I don't believe that I've seen this addressed elsewhere on MT, so I'll go ahead and ask. It might be irrelevant for a lot of countries, but maybe some of you can give me some reactions.

The context

In the past two years, I've interviewed for a number of positions, in order to make a lateral move from the non-profit to the for-profit sector. I have 5 years of management experience, and I've worked in a large international organization, managing PR budgets comparable to those of mid-sized to large companies.

The challenge

In a number of processes, after the interview with the HR and before the interview with the ED or GM (senior PR jobs like the ones I seek usually report directly to this position) and sometimes after the ED interview, I was asked to present samples of my work. I have no opposition to this, although in a field such as public relations all you can really claim as your own are texts you wrote and ideas you had, since a lot of people are involved in implementation, and perhaps strategies you have devised, which you can't share because strategies are normally confidential.

However, in a number of situations (4 up to now) and, according to reports from others in the same or related profession, across the Romanian market, a new practice has sprouted: that of asking the candidate to do original work for the hiring company.

I have been asked up to now to:
- devise an internal communication strategy
- create a powerpoint of my one-year communication plan and budget should I be hired by the company
- draft a company profile for inclusion in an annual report
- analyze a corporate website

I have two problems with this approach which, as I said, is becoming more and more common in Romania:
- It is completely contrary to the principles of the profession (i.e. you would never draft a strategy on your own, without doing preliminary research, and audit of communication etc.) and without grounding it in real data and insight it would not give the true measure of a candidate - and I'm afraid that they do judge it on content. in fact, after I submitted the draft internal communication strategy, I was told that it was too theoretical. I may add that the company refused to give me any information whatsoever about its int'l comm to date, any upcoming major changes or anything, so I had to rely on their website and what I had gleaned from the three interviews I'd had with them till then.
- It seems a little bit like stealing from the candidate. He or she wants to do his best in order to get the job, and so will put extra work and creativity in the work, and may even do some serious research to back it up. I know I analyzed every traffic data I can think of, and had different people visit the website with different aims etc. So basically, a lot of work is ready to use or adapt. I charged for work like that when I did consultancy. Is it fair for companies to require it for free as part of the hiring process? and how do I protect myself from having my work used without compensation if I am not the one hired? Or how do I protect myself from having to implement the idea that I suggested in the initial document, that once inside the company seems will not have enough ROI to justify it?

And overall, what do you people think of the practice and do you have any advice on how to refuse to do it without jeopardizing chances for the job?

Sorry for the long post, but this just really bugs me. And it seems poor management.

vinnie2k's picture

I would flat out refuse, in a very polite manner, explaining that this is an interview, not a one-on-one session :-) They can ask all the questions they want during the interview (how would you devise a strategy? what would you do in this situation? etc.), but handing out homework violates a number of practices (some of which you already mention).

In the end, would you really work for a company which seems to be so badly managed / cheap?

TomW's picture
Training Badge

I agree with you. To me, it sounds like they are trying to get free consulting services under the guise of an interview.

It's one thing to ask about your processes for doing something ("How would you do this?"). It's completely another to ask you to do something for them.

Maybe it's different in other places, but I would not be happy in that situation at all. I would maybe go so far as to say that I would not want to work for a company that accepts such practices.

jhack's picture

I just recently heard of a guy hiring programmers, and he pays them for a one week project, and can then judge if he wants to hire them. Great idea, but notice that he pays them for this, and gets work product in return.

Hard to tell if the specific situtations you describe "cross the line." But on ethical issues, you have to trust your gut. And does your gut say you'd want to work for these people?


corinag's picture

Thank you all. It certainly gives me comfort to hear my gut feelings confirmed, and I can only hope that as more people begin to see that the practice is wrong, it will be abandoned or changed to be more fair. Until then, it's probably play along or don't play at all.

My gut feeling is also that a lot of companies are doing it just because they heard someone else did it. Do you see that in your own environment?

And back to the portfolio question. How would you go about building a portfolio if you don't do design or drawing or something?

wendii's picture
Admin Role Badge


playing devil's advocate for a moment (since whether or not you provide a portfolio when asked is entirely up to you!).

As an interviewee, you could tell me that you are the best strategist, marketing copywrighter or architect I've ever seen. One of the ways I can check your claim is by asking for a sample of your work.

The practical exercises are usually created purely for the interview, and do not take into account the complexities of the real situation so are invariably useless to the interviewer.

I have had inteviewees who have presented amazing pieces of work and brilliant samples. They are few and far between and have always been offered the role.


