You thought you were done with homework. You’ve got your degree and don’t have anything to prove to anyone, right?
Companies are shifting to a new interviewing tactic: assigning homework to prospective hires to assess their work ethic, the results they get, turnaround time and a number of other factors. Depending on the situation, this may be a valid method of testing a candidate’s fitness for the job or it could be a problematic smoke screen. Before you go in for your next interview, be ready to be asked for a task of this sort by keeping in mind these four easy points.
What Are The Goals and Expected Outcomes?
Setting expectations early shows you’re paying attention and willing to work, but not so desperate you’ll do absolutely anything. Some questions you will want to ask include:
1. What exactly are you looking for?
This simple question can help you zero in on what the employer wants to see without driving yourself crazy or going down bunny trails after extraneous information. If the assignment is legitimate, your prospective employer should have no problem giving you detailed instructions.
2. How will this assignment be assessed?
You wouldn’t flinch at the idea of asking your business professor for a rubric for your assignments. Why would you back down from an employer? This is an important piece of data that can help you work out how best to tackle the project.
3. How long is this assignment expected to take?
Every minute you spend on this assignment is time you aren’t talking to other employers, so it’s good to know how much of your time a prospective employer expects you to take. Depending on the position, the salary and other factors, 2-3 hours is usually a good rule of thumb. Less than that, and you’ve likely got a busywork project on your hands that’s not benefiting you or anyone else. More than that, and the assignment is probably something someone else doesn’t want to do and they’re passing off to you to do. For free.
What Data Do I Need?
If you were already employed by the company and they asked you to undertake a project, the first thing you’d do is ask for data. Treat this as an opportunity to show exactly how you work. Ask for detailed, pertinent data that will allow you to facilitate the project. However, watch out for the following warning signs:
- The request for data is refused.
- You are told to obtain data from your current company. This may be a sign of corporate espionage, and could land you in a lot of trouble.
- The instructions on the data to be used are too vague to be useful.
- Anything else that sets off a warning chime in your head. Your instincts are there for a reason. Trust them.
Don’t Give Away The Farm.
You may be tempted to go full-out on this project, to show off all the things you can do in one package. While this sounds great on the surface, it’s actually the last thing you should do. Be specific on main points, but general on details. This shows you have more to offer, but if they want it they’re going to have to pay for it. Keep the main points clear enough that a casual reader can follow your lines of thought and logic, but make the specifics hazy enough that they will have to ask some detailed questions to get all the goodies.
Do I Need An NDA?
There are a number of documented examples of job seekers doing work assignments as a pre-employment audition, only to not get the job and find their hard work on the company’s website hours, days, or weeks later. Do not let this happen to you. If you are asked to undertake an assignment that requires the use of proprietary data or if you have any concerns about how the information may be used after the fact if you are not employed, you may wish to have a simple mutual NDA on hand.
This serves two functions. It shows the employer you sweat the details, and you’re not willing to give away your work for free. If they balk, you can always tell them it’s for your own peace of mind, which is likely true if you’re asked to use data from your current employer. If the employer refuses, most importantly if you’ve picked up any other warning signals, think carefully before accepting the assignment. You could wind up doing a lot of work to someone else’s benefit with no payout to you.
This by no means should be taken to mean that all, or even most, employers use these assignments unscrupulously or that they’re looking to take advantage of people who are too new or too naive to know better. However, it pays to know what you might be getting into. If you do accept a work assignment as part of a job interview, give it your best effort within reasonable limits. Until you sign the contract and the HR paperwork, you are not an employee yet. If your prospective employer has any qualms about treating you like one prior to saying the magic words “When can you start?” reconsider whether the assignment is a profitable use of your time.