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Between freelancing as a copywriter and social media manager early last year, Rachel O’Neill was scouring the job market for something full-time.
She applied for a suitable role in a Dublin-based tech company, she says. “Somewhere in that weird associate middle.”
Not exactly entry-level, she said, but not a senior position either.
As part of the application process, which lasted two months, she went through four rounds of interviews, each lasting around 45 minutes, and was issued a take-home assignment to do and send back.
The assignment was to write an entire marketing script for a video, a landing page and a mock email, she said. “I did that in a day, a day and a half.”
Despite positive feedback, O’Neill didn’t get the job and as she told them, she says, it all felt rather unfair. “You’re expecting me to do a lot of work for a job I don’t have yet, all on my own time.”
More and more employers are demanding job seekers do hefty assignments as part of their applications, says Laura Bambrick, head of social policy and employment affairs at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).
Even for junior roles, she says, which are much lower-stakes hires than those higher up. “I mean, it might be inconvenient if you turn out to be not as good as your CV would suggest but it’s hardly likely to bring the business to a grinding halt.”
The multiple rounds of interviews put significant pressure on job-seekers and can look close to unpaid work. Plus, applicants can struggle with the demanding schedule which, Bambrick says, ultimately limits who can apply.
Test after Test
“Applying for jobs in tech is a full-time job,” says Hilary Pidgeon, early last year over Zoom.
Nearly every interview Pidgeon attended over five months from October 2020 to February 2021 had a take-home assessment stage, she says.
On average, she interviewed five times per company, going up the ladder of seniority. With a particular company, she did eight interviews, each lasting an hour, she says.
Pidgeon was once asked to analyze a data set on Excel with thousands and thousands of numbers, she says.
She was told to break down sales data and make a slideshow presentation highlighting trends, draw up a plan to optimize sales, and present to interviewers at the next round, she says.
“You could spend an average work day doing it,” she says. “So you’re working your evenings, […] and weekends into the night, just to be able to do the work that you needed to get done for an interview.”
She had to take IQ and personality tests too, said Pidgeon. “They give you different patterns in a row, and ask what pattern comes next.”
She says she doesn’t understand what an IQ test can tell employers about her experience, that her CV can’t. “I’m never gonna get on a call and […] have a client go here is a circle, a triangle and a square, what do you think comes next?”
These were junior to mid-level positions, she says. “??You get this kind of interview level for jobs that range from €30,000 to €80,000 a year.”
For firms, giving assignments helps them to see a little bit more of what the person can do by themselves outside of their portfolio, says Joe Roche, head of marketing at an information and communications technology (ICT) firm in Dublin and a junior hiring manager.
He’s been on both sides of the assignment-based interview process, he says, having administered and completed them during his time in the tech sector.
That’s the lighter side, he says. “It helps you make a confident decision, and it helps you justify the salary that that person wants.”
But the darker side are multi-day projects, says Roche. “Where the idea is owned by the company, and cannot be used by the candidate for themselves in the event that they do not get the job.”
“I think that if you’re saying, “Build an entire website for me, and I’m going to use it and you don’t have a choice.” That’s not right. No job is worth doing that much labour for free,” says Roche.
On the Rise?
Assignment-based interviews are becoming increasingly common in hiring practices, says Bambrick, head of social policy and employment affairs at the ICTU.
Prepping for an interview, or even multiple interviews, isn’t unheard of, she says. But she is seeing candidates asked to do full public-relations campaigns, or marketing campaigns, where potential employees are given a brief similar to what you could expect in the job, says Bambrick.
Richard Grogan, an employment solicitor, says employers can fall foul of employment law in these situations.
“If it is anything to do with existing clients or to do with existing work that they have on, the potential employer has very serious issues,” he says.
Grogan says employers could be breaching GDPR regulations if giving potential employees access to real-life projects with client information.
Also, if it’s a project the employer is working on and they’re pooling ideas from the applicant, that’s working, says Grogan. Making job candidates do it, unpaid, could be in contravention to the National Minimum Wage Act, he says.
Grogan says that it’s just like you can’t hold unpaid trial shifts in restaurants, have a candidate put plates on the table, then turn around at the end of the night and say, “I’m sorry you’re not suitable and we’re not going to pay you for it”.
“I remember when I was in college, I did a working interview for Bunsen as a waitress and they paid me for the four hours I was there,” said O’Neill, the copywriter. “I was completely bowled over by it.”
But O’Neill says she couldn’t imagine proposing that she be paid for her hours of work in these situations because it might come across as though she doesn’t want the job enough.
Grogan says that employers should be looking for your approach in an interview process, not solutions to problems.
Historically, says Bambrick, of ICTU, these types of interviews would be carried out for senior roles like CEO or a chief financial officer, as the risk of hiring the wrong candidate could have a greater impact on the company.
But now they’re being done for more junior roles, she says.
O’Neill says the extensive hiring process that she went through was too much for a role advertised at €35,000 a year.
Bambrick says trade unions are asking that employers are both “reasonable and proportionate” during the interview process.
“And what we mean by that is, the extent of the time asked should be proportionate to the risk that’s involved in the job,” she says.
“It really should be a red flag for you if somebody is being disrespectful of your time,” she says.