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This is the weekly Careers newsletter.

Radhika Panjwani is a former journalist from Toronto and a blogger.

Companies handing out absurdly unreasonable, exhaustive work assignments as part of the interview process are flashing a red flag that should set off alarm bells for jobseekers, caution experts.

The reasoning behind the skills test is that it can offer clues into a candidate’s approach to work, as well as provide insights about their grasp of technical knowledge. Except, in some instances, the take-home projects fall squarely under the exploitative category.

Examples of excessive demands include asking applicants to research, outline and present an in-depth social media strategy; create a detailed business proposal with marketing tactics, budget and other logistical details; execute complex graphic design work or solicit free ideas for campaigns.

“Work assignments can help in recruiting the best talent if they are adequately planned as a short exercise [of no more than two hours of work] to help the candidate show their strengths and technical knowledge,” said Liliana Nakamura, a Greater Toronto Area human resources consultant and career coach. “Ideally, the [assignments] should be administered toward the end of the hiring process, after checking through traditional interviews and not as a filtering tool upfront, or a means to get work done for free. If the skills can be assessed in a different way, for instance though a work portfolio, the assignment should be removed.”

Ms. Nakamura said one of the issues with free work assignments is that candidates feel manipulated because some assignments are so complex that the candidate has to put in several hours of speculative work.

A reasonable ask of an in-home project would be crafting a press release, a few social media posts for a communications job or writing a piece of code for a tech job.

Free ideas and free labour

Some months ago, A., who requested anonymity for privacy, was seeking a business strategist position with a provincial agency in Ontario was asked to develop and present an in-depth business case to the interviewing panel. The task required the jobseeker – with no knowledge of the agency’s processes and priorities – to create an outline of the benefits, cost and timeline for launching a province-wide revenue-generating initiative.

A. said he spent more than 25 hours that week on the project in addition to his regular work. There were several red flags about the recruitment process, including a lack of clarity on expectations and the matrix he would be evaluated on.

“I didn’t think the process was fair or valid, because I was presenting to the same people who had already interviewed me for an hour,” he said. “I also did not understand why there was an emphasis on a presentation in the first place. Sometimes people are excellent with presentations but terrible when it comes to substance … and decision making.”

The man did not get the job but the whole experience has left a sour taste, he admitted.

Saying ‘no’

Madalina Secareanu, a careers expert at the job site Indeed Canada, advises jobseekers to speak up if they feel they’re being unfairly tasked with assignments.

“You’re looking for your next great employer and the hiring process is your first insight into what it will be like working there,” Ms. Secareanu said. “If the assignment’s too complicated, applicants can also offer to do a smaller or more reasonable version of the assignment and provide previous examples of similar work.”

Candidates can also request to be removed from the interview process if they deem the assignment as unreasonable or if the hiring manager is reluctant to compromise on an alternative assignment. And when the project requires creating original work such as campaign ideas or articles or work relating to intellectual property, ideally, the company should not use the candidate’s work without compensating or hiring them, but when in doubt, consult an employment or intellectual property lawyer for clarity, says Ms. Secareanu.

“When choosing to complete an assignment, it’s important for candidates to consider who will have the rights to their work,” she notes. “Since the work is being completed outside of a contract, candidates must ensure that they retain the rights to the work being submitted in the interview process.”

Today an applicant, tomorrow a stakeholder

Companies that create an less-than stellar experience during the hiring process, whether by asking candidates to fill several screens worth of information that’s already in their resume, do unreasonable work assignments or by ghosting them afterward, should consider the consequences, said Ms. Nakamura.

“Always assume your candidate is buying your products and services and can switch to your competitor because you did not communicate well in the hiring process,” Ms. Nakamura said. “A job candidate today could also be your key stakeholder tomorrow.”

What I’m reading around the web

  • Deb Liu, CEO of consumer genealogy business Ancestry.com, is an introvert leader, whereas the workplace is built for extroverts. In this article, she talks about how she sets small goals for herself. Ms. Liu says she considers extroversion a practicable skill rather than an unachievable personality trait.
  • This story talks about how workplace surveillance techniques are becoming increasingly common in workplaces. There are four ways employees are being watched and include tattleware, which involves monitoring keystrokes and mouse activity; hyper-location monitoring where phones and work badges are fitted with Bluetooth that gives the manager precise location of where the employee is; and a few other surveillance techniques.
  • Michael Hyatt is a best-selling author and founder of a leadership development company. In this post on his blog, Full Focus, he discusses how leaders can effectively align with their team. For starters, they can hire an executive assistant, he writes.

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