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  1. Blog
  2. Interviewing
  3. April 16, 2024

Are Unpaid Take-Home Interview Assignments Ethical? We Asked 2 Experts.

How to gauge whether you should ask for payment

woman completing an unpaid take-home interview assignment
Photo courtesy of Ketut Subiyanto

This article is part of InHerSight's Finding a Job series. Discover our most popular and relevant resources for finding a job fast—at a company that cares as much about your career as you do.

During the job search process, it’s become increasingly common for employers to ask job seekers to complete take-home assignments—mock pitches, reports, articles, designs, decks, coding sets, etc.—as part of the interview process. Most of the time, these assignments can take anywhere from several hours to an entire week to complete. On top of the time commitment, they’re usually unpaid. 

Is this an ethical process? It’s a contentious debate, no doubt. Some experts argue that these assignments are necessary to gauge whether candidates will be able to perform their jobs well. Others argue that it’s an easy way for employers to exploit candidates’ time and skills without compensation. 

We asked technical recruiter and job search strategist Stephanie Heath and talent acquisition expert Dana Hundley to weigh in on the debate. 

Read more: Your Guide to Acing Technical Interview Questions

Are unpaid take-home interview assignments ethical?

Let's consider a scenario where a job seeker is applying for a software engineering position at a tech company. The candidate goes through an initial interview with the hiring manager and a second round of interviews with multiple people on the technical team. At the end of the second round, the hiring manager provides a technical take-home project that involves building a small web application.

The candidate has one week to turn in the finished product. They spend the first day planning and designing the architecture of their app. The next few days are dedicated to implementing the frontend and backend functionalities, and they allocate time for testing and debugging as they progress throughout. Overall, the project takes around 10–15 hours to complete.

After the candidate completes the assignment, they’re asked to present their work to a panel. Is this process ethical?

The answer depends. It isn’t black and white—it’s a bit more nuanced. Hundley and Heath agree that in theory, take-home assignments like these can be done ethically, but they can venture into unethical territory depending on the overall time commitment and how the work is used. 

“An assignment can be valuable to the interview process if it’s demonstrating a skill set or experience that's absolutely needed for the role,” says Hundley. “What I have an issue with— and where we get into unethical territory—is when companies are asking for an egregious amount of time spent on unpaid assignments, and when they're asking for original work without very clear boundaries on how that work will be used.”

A small assignment that will take no more than a few hours to complete is probably a reasonable ask during the interview process, but a project that will take a full week is not. Separately from the time commitment, it’s unfair for hiring managers to pass off real, unfinished work to interview candidates that will later be used for the company’s benefit or profit. 

“If the employer is using a data set that can be used within the company, for example, then yes, that's unethical. To ensure it’s ethical, employers should use a data set taken from a company in a different industry or something different from what you'd do at the company so they can understand how you problem-solve,” says Heath. “But if I had an overarching answer, it's no—take-home assignments aren’t unethical, because people need to know if you can come in and do the work.”

According to Hundley, there’s a simple gut check to gauge whether an assignment is exploitative—both from the perspective of candidates and the people creating the interview process. “If the assignment is going to take longer than what someone would take to interview either in person or on the phone, then you need to rethink it,” she says. “It should just feel like another step in the interview process.”

The impact of unpaid assignments on marginalized communities

Unpaid take-home assignments disproportionately impact marginalized communities due to the systemic oppression and barriers they already face. 

Marginalized individuals may lack the time and access to resources necessary to complete these assignments. Assignment completion is dependent on having reliable access to computers, high-speed internet, and resources like software subscriptions, and it’s wrong to assume all candidates have equal access to these privileges. Marginalized communities are more likely to face competing responsibilities, such as familial obligations, part-time jobs, or caretaking duties, leaving them with limited availability to dedicate to unpaid projects. 

Assignments like these can also exacerbate financial burdens. Every hour spent on an unpaid project represents a missed opportunity for paid work or income generation. They may be unable to dedicate significant time and effort to projects that don’t offer monetary compensation, and the cost of acquiring the necessary resources can be prohibitive for those facing financial constraints. 

Employers should be aware that unpaid take-home assignments can end up discriminating against qualified candidates, reinforcing the exclusion of marginalized voices and perspectives at work, ultimately limiting diversity and innovation and perpetuating a cycle of inequality.

Read more: Ways Women Work: How Caregiving & Unpaid Work Disproportionately Affect Women

How to handle an unpaid interview assignment request as a jobseeker

When evaluating whether an unpaid assignment is worth agreeing to, assess the potential benefits of completing the assignment. Will you gain valuable experience, be able to showcase your skills and expertise, or prove your commitment to the role? Weigh the relevance of the assignment in relation to your career goals and the likelihood of it leading to a meaningful opportunity.

