Try before you buy? The do's and don'ts of test projects in the interview process

You have three strong candidates who have made it to the next level. To narrow it down to one, you'll assign each a test project to gauge their skills, talent, and interest. But what you think is a fair project may actually be received by your candidates as a burdensome and unnecessary expectation.

While test projects, or spec work, have become ubiquitous in the hiring process, they can alienate top talent if perceived as free labor. CareerBuilder spoke to job seekers, HR executives, and hiring managers to hear their take on pre-employment tests as part of the interview process.

Time matters

How much time should an applicant spend on a test project? Alissa Chaim, SPHR, suggests one to two hours. "I know the hiring manager just wants to see a sample of what the person can do, but some companies ask for full-blown presentations that can take days to put together."

Candidates we spoke with confirmed that some interview assignments were a bit excessive. One candidate was asked to prepare a detailed marketing plan for the company's brand, which took him a week to pull together. The experience not only left him with a bad impression of the company but of test projects in general.

Other horror stories from job seekers include test projects landing in an applicant's inbox on a weekend or with a quick turnaround. Message received. You expect them to give up precious free time with their loved ones for you. This expectation can further whittle away at your shrinking candidate pool in this job market.

When assigning a test project, ensure it doesn't take any longer than a few hours and allow a reasonable amount of time to complete.

Be creative in your approach

While a test project can be a smart move to ensure a candidate is the best fit, there are other ways to gauge skills that do not involve an arduous amount of homework.

Sharon Jautz, an HR professional with over thirty years of experience recruiting and hiring, says, "Remember that this is a candidate-driven market. Candidates are pushing back on assignments." As an alternative to a test project, Jautz suggests, "Have a candidate walk you through a redacted client presentation from a recent past role."

Don't be their worst nightmare

One fear job seekers have is that you'll use their work and still not offer them the position. This fear is not unfounded. In a recent Slate article, one applicant found his writing assignment posted on the company website under "Staff Writer," weeks after he was turned down for the job.

Another job seeker said, "I realized that my presentation and the ones given by several other candidates amounted to a goldmine of free consulting for them." Yet another company we were made aware of regularly used jacket designs submitted by candidates.

Creatives, in particular, have had their fair share of spec work drama. They even have a hashtag for it: #saynotospecwork. The Graphic Artists Guild reports that when a firm uses the original work created by a designer or illustrator without approval or compensation, it's not just sketchy. It can expose your company to a lawsuit.

In the words of Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing. Don't take advantage of someone who wants to work for you. It only takes a few bad reviews on a job board to tarnish your brand reputation.

The sweet spot

You've already seen their portfolio or examples of their work, so you know they're good, but can they apply that to your business? A test project can help surface their skillset as it applies to your company. And it can also help the candidate get a sense of what their day-to-day will be like. If they don't enjoy the work or are struggling with the test, it may be a sign that this job isn't the right fit for them.

Adam Berman, a director at the public accounting firm, Kreischer Miller, sees spec work and test assignments as beneficial to both the applicant and the hiring authority. As a candidate, he was often asked to give a fifteen minute presentation that would demonstrate his ability to communicate and present complex thoughts in a compelling way. Berman saw this as an opportunity to assess whether he would fit in culturally rather than find out six months later that his boss didn't like how he presented.

From the hiring perspective, Adam feels these projects also allow candidates who didn't interview well to shine in the role they'd be performing. Bonus points: Berman also puts in writing that if his company chooses to use an idea presented by a candidate in a test project, they will be compensated. Now, that's gold star corporate behavior.

Remember that your ultimate goal is to cultivate a work culture that is respectful of your employees' time. The spec work you assign to vett your candidates should not be counterintuitive to those values.

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