Never ask job candidates to do unpaid assignments as part of your hiring process

[Image description: A yellow and white cat standing on an open book, with a quizzical expression. The book is on a wooden table, and behind the cat are more books. Image by Desertrose7 on Pixabay]

Over the past several years, I’ve noticed a marked increase in organizations listing the salary range (or just salary number) on their job postings. There are a few who still don’t, but since job postings are usually public, they often get swift feedback. There have also been more laws passed to ensure transparency and to stop the gross and unethical practice of basing candidates’ salary offer on their salary history. Overall, we’re doing much better on this front and should celebrate! Soy vanilla ice cream topped with Luxardo cherries and truffle salt for everyone! (You may have a different way to celebrate).

Now we must turn our attention to a horrible, no-good, very bad hiring practice that many of us, even the ones who disclose salary on job postings, are still perpetuating: Asking job candidates to do unpaid work as part of the hiring process. I’ve mentioned it briefly earlier—it’s the first item on this list of “Crappy hiring practices that need to die, and some awesome ones we need to adopt”—but it’s gotten so bad that it needs to be called out on its own. Here are some ways it manifests:

  • Requiring job candidates to create a fundraising, evaluation, or communications plan specifically tailored to your organization.
  • Making candidates write you a sample end-of-year appeal letter based on your org’s mission
  • Having candidates analyze your organization’s current website and provide suggestions for improvement.
  • Demanding candidates create and deliver a presentation about how they would approach some topic relevant to the job.
  • Requiring candidates to write and then act out a pitch to a potential major donor
  • Asking candidates to create a detailed work plan for how they would do their job if they were hired.
  • Having candidates to show up and “volunteer” at your program to see how they do.

There are tons more examples. My friend and colleague Irene Nexica, an equity-minded recruiting and hiring expert, wrote “I received an assignment as the second round for something that they described would take 3 to 4 hours (already too much to ask), and actually took me more like 16. The assignment was basically designing the first 30 days of the job for this new role.” (Irene was also forced to endure SIX rounds of interviews, proving that this organization is completely incompetent and no one should ever work there).

The practice of asking candidates for unpaid labor is awful and anyone who does it needs to stop immediately. Here are several reasons why it’s bad:  

It is inequitable. Many of these assignments take hours of researching, planning, thinking, drafting, reviewing, etc. You’re asking job candidates to spend time that they may not have, when they could be doing other things that would actually earn them money. This is not just annoying, it’s also inequitable when you consider that many job candidates aren’t currently employed, and many are people of color, disabled people, women, older adults, neurodivergent, etc. Every unpaid hour you require job candidates to engage in special assignments as part of your hiring process is another hour of your organization furthering inequity.

It excludes people: A lot of people just don’t have the luxury to spend time doing unpaid work. They may drop out. Or if they know unpaid work is what you tend to request when you’re hiring people, they may not even apply at all. You are losing out on good candidates. And again, this disproportionately affects people from marginalized backgrounds, who are less likely to have time and energy for unpaid labor. You’re excluding them. Don’t ask for unpaid work in your hiring process and then complain about the lack of diversity in your pool of job candidates.

It is unethical. I hear horrifying stories of organizations asking candidates to spend hours, often urgently and without pay, to create some sort of bespoke document. Then, the candidate doesn’t get hired, but the organization still uses the document for its work. Using people’s expertise in this way, without paying them fairly and without their permission, is absolutely unethical. These documents don’t come out of thin air; they reflect years of experience, honing of skills, lessons learned from having to endure difficult challenges, etc. Even if you don’t use these assignments you forced people to do, you’ve still exploited their time and labor and absorbed their knowledge. Shady and unethical.

It is inaccurate: What a candidate produces in a hiring process is not a good indicator of their performance or quality on the actual job were they to get it. Assignments done as part of the hiring process are often rushed and the candidate doesn’t have complete information. Asking someone to produce a fundraising plan, for example, when they don’t have the full picture of your org’s culture, values, history, fundraising approach, previous plans’ results, etc., is ridiculous and does not reflect what the candidate is capable of.

It makes your organization look really bad: I’m sure there are a few job applicants who do the uncompensated assignments you require and think, “Wow, I had such a great time and learned so much by being forced to spend 7 unpaid hours creating a presentation over the weekend for a job I didn’t get!” The majority will likely think your org is run by assholes. Word will spread, and in the long run this will affect your organization’s reputation and ability to hire candidates in the future.

Because of power dynamics, many candidates will put up with these horrible assignments, and you won’t get much feedback about how crappy and inequitable your hiring process is. But asking for unpaid work is terrible and should be abolished immediately. Here’s what you can do instead:

Accept work that the job candidate has already done and is part of their portfolio. You get all the information you need about the quality of their work without burdening the candidate to create something unique for your organization. Ask them to elaborate on their thinking process, results, lessons learned, etc., based on the samples of their past work.

Ask them for the process of how they would go about doing the work with you: Instead of requiring job candidates to develop a full evaluation plan, during the interview ask how they would go about creating such a plan, what components it would have, some general philosophies they have, some challenges they anticipate in the implementation, what would be some of their first steps, etc.

If you must require a bespoke assignment, pay candidates a consulting rate: Says Irene: “Unless you are paying a consultant rate for these assignments, you are still not fairly compensating someone for labor during the job process where basically the employer can walk away and not hire the person and still keep whatever product they have ‘paid’ for. In the example that I give [above] I was given a ‘stipend’ of $40 an hour for the theoretical four hours it would take me to do the assignment. I would never have charged $40 an hour as a consultant to do that kind of work.”

For job candidates who face these unpaid assignments, my sympathy. Here’s some advice, including a response template, from our colleague, leadership coach Joe Cardillo.

Please stop this practice if you’re currently doing it. It is time-wasting, inequitable, inaccurate, exclusionary, unethical, and makes your organization and hiring team look like assholes. We should view this practice as shameful as not disclosing salary on job postings.