Mark's picture
Admin Role Badge

I've been waiting for Wendii to post. :wink:

I can't tell you the number of times that people slightly inflate their credentials, and upon being given a test, fail miserably. They do so because they believe they will NOT be tested. And, unfortunately, the best way to be sure of a skill that's important is to test for it.

Think about that: skill testing is the equivalent of behavioral interviewing, for those skills that can be reproduced individually (design, drawing, writing, etc.). We don't "test" management because it would be prohibitive to do so (though I have never have a problem with someone hiring someone for a week at fair (plus) pay, to see how they work with others.

On the other hand, I do think this technique IS overused, often with unethical overtones. I think what Corinag was asked to do is probably over the line. I think companies that are going to use your work subsequently, rather than simply viewing previous work or giving you an abstract to work on, are honor bound to pay you for that work.

So: the technique of asking for work product is a GREAT interviewing tool. If you do work that CAN be reproduced and evaluated separately from its original context, companies OUGHT to be looking at it. And yet, companies abuse this when they ask you to do future looking work and then have any interest in either referring to the work or using it in part or in whole. THAT is an unethical extension of a professionally reasonable process.


corinag's picture

Thank you all for your insight.

I'm taking away two key points:
- use skill testing for skills that can be reproduced individually
- mind your morals when asking for original work

I think all your points are valid, and show an ethical approach to recruiting. I guess a lot more people should be listening to MT and reading the forums.

Mark's picture
Admin Role Badge


Good takeaway. So often, we want things to be pure black and white, but this is one of those things where there's a good reason for the first step, but that second one (it's good, let's do it more!) creates some turbulence.

Glad we helped.


afmoffa's picture

Heath Ledger's The Joker has a great line in the Dark Knight movie: "If you're good at something, never do it for free." It's a bit harsh, but he's got the right idea.

People hiring creative professionals need to see demonstrations of that creativity, and creative professionals need safeguards against theft (or unintended appropriation) of their hard work.

As a graphic designer, I am expected to bring a portfolio of my best work to the interview, and I am happy to do so. I bring a good-quality presentation binder containing 10-12 pages of my best work (from projects relevant to the position I'm seeking), printed on spare-no-expense paper, and the last page in the portfolio is a succinct explanation of each project,.

Most of my interviews include a question such as:

  • "What do you think of our magazine's new layout?"
  • "We're thinking of re-organizing our Website. What would you suggest?"
  • "What factors would you consider if you were leading a team tasked with designing in-store displays for our new product line?"

That first question is pretty inane. (If the magazine layout is new, of course, then you've been asked the job-interview equivalent of "What do you think of my new car?" and there is only one appropriate answer.) The other two examples are fair game, and I'd answer them the same way the Manager-Tools folks answer interview questions: Explain the goal you have in mind, make 2-3 brief suggestions, and explain how each suggestion helps move the design toward that goal.

A handful of my interviews (maybe three in the past ten years) include a question along these lines:

  • "Sketch out a quick re-do of our magazine's core layout."
  • "Mock-up a hypothetical homepage redesign for our company and send me HTML and images by Friday."
  • "When you come in for your second-round interview, we'd like to see a store merchandising proposal for our new product line."

Such "Questions"  are actually  "projects," and they come pretty close to the industry definition of spec-work. For me, a  key heuristic is whether or not I'm expected to go home and work on it. I mean, a design I sketch on the interviewer's coffee napkin is really a test of my brainstorming skills and grace under pressure, not a test of my design talent. That's valid. But if they want me to go home and produce something dynamite, I'm going to worry that they're taking advantage of my eagerness to impress them.

It's hard to know what to do in that situation. I'm within my rights to decline, but that response would likely end my candidacy, so I've never done that. The one time I can recall, I was asked to create a hypothetical new section of the client's Website. The graphics I created for them had visible and meta-data watermarks, and my name was all over the comment tags of the underlying HTML. I didn't get that job, but I don't know if my evident concern were the reason. In hindsight, I may have appeared paranoid.

The original poster can't very well watermark an internal-communications strategy, so my only suggestion would be that CorinaG and others in her situation should prepare (memorize) a qualified affirmative: "I am glad that you're interested in seeing how I think, and I'd be delighted to use my talents on a sample project for your company. I'll work on this with the same professionalism my previous clients have found so valuable on their paid projects. Naturally, since I'm not yet an employee or retainer of your company, I'll retain all ownership rights to the materials I create. Thank you for giving me this opportunity; I intend to impress you."

Will a statement like that give my ideas a 100% safeguard against an unscrupulous employer? No. But if I do it right, with the same smile and enthusiasm I use in the rest of my interview, I'll come across as a conscientious artist who respects himself, his clients, and his profession.