By Barbara Mitchell
Q: I was asked to do a project for a prospective employer before I receive a job offer. Can the organization require me to do something like this? I really want this job.
A: The short answer is yes. There is no law that prevents an organization from assigning projects to prospective employees. In fact, it seems to be happening more often. It used to be most common in startups, but the practice is becoming more universal across all types of organizations.
You do have a choice to accept the assignment or reject it. Odds are that you probably won't move forward in the hiring process if you decline, so maybe there isn't a choice if you really want the job. You certainly shouldn't be asked to do a project until you are a serious finalist for the job. A red flag would be if the hiring manager asks you do a project during your first interview. If that happens, you'd be right in assuming the organization is just looking for someone to work for free—and for me, that would be a deal breaker.
The most common reason organizations ask candidates to do a project before making a hiring decision is to get a better sense of their thought process.
If you're asked to complete an assignment, it is perfectly acceptable to ask some questions before you agree. For example:
A legitimate assignment for purposes of evaluating your fitness for the position should be focused and brief, perhaps a writing sample or a quick research one-pager. As a rule of thumb, it shouldn't take more than a couple of hours.
The most common reason organizations ask candidates to do a project before making a hiring decision is to get a better sense of their thought process. Be as clear and concise as you can. Use bulleted and numbered lists to get your points across. It's important to have your content well planned and presented in an easy-to-read format.
One caveat: Be cautious about giving away too much of your valued knowledge before you have the job offer.
Barbara Mitchell is a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR and The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook. Do you have a question you'd like her to answer in "Ask the Expert"? Send it to [email protected]