Plannedscape Postings


Working Interviews
If It Doesn't Smell Right, Don't Do Them

Posted by Charlie Recksieck on 2022-05-12
The "working interview" is a new trend in hiring. As defined by Indeed, "A working interview is a hands-on interview where employers can see a candidate’s ability to perform a specific job or task." Basically it's doing the job or doing some real work with/for the team to see if you really fit in and can do what you say. A good enough idea.

Guess what? It took about four minutes before lots of unscrupulous and/or ignorant businesses tried taking advantage of the situation. Google the phrase and you'll go down a rabbit hole of nightmare stories of people looking for work performing the working interview in good faith and 1) Not getting hired (which is perfectly acceptable) but 2) Not getting paid (which is illegal).

We are all for interning or doing things for free to show your worth when it’s appropriate. Our ultimate message is that there are some legitimate occasions where you should do something for free to demonstrate your worth and attract new clients, new job, new gig. But keep your spidey senses up to sniff out an unscrupulous business taking advantage.

Splitting This Article Between Two Blogs

I write these articles for two separate blogs - my career in software development on Plannedscape and also my band's music website: The Bigfellas. This is a fun week where I can use half of this content in an article that makes sense for both blogs. Plus, it saves me time to not write a full second article this week.

Unfortunately, businesses taking advantage of aspiring new hires and bands looking to break into new music venues have a lot in common. People often expect you to work for free because you need them more than they need you. I'm urging you: Don't fall for it.

Working Interviews

I get the idea of a "work interview" being a way to see if people can really do the job. While doing a little Google research on the subject today, I ran across somebody on a message board sticking up for the concept of a working interview as a "truth serum" in that job applicants can't get away with lying about their skills. That's a point well taken, that's the ideal of the work interview or tryout.

But with some cursory research online, you'll see a trend of employers thinking it's fair to ask somebody to work for free in the hopes of getting a job. The bottom line is these "interviews" are actual work, so it's illegal to not pay people who work for you. There's a word for that.

Take a look at this example and another one or poke around and you'll get the idea about some shameless employers abusing the practice.

On another level, no responsible HR officer should ever let this happen. There are too many issues beyond just the basic morality of the situation. What if that not-employee gets injured in the course of the "work interview"? Here's an excellent article about why working interviews should be paid, from the business' perspective:

Skills Test

Another way of checking out potential employees' ability are "skills tests", which are pretty popular in software engineering job interviews. It's basically a take home test. If you say you've got the requisite skills for a Python programmer job, then they'll invite you to some skills test software session where you write code on a hypothetical problem.

I once saw a skills test asking for code to handle efficient shipping and packing based on the items to go into a box. The test was asking for start-to-finish code that could be applied to any amount of shipping items to maximize efficiency of packing. When I saw it, it occurred to me that there must be plenty of people using phony job listings as a scam to get people to write code for free. I apologize if I come off as cynical but it's only because I've lived on Earth with other humans for a while.

Again, if a potential job's assessments and tests seem a little weird to you or just plain unreasonably time-consuming, here's some great advice that still holds up 7 years later.

Proposal - Giving A Plan Away

There's another insidious practice that's between businesses. It happens in the RFP process where a company requires a detailed plan as part of a bid.

We do lots of proposals, many of them very highly technical for power companies or factory processes software. Don't shed a tear for us, but these proposals are not easy. There is no possible way to come up with a number for bid or a not-to-exceed amount for a potential client without pouring over a lot of materials and asking a lot of questions. To write a real bid, we have to guess how we would architect such a project and break down each feature or sprint into small tasks with estimated hours to complete. This can take 10-40 hours on our side, for free, to present a proposal. Again, boo hoo, it's the cost of doing business and honestly those hours are recouped in the cost of the project once accepted (no matter what anybody will tell you).

Well, years ago we provided a detailed proposal for a power company in California near the Arizona border. We won't mention them by name, but we've left enough breadcrumbs for you to figure out who it is, if you care. I think you can guess where this story is going. There was a full project plan in that proposal. We didn't get the job and I did hear later through the grapevine that the proposal was used in their planning. Even though they did still hire somebody to write the code, the plan itself was something a consultant should be paid $20-30k for.

We learned our lesson the hard way after that one. We still have to do the background research to create a responsible proposal. But now we send the estimated price and schedule. If you want to see details, we need a contract.

Common Summary (On Both Blog Posts)

Everybody in their jobs these days are feeling pressure to make more money with less assistance. So of course. there's a temptation to cut corners. If you need a tryout to see if your potential new musician or employee can really do the job, then find a fair way to do it.

But if you're trying to take advantage of "working interviews" or struggling prospective employees because you've got the upper hand in a mismatched power dynamic, then shame on you. Be better, or at least be less shitty.