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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

What Every Job Seeker Should Know About Work Assignments During the Interview Process

You’re progressing well through an interview process, and you think you’re close to landing that coveted offer, when the employer says, “One more thing—we have a little homework for you.”

This tactic is used by a lot of companies (especially startups), and with good reason: The hiring manager gets a firsthand look at your approach, creativity, quality, turn-around speed, and communication and presentation style and can gauge how serious you are about the position.

If you really want that job, your instinct will likely be to put your best foot forward and provide the most fabulous project the employer has ever seen. But there’s something else to consider: You may end up putting in many hours of work, creating an awesome deliverable—and at the end of it all, still not getting the job. There’s even a chance that the company will take the ideas you labored over for its own benefit, and you’re left not only without an offer, but without compensation for all that hard work.

It’s happened to me: Once, at the end of a second round interview, a hiring manager asked me for a list of quick-hit ideas on increasing user engagement for his consumer website. I spent almost half a day coming up with a list of 10 great ideas, including many examples from other sites. After I proudly sent over my recommendations, I didn’t hear from the company for over two weeks. When I finally got a response, he thanked me for all my hard work and said that the company decided not to pursue the position at this time due to “internal matters.”

Who knows if this really was the case; but to my surprise, I noticed a handful of my ideas were actually implemented within the next few months on their site. Maybe these were ideas already in motion and my assignment only confirmed what was planned, but I couldn’t help but feel that I had been somewhat “used” and regretted putting so much time and effort into this homework.

While there are times you may want to go to the moon and back for a job, it’s also important to be careful how you approach these homework assignments—especially if you’re investing your time into applying to multiple jobs. Here are some tips on how to handle this tricky situation.

1. Understand General Goals and Expectations

First, it’s important to get a sense of how this assignment will factor into the overall evaluation of your candidacy. Is this the final hurdle before the job offer? (It should be.) How will this be weighed with other elements of your interview? (You should get some positive reinforcement that the company’s very interested and just wants to get a sense of how you work.) How long will the assignment take? (Being asked to spend more than 2-3 hours on an assignment before getting hired is bordering on disrespect.)

Don’t be afraid to ask questions like, “Can you help me understand how this assignment will be evaluated?” “Are you looking more for big-picture ideas, or a detailed look at my recommendations?” “Roughly how much time do you recommend I put into this assignment?” It’ll help you understand what the company is looking for and how much time you’re willing to put forth.

2. Ask for Data

Next, remember that you have every right to ask for information that’ll help you better tackle the assignment and not start from scratch (if you were hired, that’s what you’d obviously do, right?). So, put some onus on the company to provide relevant data. For example, if the company is asking for your ideas on potential partners, ask questions that’ll point you in the right direction, like, “Who are your current partners?” “What types of partners are you currently pursuing?” “What are the key metrics that define a successful partnership?”

And if the company doesn’t provide any more information? Do your best, but also make sure you express where you’ve made assumptions based on lack of information—e.g., “Without knowing what your current metrics for successful partnerships are, I’ve made suggestions for partners that will boost both brand awareness and website traffic. Obviously, if the company has different goals, I would be able to adjust these recommendations.”

And then don’t worry—if the hiring manager doesn’t offer it, he or she will understand that you’re operating under lack of information and history.

3. Outline Main Points, Only Tease the Details

More often than not, the primary reason companies dole out homework is to get a better sense of your thought process, as well as how you structure and convey your thoughts and ideas. There’s not necessarily a “right” answer, nor is there a need to get way down in the weeds.

So, don’t stress about providing a ton of information—just outline the main points (bullets and numbered lists usually work well). You can tease out more details as you’re talking through your assignment in the interview without having to write down your specific plans and fully fleshed out ideas. Remember: You don’t want the hiring manager to have the blueprints for your fabulous ideas—you want him or her to hire you so that you can be the one implement them!

4. If You’re Worried, Get an NDA in Place

Depending on the type of job function and level you’re interviewing for, it may not be a bad idea to request a non-disclosure agreement. If there is any confidential information you do not want shared widely, your assignment involves using data from your current employer, or you just have a nagging concern that the company may steal your best ideas, take a precaution and get a simple mutual NDA executed (many template NDA forms are available online for download). Don’t make it too legally formal—the company may get turned off by this move—just let the hiring manager know you just want to make sure things stay confidential and you’d be more comfortable providing details with a simple NDA in place. If he or she refuses to sign, this may be another warning flag.

Knocking a homework assignment out of the park can be an amazing chance to show you’re the best candidate of the bunch, but you never want to get in a situation where you’re wasting your time or being used for free labor. Follow these guidelines, and you’ll be able to present a great deliverable while making sure you’re spending your time and effort the right way.

Photo of man working courtesy of Shutterstock.