Recruiters have few methods to thoroughly evaluate a candidate’s potential work product without asking them to do some unpaid labor. About half of job seekers strongly dislike when they’re given a take-home assignment, sometimes dropping out of the running. But some can hugely benefit from the opportunity to showcase their skills, and those assignments can lead to less biased hiring processes.
Many candidates though are left wondering if it’s worth it, possible to decline, or if they can ask for more thorough instruction or an extension without being penalized.
Alan Roberts completed about four take-home tests during his six month job search last year before landing a role as a senior account manager at personal branding and PR firm Prestidge Group.
An interview opportunity with iHeart radio sparked his interest, and the hiring team asked him to complete a take-home assignment: to create a pitch for Cheerios to advertise on the platform. The directions were rather vague, and he spent an entire weekend on the presentation which he had five days to do, creating demos and product placement ideas. He took a Thursday off work to go give the presentation to a room of company leaders and nailed it, he said.
“They were all like, wow, that was amazing, I can’t believe you did all that,” he said.
But he didn’t get the job, or even hear much back from them in the weeks and then months following. He was concerned they might have simply taken his work and reused it, along with some of the other companies he completed take-home tests for.
Some other tests he completed were less of a lift though. Exact requirements in take-home tests can vary widely by role and the company you’re interviewing with, said Ariana Moon, senior director of talent planning and acquisition at Greenhouse.
But “if take-home tests are constructed thoughtfully, in an ideal scenario it’s not just helpful to the employer but it is also to the candidate,” Moon said.
Internally, Greenhouse asks candidates for engineering roles to perform coding tests, while candidates for leadership roles are given a prompt or problem statement to discuss at the next interview, she said. Some tests for other roles include writing samples.
Employers should always be explicit with instructions and guidelines when giving assignments, including the time expected to complete it and deadline, and be mindful of accommodations candidates may need, she said. But for roles in certain industries, urgency and the ability to work under deadlines is part of the job description.
Thomas Maxwell started applying for journalism jobs when his eight month fellowship at Business Insider ended this summer, just as the outlet began a hiring freeze, he said. Since then he’s completed at least 10 writing assignments during job interviews with varying requirements and deadlines. Researching each publication and thoroughly understanding their particular audiences, writing style and what they’ve already covered is an added task, he said.
One assignment entailed taking an unedited article for a publication and editing it for style and grammar, then turning it in within 30 minutes of receiving the copy. He declined and dropped out, turned off by his perception of that workplace’s culture. He said during his search some other companies have asked what kind of deadline would work for him, which was much appreciated.
What you can do
Candidates considering whether to decline an assignment should explore why they feel that way, Moon said. It may be because of time constraints, in which case they should ask for accommodations or a possible timeline extension. It can also be because the test is unclear or doesn’t feel relevant to the role, or because they think the company is getting free work out of them, she said. In any case, it’s an opportunity to open a dialogue and learn more about the role and the company.
“The interview process is the first trust building exercise between the company and candidates,” Marissa Morrison, ZipRecruiter’s vp of people said.
“If you’re unsure why a step of the interview process exists, ask the recruiter and learn more,” she said.
Another way to decline or ask for a revised assignment is to see if an alternative is possible, she said. Examples include walking the interviewer through work projects from past roles or more thoroughly presenting a portfolio.
“It’s completely acceptable to openly ask to learn more about what the assessment is looking to uncover about your skills and background, so you have the context and that you might be able to propose an alternative if you think you can showcase those skills in a different way,” she said.
However, “you should be prepared to potentially be removed from the running for certain roles If you don’t participate,” she said.
And ultimately, take-home tests can be beneficial to both parties, especially in terms of preventing hiring bias.
Greenhouse’s survey found that while half of respondents dislike take-home tests, those from historically underrepresented groups were more likely to be in favor of them. Some tools like one Greenhouse offers can also anonymize take-home tests to further mitigate bias.
An analysis of over 300,000 applicants submitting take-home tests through Greenhouse software found pass rates rose by almost 7-10% when grading was anonymized. When not anonymized, applicants from historically represented groups were less likely to pass relative to white applicants.