“I had already been through 5 interviews including a panel with several of the senior managers and directors my role would work closely with. I thought I was at the finish line then the recruiter surprised me with the big last step: a work project.”
A Senior Director of Marketing connection-turned-friend I’d been helping with finding her next role was one of two candidates in the last stage of an arduous interview process for a well-known, international tech brand. She was tired. Her excitement about the role had waned substantially… then she was hit with another obstacle to climb over: The much-maligned interview project.
She was understandably frustrated. She’d already given countless hours to the potential employer while still working a very demanding, full-time role. Exasperated, she asked for my advice. “Be truthful,” I told her. “You’re smart. You can find a delicate way of expressing that this has been a long process already and that you’re disappointed that they still are unclear about your abilities. Ask about concrete concerns they have or what it is they are still uncertain about after your prior interviews. If they still insist on this interview work project and you choose to continue in the process, be sure you are crystal clear on the amount of time they expect you to spend and the depth of the project while reiterating that you have a full-time job elsewhere.”
When she asked the recruiter for clarification, the recruiter was almost apologetic in their response. “However long it takes you to clearly demonstrate your work product.” The scope was broad, too. “Be prepared to present on all the elements and strategies you feel would need to be implemented for a successful brand launch.”
Talk about ambiguous. What a great way to get free work and free ideas, huh?
Ultimately, my connection-turned-friend completed the project. It took her 12 hours on a weekend when she should have been watching her daughter’s soccer game. When she was offered the job, she turned it down. Rightfully so. She’s now happily employed at a different technology brand that put her through a much less frustrating (yet no less rigorous) interview process.
What’s the lesson here? Is it that interview assessments should be avoided at all costs? Is it that the candidate is lazy for pushing back on unreasonable expectations of free work (my bias is showing)? Or is there a better way to approach giving candidates interview projects and sample work assignments?
In this article we'll cover the elements a great interview assessment should contain
As well as the things to avoid when using a homework assignment as a part of your interview process.
First, let's start with the basics.
What is an interview assessment (aka: interview assignment or interview project)?
Technically, an interview assessment can be either a test administered by a company throughout the interview process or an interview work project or task given to a candidate that demonstrates how they would approach work projects if hired. Companies utilize these interview assignments to better understand how a candidate’s skillset, work style, and technical abilities apply to the requirements of the role.
What should you include in an interview assessment?
According to research, the best type of interviews are structured ones. In fact, a 2009 MNSU study found that structured interview processes increase predictive validity of candidate performance. While a structured interview process goes well beyond simply giving an assessment, these so-called homework assignments can also give valuable, non-biased insight into how candidates would perform in a given role.
So, how do you make sure you’re doing it right?
If the employer is going through a hiring process, presumably, they also have a clear understanding of who they’re aiming to hire and what that person will do on a day-to-day basis. Using the job description as a guide, the interview assignment should cover the main responsibilities of a position. Note: This doesn’t mean asking a candidate to perform actual, usable work. Any assessment given should have the goal of allowing the interview team to identify whether or not the candidate has the essential skills to perform the job successfully while also respecting the time and effort of the candidate.
What does a good assessment prompt look like then? Obviously, that’s up to the organization and the role but here we have a couple of very basic examples: Interview Assessment 1: Position: Digital Marketing Director for a CPG Brand
Key Responsibilities: SEO, Paid Search/Social, eCommerce strategy, people management
Essential Skills: Develops talent, expertise in omni-channel marketing, strategic thinking, drives results
Interview Project Prompt:
Pretend that we’ve recently acquired X brand and are weighing a potential overhaul of the brand properties. From a digital perspective, can you walk us through the main considerations for this rebranding strategy. Please include both potential challenges and opportunities for each channel, as well as the data behind how you identified them. Be prepared to discuss how you would incorporate the team in planning the launch of the new brand.
Type: Take home. Paid assignment.
Time Expectations: Please spend no more than 4 hours on this exercise.
Interview Assessment 2: Position: Senior Web Developer
Key Responsibilities: React.js, UI/UX, HTML/CSS, Drupal builds & management Essential Skills: Expertise in 2+ areas, ability to train/mentor others, ability to translate functional requirements to technical specifications
Interview Project Prompt: With the time allotted, please use this example site we’ve built (and broken) and identify and fix all wireframe, usability, and integration (API) issues.
Type: Live test with Director of Web Development. Unpaid.
Time Expectations: 1 hour
Interview Assessment 3: Position: Account Manager
Key Responsibilities: Client retention & management, marketing experience, project management Essential Skills: Communicates effectively, client focused, marketing strategy
Interview Project Prompt: In the style of a form that gradually reveals more information: Part 1 - You are assigned a new-to-you client that has been with the company for 1 year. The client has been unhappy for the past 3 months and is threatening to fire the company over poor campaign performance. What is your strategy to get up-to-speed on the client's main complaints and ensure that they’re addressed? Part 2 (after additional information is revealed) - Now that you know the client’s exact complaints, please put together a comprehensive communication strategy for the client and the delivery team.
Type: Take home form. Unpaid.
Time Expectations: Please spend no more than 2 hours on this exercise.
2. Clear Expectations
Each of the example prompts does a few things. First, the directions are clear and concise. Of course, with the specifics of a position and company, more detail can (and should) be added. A great candidate that needs additional information or context will ask for what they need in order to complete the task successfully. It’s never a bad thing to have a candidate who asks for clarity! The second thing these prompts do is create very clear expectations. There is no ambiguity around the request of “Please spend no more than 4 hours on this exercise.” This ensures that the candidate knows that they aren’t expected to spend a whole weekend doing free (or nearly free) work for a company they don’t work for but it also creates an expectation for the hiring team in reviewing the candidate’s results.
