Friday, October 17, 2014


"To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.”
― Steven Wright

I recently began applying for jobs, and I've gotten pretty good at it. I have gone through all the motions, from meeting with a career counselor, to networking myself through everyone I know (and may know) thanks to LinkedIn. I have applied for too many jobs to count, but I'm getting responses. Over the past four weeks I have averaged four interviews every week. I'm talking about all kinds of interviews, from informational to in-person.

This is a very time consuming process, mostly because each interaction requires scheduling, research, and time. I take each interview pretty seriously. Until I don't. Because, inevitably, something in the process will rub me the wrong way. No longer being interested in the position, not being able to come to a consensus on salary, or not wanting to work with the staff are all very solid reasons not to take a job. I have used all these reasons to withdraw my candidacy from consideration. But I have also come across one more reason to run away from any given job opportunity. And that is when I'm given too much homework.

I know it has been a few years since I've set out to seek full time employment, but since when has it been okay for employers to take advantage of candidates? I am actually shocked at the amount of work I have been asked to complete throughout various stages of interviewing.

Two recent instances have stuck in my craw. The first was an interview granted with a wonderful educational organization. Before I even spoke to anyone about this position, I was sent a letter (in the mail) with two items. One was a parking pass for my scheduled interview date and time. And the second was a request to give a one-hour presentation to a board of representatives at the organization. The presentation topic? A complete proposal for a multi-year $250,000 grant, based on the type of programming the organization runs. But I didn't know what type of programs the organization runs. It's not apparent on their non-existent website. I hadn't even spoken with anyone at the organization about the position, let alone what would be beneficial to it. I was extremely frustrated.

But that's not what upset me the most. The most ridiculous part of this assignment was for me to do the work for the organization. If I were to write an incredible multi-year grant proposal under any other circumstances, I would be appropriately compensated. Actually, I have been compensated for this type of work for over ten years now. I am not going to give away my secret grant-writing formula for free, no matter how much I want the job. In the end, I called the organization, left a voice-mail, and bowed out of the interview process. Mostly because I don't want to write grants full time, so it's clearly not the right position nor the best fit organization for me. But also because I was not going to do the work they inappropriately asked of me.

The second homework assignment I received recently was to plan an event for an organization I had been currently interviewing with. I understand the idea of raising the expectations for a candidate in a second round of interviews. But asking me to present my complete event proposal for an event that will be happening early next year is just an absolute abuse of power. Again, asking for all my ideas and taking them to plan an event is not an ethical way to work. It's not how I work. And I wouldn't work for an organization that treated others this way.

What is acceptable is the following: arrive at said interview with a few concrete ideas to discuss, Then, the organization hires me, and I complete said ideas. Sounds like a pretty awesome plan. On the other hand, for me to present to the organization's entire staff for over an hour, lay out how I'd secure each vendor and contact each vendor for an upcoming event is the very definition of work. Again, I'd expect to be compensated. This is true event planning/consulting work. And it is usually accompanied by a large amount of monetary compensation. 

In the end, I wanted the position at this second organization, so I did the work. I presented my event plan, complete with budget templates and event checklists. But the truth is that my heart wasn't in the proposal. No longer did I hope for a job offer at this organization. The idea of free labor is what I expected to provide over twelve years ago when I was an intern. A decade later, I've got two degrees and a world of experience.

Let me make sure I am clear about one thing: I am not saying every time I use my skill set, I should be compensated. I'm not saying that at all. Anyone who knows me knows that I use my knowledge, experience, and passion for good. I am currently writing grants, raising money, designing websites, planning events, and even training a student on the grant-writing process, all for free. I am a volunteer. I am happy to help. But there is a very distinct line for me between being a volunteer and being taken advantage of. When I'm working, there is the expectation of monetary compensation. When I am volunteering, I receive a reward of the non-monetary kind. And that works for me. But I'm not talking about the volunteer part of my life. I'm talking about my livelihood, the money I use to pay my rent, and eat, and pay the internet bill so I can afford to post this blog online.

Plus, it's not an all or nothing job interview homework mentality I'm holding. For instance, I am not against skill set exercises. One company asked me to complete a data merge and collate said data, drawing conclusions based on the data. This exercise took 20 minutes and I was happy to do it. Apparently my Excel skills passed the test, because I was asked to come in for a second interview. Score!

But what surprised me about this data collation activity was the simplicity of the exercise. Granted, I needed to use equations across multiple spreadsheets, but in the event that I wasn't sure how to do this, I could have always used Google. It is common practice for most people I know; if you don't know something, or need to fix something, or have a general question about how anything works, you get on your computer (or phone, or tablet) and Google it. Then you have your answer. I suppose a better test of my skills as a potential employee would have been to ask me, "if we asked you to create pivot tables in an Excel document and you don't know how, what would you do?" I could quickly answer, "I'd Google the question and teach myself the answer." There you go. Clearly I can learn anything I don't know how to do. I am industrious. I will make an awesome employee.

I have used this tactic before. Haven't we all? During a phone interview I actually said I knew how to create pivot tables. The night before I went in to the in-person interview, knowing I'd have to speak specifically on the pivot table topic, possibly even tested on it, I taught myself pivot tables. I know how to use the internet, a skill which will, no doubt, help me secure my next full time gig. In the meantime, just don't ask me to solve your company's issues for free. You'll have to hire me first.

Here is Forbes Magazine's approach to job interview homework:


  1. A Prospective Employer10/17/2014

    What's your secret grant writing formula? Please give it to me.

  2. So with you! I'm looking at a dream job application that would take a week (or more!) of work to do well. I'm ok throwing out some ideas in draft form, but completing an entire ready-to-publish educational resource on their desired topic, including reflective writing on the development process? Come on.

  3. Anonymous10/22/2014

    I was asked by a eCom website to source new products that would be right for their website and give them the contact info too. The project specifically said to look online. Also, I would not even meet with anyone, just send in the project for the team to review. I said I would present it in person because I am a seasoned buyer with professional contacts whose privacy I have to respect. I cannot leave the info with a company who hasn't even hired me. They wouldn't take a meeting, so I bowed out. A seasoned buyer's biggest strength is her connections that will help with best costs during negotiations. This company wanted candidates to troll the millions of websites for new products and give them the info, without paying the candidates for the work. By limiting the search to the public online domain, they can always legally say the info was in the public domain, not stolen from a candidate's proposal. It is totally sketchy!!!