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Job Interview or Bake-Off?

Dear Evil HR Lady,
I'm in the creative field, and recently been asked as part of a job interview to produce layouts for the prospective client. The work is not paid, and several applicants are competing with each other; a bake-off type of situation. Since this usually means anywhere from 2-4 days of work (researching the story, production, fonts, photographs, online components, assembling all of the elements and compiling into a coherent design) I feel its is a lot to expect and quite frankly, insulting that a work history, recommendations, and past portfolio of work is not enough to base the selection on. I am tempted to refuse, even if it means I will not be considered. It feels like they think I've exaggerated what my role was on my portfolio.

One thing has become painfully obvious after this type of encounter, is that despite the best intentions of the applicant to stay upbeat, the bridge is effectively burned: you will never hear from the hiring manager again. I suspect the guilt they feel from asking for free work and then declining precludes them from ever contacting the applicant again. The sense of truly wasting your time is palpable. What's your opinion?
The problem is that while interviewing is the most common way to hire someone, it's a pretty lousy way to asess how someone actually works. I had one painful experience, where in an interview my candidate declared that she had extensive experience with Microsoft Access. She stated that she could and had designed reports, forms, and queries of all kinds. I hired her. She started on Monday and I terminated her on Friday. Why? Because it was a big lie. She had run reports that others had written and put information in forms that others had created. She didn't know thing one about Microsoft Access. If I had sat her down at a computer and asked her to do some actual work it would have saved us all a lot of grief--including her.

Smart managers want to avoid greenie mistakes like I made.

On the other hand, I think you're right that companies shouldn't be getting free work from candidates. In fact it may violate wage an hour laws, although, I am not a lawyer, don't pretend to be a lawyer, and would hope this doesn't violate wage and hour law. However, Jon Hyman, a labor and employment lawyer, reminds us that

The FLSA requires people who perform any work to be paid for all time spent working. Requiring anyone to perform work without pay violates this law. There is no such thing as a volunteer employee. All work hours must be paid hours, at least at the minimum wage (with the limited exception of bona fide interns).
The way around this (again, I'm not offering any legal advice here), is for companies to prove that any such "work" doesn't benefit the company (which is part of the intern exception). This actually makes sense in that a job interview shouldn't be about getting free work, but about determining who the best candidate is for the position. In fact, some companies have all the candidates do the same sample work, not because they want free work, but because they want to see how you are going to do work and what your end product is like.

In the creative area, though, it's more tricky. Companies require other companies to come up with proposals before signing someone on as a vendor. Sometimes these are paid proposals and sometimes they are not. If you're going at this as an independent contractor, it's different from going at this as a job candidate.

But, there is one more thing to consider: You absolutely do own any work you do. Because you didn't do it as a paid employee, it doesn't belong to the company and they cannot use it without your permission (and compensation, if you so desire).

A project that takes a candidate 2-4 days to accomplish is excessive. I'd have to be pretty darn desperate to invest that much time in a project that I can't use elsewhere. I'd walk. (Heck, I balk at one new writing sample now because I have almost 1000 posts available on the internet.) A small project or presentation is not excessive. In fact, Headhunter Nick Corcodilos advises candidates that

You can stand apart by devoting some interview time to the one thing the manager will remember you for: solving one or two of his real, live work problems. To do this, detach yourself from the interview protocol and attach yourself to the work.

Ask the manager to lay out a "live" problem he's facing that he would want the new hire to tackle. Then show how you'd solve the problem. Your solution need not be perfect. If you can just show that you care enough to actually focus on the work itself and to demonstrate your abilities rather than just talk, you'll leave him with something he'll remember.

This is what you're doing when you're doing sample work, it's just at the company's request rather than your own initiative. But a sample is not a complete project. 2-4 days work sounds like a pretty complete creative project.

I think that companies would be wise to consider how much work they are requiring of their candidates, when a portfolio would suffice. They should figure out how to determine if the candidate produced the work himself rather than approaching each candidate like he's lying his head off. But, I wouldn't reject companies that want to see a particular project tackled. In fact, I'd volunteer to tackle a problem to begin with.

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