law or bill (work that my staff had already done previously, so I knew the correct answers) / asked admin candidates to write an email in response to a tricky and sensitive hypothetical / etc. None of this is work that I'd ever use, and candidates in these cases get that it's not 'real' work; I've had maybe two people over the years refuse (out of hundreds)."

If you've been asked to, say, write code that might actually be used in the corporate website, or redesign the company newsletter from scratch, it's no wonder you're annoyed. It's very possible that the company you're interviewing with is hoping to score some free work out of you -- but on the other hand, if you assume the worst, you might cut yourself off from a good opportunity.

So how do you determine whether to do the work?

1. Figure out if the company is going to get paid.

In most states and at most for-profit, if the company can bill for your work, they can't force you to do it for free.

Donna Ballman at AOL Jobs uses the example of a lawyer interviewing at a law firm:

"It's not unusual for a law firm to, for instance, require a writing sample, which might even mean requiring applicants to write a memorandum of law on a current legal issue, to see their writing style. The difference is if the employer is getting something they would normally pay for. In my example, if the law firm asked 20 applicants to write 20 different memoranda which it then submitted to courts on 20 different cases, the applicants should be paid for their work. If, however, the writing sample is just a sample, then the applicant need not be paid."

The problem is, unless you're willing to get an employment lawyer and pursue legal action over a job interview, knowing the hiring manager is in the wrong won't do you much good. Which is where our next point comes in.

2. Be willing to do a little bit of free work -- but not a lot.

Even if you think there's a chance that the company might use your work for free, it might be worth it to float them a sample of what you can do -- but just a sample.

"You should not give away all your cookies," says Kevin Donlin, co-author of "Guerilla Marketing for Job Hunters 2.0," in an interview with Daily Finance. You should, however, be willing to share a few ideas for free, he says.

3. Do a cost-benefit analysis.

Figure out how much time and effort it will take to do the work your interviewer has requested, and balance that against how much the opportunity is worth. It's unlikely that every "sample work" situation will involve a full day of work, or promise the possibility of a job you'd be happy doing.

If you can cut down on the number of tests that require a huge investment of time, you can afford to gamble a bit on a few free hours of work.

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