my two cents

‘Can I Ask to be Paid for the Work I’m Doing for a Job Interview?’

Photo: SSPL via Getty Images

I work in the retail industry for a home and fashion brand, and I am looking for new positions. As part of the interview process, companies usually ask applicants to complete projects to demonstrate their skills and creative vision. In the past two years, three different companies (well-known brands) have asked me to do extensive projects — one took me three weeks! And in all three occasions, the roles I was applying for ended up “changing,” yet the companies still received my thought-out ideas and concepts.

I am now interviewing with another company that is a direct competitor to my current one, and they asked for a four-part project to be completed “with images and a presentation within 5 business days of the request.” It’ll probably take me at least 25 hours, and I am worried that they are just getting all of my ideas (including some that I would otherwise like to use with my current company) for free. Is it appropriate to ask for compensation for the project? I don’t think this requirement is fair when it’s unpaid, but I don’t know how to handle it.

In an ideal world, you would absolutely get paid to do a trial project like the ones you’ve described, even if you don’t ultimately get hired by the company that assigned it. But in many industries, particularly creative ones, these projects have become such a standard part of the job-interview process that companies take them for granted — and take them too far. Case in point: 25 hours of unpaid work is just way too much! I agree that you should be concerned about this, and want to push back.

That said, I also know what it’s like to be desperate to stand out in a competitive job market. When I worked in magazines, I spent my own fair share of nights and weekends toiling away on similar projects for prospective jobs (in the editorial world, they’re known as “memos” or “edit tests”). In a few cases, I submitted my work and never heard a peep in response. It was incredibly frustrating, but what could I do?

I also understand why these projects are useful. (I’ve been on the hiring end of this equation, too.) Companies want to see how you think, and if your ideas are a good fit for their needs and overall vibe. It’s also (supposedly) a test for you to see if you’ll like the kind of work you’ll be doing if you get the job. You’ll probably notice that the phrase “This is meant to be fun!” is usually part of the instructions.

And sometimes the project is fun. But that doesn’t mean that your time and talent is free for the taking. That’s why, off the bat, it’s important to establish clear parameters around what they’re expecting from you, and make sure it’s aligned with what you’re willing to give — just like you would do in any job. To figure out how you might go about this, I spoke to several recruiters who are familiar with hiring practices in your field.

“When candidates are asked to do test projects, I always make sure that they are limited to four hours long,” says Lucy Marino Thomas, who has spent 20 years recruiting creative talent for Robert Half, a human-resources consulting firm. “It shouldn’t be open-ended so that candidates are working on it for weeks.” That isn’t just a good policy for candidates like you; it should also help the prospective employer, too. Ultimately, companies want to hire someone who can do the work they need in a timely fashion, not the person who happened to have the most free time to grind away on the test project.

In your case, it seems reasonable to ask for more specific guidelines. Like, “How much time do you envision this project taking?” And, “How long would you like the finished presentation to be?” You can frame this in a diplomatic way — “I know you’re busy, and I want to make sure I’m delivering what you need.” There’s a good chance that they’ll define the scope of the project so that it’s more manageable. And if they don’t, that also says something notable about the culture of the company, and whether it’s worth trying to get a job there after all.

Asking for compensation is a little thornier. “You would hope that companies would pay candidates for their work, but typically only about 20 percent of them do,” says Caroline Imhoff, the recruiting director at Artisan Talent, which has paired digital, creative, and marketing job-seekers with clients like HBO and Estée Lauder. “We often push companies to pay their candidates for test projects, because we want to prove to the candidates that we’re not wasting their time.”

Separately, Thomas has a policy of paying candidates for test projects out of her own budget when she’s trying to recruit them for a client. “I’ve found that when I pay candidates for their time, nine out of ten times the client winds up hiring them,” she says. “So it’s worth the investment on my end.” (People tend to do better work when they’re compensated — what a concept!)

When you’re applying for jobs without an intermediary, however, it’s different. And I think it’s risky to ask for money for this type of project, especially since it’s still unusual for a company to budget for it, and the hiring manager may not have the power to change that. If you do feel comfortable bringing it up, try something delicate and open-ended, like, “Will this project be compensated?” But don’t be surprised if they say no.

As for giving your ideas to a direct competitor of your current employer: You’re right to be wary. “You want to give them your very best ideas, but I recommend being honest about your concerns,” says Thomas. She suggests asking something like, “Would it be possible for us to discuss what would happen if you use any of my ideas down the road?” Try to have this conversation over the phone, she says, and practice what you’ll say with a friend beforehand. Then, after you submit your ideas, follow up with an email saying something like, “If you choose to use any of my work in the future, please let me know.” I can’t guarantee that they will, but it does set up some professional boundaries that they should hopefully respect.

Finally, it’s worth getting more context about the hiring process before you commit yourself to next steps. “I would only agree to do a test if I’d already had an interview and knew they were serious about me,” says Imhoff. “I also think it’s a good idea to ask questions like, ‘What do you expect the rest of this process to look like? Will there be another round of interviewing? How many other candidates are you considering for this role?’” If they give vague answers (or can’t answer you at all), then they might be wasting your time.

The job market might feel tight, but it’s actually on your side these days. “The creative industry is booming,” Imhoff says. “I can’t find enough talent to fill the jobs we have, and when I do, they’re often up for lots of other roles as well. You should stand your ground and get answers to your questions, because employers should take you and your time seriously.”

‘Can I Get Paid for the Work I’m Doing for a Job Interview?’