February 18, 2011
Job tryouts: How much work should you do for free to prove yourself?
New York Times News Service
Many years ago, my husband learned a harsh lesson about offering too much to get a job.
He was in college, trying to sell advertisements for a local newspaper. Talking to a business owner located in a hard-to-find part of town, Mark suggested putting a map in his ad and even drew a sample one to show how it would look.
The following week, he saw a reprint of his map as part of the company’s ad — in the competing newspaper.
That experience rings true for many job seekers today who are often asked to spend hours to produce examples of their work as part of the job-hunting process. Most times, they do the work. Sometimes they hear nothing back — and occasionally, they see their creations used without payment or permission.
Freelance Web and graphic designer Judith Rohatiner has been stung after submitting work to attract new clients.
“The first time someone said they wanted to see my work, it seemed reasonable to design a logo or write a story, and I fell for it,” she says. “I would get an e-mail back saying, ‘This is not for us.’ Then I would Google the company and see my work.”
Now, she identifies all the work she does with a watermark that states, “This artwork cannot be reproduced.”
Watch for exploitation
Job hunters are in the uncomfortable position of trying to figure out where to draw the line — especially when so many people are competing for so few jobs. They want to be cooperative and available, but not exploited.
“If it makes you feel uncomfortable or you think you’re being taken advantage of, then you are,” says David Perry, a managing partner in the executive-search firm Perry-Martel International. He suggests searching Google for the name of the company and “interview tactics” or “free internships” to see if there is any buzz about the company’s practices.
If you decide you are willing to do extra work but are concerned about some aspect of it, ask questions and negotiate. Make sure you understand what the employer wants, Perry says.
“For some jobs, we give people an hour and a half to rewrite copy,” he says. “Some people just delve in. Others ask questions; those are the ones we want.”
Find a middle ground
You don’t have to simply say yes or no. See if you can tailor the work to meet your needs as well as those of the prospective employer.
“If you’re being asked to put in 15 to 20 hours of additional work, say something like, ‘I’d love to accommodate you and would normally devote X amount of hours to this. But given my client commitment, can I focus on just one aspect as a representation of my ability to deliver value?’ ” suggests Susan Whitcomb, founder and president of The Academies, which trains career coaches. “Pick out one area where you’ll shine the most.”
Jean Baur, author of the book “Eliminated! Now What?” says another option is to suggest that the company hire you on a contract basis if you are asked to do something that will take a substantial amount of time. Then you will be paid, there is no commitment on either side and you will have a foot in the door.
If you want to do the work, it’s fine to ask — politely — if it will be used for any commercial purposes. “Most people won’t lie,” Perry says.
Finally, if the interview process feels unethical or exploitative, the job probably won’t be any better.
“If it really is free work, you don’t want to work there,” Baur says. “Most people can come up with a reasonable plan that’s fair to both sides.”
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