Personal Finance

If you’re hunting for a job, expect to do this for free

Key Points
  • Employers are distributing take-home assignments to weed out candidates.
  • Applicants can expect to spend two to three hours on sample work that replicates on-the-job experience.
Photo courtesy of Getty

If you're looking to score a new job, prepare to do some work for free.

Take-home assignments are becoming a common part of the job interview process, a way for employers to see if your skills are up to snuff before moving forward with the hiring company.

"It's now 3 out of 10 or 3 out of 15 interviews that come with a take-home assignment" said Thomas B. Moran, CEO of Addison Group, a staffing firm. "A year and a half ago, it was maybe 1 in 10."

Blame it on a tightening job market: The unemployment rate was 3.9 percent in April, after holding at 4.1 percent for the prior six months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Though employers are digging deep for workers to fill positions, they're trying to ensure that the candidate can handle the workload before making an offer.

The takeaway from the candidate's experience is an understanding of what they are getting themselves into. The intensity of it has a lot to do with what you might expect as an employee.
Daniel Solo
president of Second Line Advisors

"These companies are coming up with a project to give you an opportunity to show what you're going to bring to the workplace," said Carolyn Betts, founder of Betts Recruiting.

Nevertheless, not all employers are reasonable when they make these requests. Some assignments take multiple days to complete.

Further, there's always the question of what happens if you complete the assignment, don't get the job and the employer uses your work product without paying you.

Here's what you can expect.

Different disciplines

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What you'll end up bringing home will depend on the nature of the gig.

For instance, when interviewing someone for a recruiter position, Betts will ask the candidate to find three companies the applicant thinks they should recruit for, explain why those companies are a good fit, pick a favorite among the firms and find three recruiting candidates who might be good contenders.

It can take an hour to wrap up this assignment, but some applicants invest up to five hours to complete it, Betts said.

An investment firm might ask a candidate to draft a stock pitch — a write-up detailing why they would pick a certain stock — and prepare a PowerPoint presentation to go with it, said Daniel Solo, president of Second Line Advisors, an executive search firm.

By the time a prospective employer asks for a project, an applicant should be well past the initial screens for the process and should already be a strong candidate for the job.

"If you're going to ask someone to do a lot of work, you have to make sure that they're a good fit on all sides," said Betts.

What's reasonable?

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These assignments should take up to two to three hours to complete, recruiters said. It should be a task that's reflective of what the employer would normally want if that person were hired.

"The takeaway from the candidate's experience is an understanding of what they are getting themselves into," said Solo. "The intensity of it has a lot to do with what you might expect as an employee."

Companies can cross the line when it comes to requesting this work.

In one case Solo handled, a hedge fund requested a candidate to draw up a financial model — which can require extensive work in Excel — and to write a report to accompany it.

It was a 30- to 40-hour project assigned on Labor Day weekend, and the applicant needed to submit the completed product on the actual holiday, Solo said.

There was no pay for the assignment, and the candidate didn't get the job.

Applicants facing a take-home project that's onerous to complete need to think deeply about whether they're a fit for the company.

An employer with unrealistic expectations in the interview process will probably be just as demanding on a day-to-day basis.

"That assignment gave them an indication of what kind of place this is," Solo said of the hedge fund applicant. "But someone who really wants that job and feels it might be the right move for them will do it."

How to deal

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If you're faced with a take-home assignment as part of the interview process, consider these questions as you decide how to proceed:

  • Where in the interview process is this request taking place? A modest request early in the interview process might include a 20-minute exercise, such as a personality test.

    Meanwhile, a more demanding project that will take up a couple of hours might be more reasonable when the company has already met you and you're further along in the process.

  • What exactly is the employer looking for? Whether it's analyzing a ledger or turning in a writing sample, get to the heart of what the company hopes to accomplish by administering this assignment.

    "Corporations that give good instructions and time frames to make sure people know what's expected are the ones that benefit most from these interviews," said Moran.

  • How will the company use this assignment? The last thing you want to do is submit hours of free work, fail to get the job and see your work repurposed. Ask your interviewer how will the company use your work.

"There is a fine line between seeing how the candidate thinks and getting them to produce a little work to see if it matches what you're looking for, as opposed to doing a whole day's worth of work for output so that maybe the candidate gets the job," said Betts.

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