For example, let’s take the first interview assessment prompt. Candidate 1 spends the requested 4 hours on the assignment and produces a solid proposal and project with the time allotted. Candidate 2 spends the entire weekend–nearly 4x as much time and produces a near-identical result to Candidate 1. Wouldn’t you, as the hiring manager, want to know the difference?
This is why clear expectations surrounding time spent are so vitally important. It gives the hiring team, who are ultimately judging the result, a clear understanding of what a candidate can accomplish in a concrete amount of time. And isn’t that almost as essential as the result itself? After all, the age old debate of “perfect but late or fine and on-time” only goes so far.
The other expectation set forth is also important but for another reason. The debate over paid versus unpaid interview assessments is a big one (and one we’ll address later in this post) but creating the expectation upfront puts the candidate at ease and also shows them that you respect the time and effort it takes to complete the interview process.
3. Everyone on the Same Page
When it comes time to review the results of an interview assessment or work project, there are a few considerations that should be taken into account. First, who should be responsible for reviewing the work product? Is this something that should be reviewed by the team or simply a hiring manager? Consider internal time spent and who might have an interesting perspective or expertise to share.
Second, the format in which the result is shared should be clear. Does the candidate need to present their project to an executive panel or can they simply submit via email with no additional explanation necessary? Obviously, the format is going to be very role-specific.
Third, the review team should know the prompt and the essential skills that the prompt was aiming to uncover. This helps to focus the discussion and also eliminate any possible bias. By focusing solely on the skillset and the result presented, there’s less room for pure opinion and conjecture. Either the candidate completed the task as assigned to a satisfactory standard or they did not. Taking this approach also makes it easier to compare candidates in each skill category. Given how many amazingly talented candidates there are out there, evaluating a candidate’s project based upon a clear criteria means that those impossible gut decisions between one person and another become a little more data-based.
Candidates, like companies, have competing priorities. A great candidate experience is one that allows for flexibility when necessary. If you want to ensure the candidate has only 1 week to complete a homework assignment, ask what week would work best for their schedule and send the prompt then. If a candidate needs to reschedule the eventual presentation, allow them to do so. Be rigid on what you ask of candidates and ensuring you’re asking everyone the same questions and giving the same assignments. Be flexible on most everything else.
What should you avoid in an interview assessment?
Now that we’ve discussed the elements a great interview assignment should include, let’s discuss some pitfalls to avoid.
Paid vs. Unpaid Assessments
Let’s address the big question first. Should a company pay for someone’s time in completing a work assignment? If we follow the actual letter of the law, you don’t need to compensate candidates for non-usable work. The distinction here would be something like giving an accountant a general ledger from 2 years ago and asking them to find the errors or opportunities to consolidate expenses versus giving them the current GL and asking the same. One is real work that someone in the company is being paid (or should be paid) to complete. The other simply gives an example of the work they can do. The same goes with strategic questions. Let’s use the example we started this article with. A well-known international tech company gives a prompt detailing a new product launch they’re considering. The prompt asks the candidate to outline the components of a successful launch and the essential elements in the first 30 days of the campaign.
Should this assignment be paid? It depends.
If the product launch is a real consideration, then yes, the candidate should absolutely be compensated for their time and ideas. If the product launch is fake and unrelated to any current/future product launch, then, in theory, the assignment could be unpaid.
But following the law is different than doing what’s right. So what’s truly fair in these scenarios? Obviously, this is where opinions begin to differ. As a recruiter with over a decade of experience (and having been a candidate myself, of course), it’s my opinion that the paid vs. unpaid question comes down to time commitment. If the expectation is that a candidate spend in excess of 2-3 hours, I believe they should be paid. Beyond that, it’s unreasonable to expect people to give their time freely. If an assignment takes 4+ hours, it’s either a very poorly designed assignment or for a very technical role (for which, the candidate should be paid for their expertise). Paid assignments don’t have to be complicated, though. Many companies choose to pay a flat rate for each assignment. Even a small amount of money, far less than the candidate would make in the job or as a contractor, goes a long way toward showing a potential employee that you respect their expertise and their time. Obviously, the average hourly rate for each profession should be considered when putting together an assignment compensation plan, but even a fraction of the normal rate shows good faith that you’re serious about a candidates’ candidacy.
2. Unrealistic Time Frames
As we covered in the “do” section, flexibility is key with candidates. Sure, there should be a reasonable expectation that candidates can complete assignments within a given time frame, but that timeframe should be mutually agreed upon, clear to both parties, and allow plenty of time for the candidate to comfortably complete the assignment without having to worry about how they can balance a current job and time commitments with the assignment.
My connection-turned-friend is flourishing in her new Senior Director role. The company she’s working for moves fast. They’re efficient and give her plenty of latitude to exercise her strategic mindset–something that was evident throughout the interview process. She hit the ground running and is already strategizing adding new members to her marketing team. “We’ve got to get the interview portion figured out,” she told me in a recent conversation. “Don’t worry. We’re going to be keeping all the assessments short and to-the-point!”
Creating a great interview work assessment really just boils down to good upfront planning, clear expectations, and treating candidates with respect–like they’re real people with their own lives and a set of valuable skills (presumably, skills you want!). Using these concepts as guiding principles, any company is sure to come up with interview assignments that allow candidates to demonstrate their best selves and allow organizations to land top talent.