This article features quotes from communications professionals who have requested to remain anonymous.
When applying for jobs, standing out from the crowd in a crowded and competitive field is tough. The good news is that employers typically don’t rely solely on your resume to get a feel for your skills—they know that one or two pieces of paper can’t be indicative of your background and experience in their entirety. The bad news is that sometimes, this means that you’ve got homework.
“When applying for a PR role at a tech company, they asked me to write a short press release based on a past service they launched and pick one journalist I would pitch the story to. This assignment was sent along with my resume, and when I was called for an interview, it felt that they were signalling that they liked my work, which gave me confidence.
But in each case, the employers never made it clear what they planned to do with my work. If you’re going to assign these tasks, there needs to be some clearly stated guidelines. Such as: how many hours they expect you to put in and how they will dispose of the work after the hiring process has ended. Otherwise, I am always paranoid they are going to use the work that I did and was never compensated for. ”
— 27-year-old Social Media Specialist based in Toronto
It’s becoming more common for prospective employers to ask applicants to complete a project as part of the hiring process. In the PR world, these often come in the form of pitches, op-eds, copy or even graphic promotional material. This gives you a wonderful opportunity to showcase your critical thinking skills, creativity and even personality. These projects are typically assigned after the first interview, and before the second, but could happen even earlier. It is possible you will submit these projects for review and the quality of your work will garner you a second interview, or you will be asked to present your work at the second interview.
But you also may have noticed in some job descriptions, companies will ask you to submit some work along with your resume right upfront. This is common for social media positions, and the assignment is usually social media mock-ups that demonstrate the kind of work you would do for the company if hired. If you’re annoyed by the idea of doing work before this company has given you any indication that they’re interested in you, just try to see it as an opportunity to overcome some of the gaps in your resume and also, don’t work too hard or spend too much time on it. They won’t be expecting your best work on the first try.
“I was asked to do a variety of small assignments. These included drafting social media posts, a press release and a media pitch. It took time to complete, however, it was also representative of the work that I would be doing and it opened me up to what my life in that role would really be like. It was just as beneficial for me, as it was for them. This project also followed the interview, letting me know they were still interested in me.”
— 27-year-old Communications Associate based in Toronto
Sometimes, these assignments can be problematic in more ways than one. In some cases, employers expect too much from applicants. Remember: they haven’t yet hired you yet. If you’re given an assignment that requires several hours of your time, chances are the company you’ve applied to doesn’t have an accommodating work culture. If they’re expecting this much from you now, you can bet they will ramp up the workload if you do join the team.
And keep another thing in mind: this is a totally grey, unregulated area. While we have laws that prevent employers from asking discriminatory questions during job interviews (such as what our age is), we have no laws in place to regulate these assignments.
“A smaller startup company […] asked for a much more time-consuming project. This included social, media pitches, as well as my creative ideas. That’s where I feel the line can get crossed, where they are almost using the hiring process as free consulting based on our skills. The interview then followed the ideas, so people who were not even selected to interview gave over their intellectual property in a way, for nothing.
The interview then continued to ask for my ideas; how I would strategize the issues that the company was facing, and a step-by-step guide for how I would organize and plan campaigns. I felt uneasy at this point because it was clear that they were trying to take advantage of fresh ideas and desperate students who were about to graduate and needed a job.
Whether or not they are using the ideas and projects of those from the hiring process is not confirmed, but it definitely doesn’t make their intentions seem any less questionable.”
— 27-year-old Media Relations Associate based in Toronto
Truthfully, we don’t know what employers do with these assignments. You have to imagine that if they’re asking candidates to create marketing presentations filled with new ideas, that some of those ideas might appeal to them, even if the candidate doesn’t. What stops the employer from taking advantage and claiming a person’s work without giving them any credit or compensation? We simply don’t have any protections for candidates who are put in this position.
“What I did for my take-home gave me something to work off of when I got the job. That being said I think companies should provide some sort of compensation when they ask interviewees to do a take-home, especially if they might use what is given to them in the future.”
— 26-year-old Communications Specialist based in Toronto
When do you say yes?
It can be hard to turn down an opportunity, especially when it comes to a job. You want to do the assignment with no complaints and just hope that it will blow the employer away. And sometimes, these assignments are just legitimately trying to get a better idea of how well you would do in the role. So, how can we tell if an assignment is fair game? Here are some guidelines I’ve learned along the way.
The assignment doesn’t require an excessive amount of your personal time
It’s common for an interviewer to ask for an hour or two of your time to complete an assignment. Sometimes, the assignment will even say: “This should only take an hour.” It is not, however, normal for them to expect you to donate 15 hours of your time. In situations like these, the best-case scenario is that your potential new boss doesn’t care about work-life balance and doesn’t see why demanding you complete such a time-intensive project is inappropriate.
They’ve given you a reasonable deadline
To complete assignments, I’ve typically been given about a week. In some cases, the interviewer allowed me to submit it on my own time. For an assignment that would take a couple of hours maximum to complete, this is reasonable. If they ask you to submit it within the next day or two, they’re simply not respecting the fact that you may (and probably do) have other responsibilities and engagements. They are putting their own hiring needs above your personal needs, which is not a great indication of what kind of employer they would be moving forward.
You’ve been given outdated material
Many employers will assign old tasks to applicants in the form of projects. For example, they may give you an old press release and ask you to write a pitch off of it. If the documents aren’t dated, determining whether these are old projects or not might require some research. Check out their site to see their current clients or Google around to see if the story in the press release is old news. If you find out that the story is too old to be relevant for them to recycle your pitch, then you can breathe a sigh of relief.
When do you say no?
Most of the time, it’s totally legit (and wise, in my opinion) for companies to assign a project as a way of observing your skills. But, what do you do if you’re not sure?
If you’re not sure that your intellectual property is safe, ask the interviewer what they plan to do with your completed assignment. This is a completely reasonable question that they should be glad to answer. If you find that they don’t have an answer for you or they are unwilling to walk you through their process, you can estimate that they have dubious intentions.
Modify the assignment
If the workload assigned seems overboard, ask if you can just do a portion of the assignment. Your employer should understand that you have responsibilities and obligations apart from the job that you must respect. If they push back and insist that you complete the entire assignment, inform them how much time you will devote to doing the work (and again, 1-2 hours is enough) and ask them to judge the work keeping that information in mind.
Withdraw your application
If all else fails, don’t forget that you’re never obligated to proceed in the interview process. Just as they’re interviewing you, you’re interviewing them, and can politely let them know that you’d like to withdraw your application if at any point if you’ve decided this position isn’t for you.
If you’re looking for a job and have been assigned a project, congratulations! You’re likely to have moved on to the next stage of the hiring process, which is no small feat. Take it as an opportunity to show what you’re capable of. Many people feel they have a better shot at the job if they are judged on the quality of their work than on the quality of their answers to generic interview questions. But always take a moment to evaluate the scope of the request from the employer, and don’t be afraid to ask questions and stand up for yourself.