“Candidates should ask very clear questions around the intentions of the project,” says Hundley. “What is the company trying to get a sense of? What are they trying to get you to show? What are you trying to learn from this assignment, and how long should it take? How has the company used this type of work in the past? Get a real sense of their thought process.” 

At the end of the day, it’s completely up to you whether you want to complete a take-home assignment. You are the owner of your time, and you should trust your instincts and prioritize opportunities that respect your value as a professional. If an unpaid assignment feels exploitative, disproportionate to the potential benefits, or teeters into the realm of free consulting work, you can either request compensation or politely decline and focus on pursuing opportunities that offer more mutual respect.

When is it acceptable to request compensation? 

If the assignment is far outside the scope of the interview, Hundley says it’s acceptable to request some type of payment for your time. She recommends being prepared with a specific monetary request. You can say something along the lines of, “This project is a lot of extra work beyond the scope of the interview process, would you consider compensation for this work? Typically, the going rate for this type of work is $XX - XXX. Would something in that range be achievable?

If you do ask for compensation, be prepared for companies to decline your request. “Whichever way they answer is a good show of their company values,” Hundley says. “If there’s an assignment that’ll take five hours plus three rounds of interviews, and they’re not open to a compensation conversation, try to probe and understand why. Take notice of how this reflects the company culture and values and why they’re asking so much.”

On the other hand, Heath discourages job seekers from requesting payment at all. “I wouldn't ask for compensation,” she says. “If it was my client, I wouldn't recommend it. I would chock it up to the wounds of being on the job hunt—you’ll have to invest time, but you will land a role at the end of it.”

In cases where job seekers decide to decline an assignment, Hundley and Heath offer tactful ways to convey their decision to employers without burning bridges:

“Clear, concise communication is the best way to not burn bridges,” Hundley says. She suggests providing an alternative solution in your message: “Say, ‘At this time, I'm unable to complete this project because of the time commitment. I’m still really interested in the position, and I would be more than willing to provide you with a contract I've edited before and walk you through it to demonstrate how I typically approach an assignment like this.

Heath says, “Don't ghost the company. In my experience, maybe 30 percent of people complete the job assignments they’re sent. Get on the phone with the recruiter and say, ‘Hey, do you have some time to chat? I reviewed the project and want to talk through it. I’m currently in the recruitment process with a few other companies, and I don't have the bandwidth to complete this project. At this time, I'm going to focus on the other employers I'm in conversation with, but I appreciate the opportunity.’”

Both Heath and Hundley agree feedback for recruiters is incredibly important.

“As a recruiter, feedback from candidates is super valuable. Regardless of when a candidate pulls themselves out of the process, I’ll ask why. I want to understand, is there something off with our process? If the role is a complete no go, I would hope they would say something like, ‘I decided not to move forward in the process because the assignment was larger than I expected, but I wish you the best of luck in your search.’”

Read more: Can You Lose a Job Offer By Negotiating Salary?

What are some alternatives to take-home assignments?

There are plenty of alternatives to take-home assignments that still offer employers the chance to gauge whether a candidate can do the job at hand well.

“From an interview process perspective, hiring managers should be asking for very clear examples of how candidates have been successful in their line of work,” Hundley says. “Ask about previous work so the candidate doesn’t have to create original work and their time isn't taken advantage of. I’ve worked with companies that have asked for portfolio pieces the candidates have already been compensated for, and we ask them to walk us through it in a live interview session. Character references can also be really helpful. Really take advantage of a candidate’s references to double check their ability to work well.”

Heath says hiring managers can set up skills-based assignments during the interview process. “Developers can split screens during an interview. The hiring manager can throw a problem at you and watch you code to see if you can do it right,” she says. “They could also grant you access to one of their platforms and have you use it in tandem with the team to see if you work well together.”

Similarly, interviewers can ask specific technical questions that get candidates to explain how they approach a task without them having to complete work.

A few good technical questions might include:

  • Can you walk us through your process for conducting research and fact-checking for an article?

  • Can you discuss a successful social media campaign you've managed from conception to execution, including the platforms used and the results achieved?

  • Walk us through your process for conducting due diligence on potential investment opportunities. What factors do you consider, and how do you assess risk?

  • Can you discuss a recent project you worked on where you had to optimize code for performance or scalability? What strategies did you employ, and what were the results?

Hundley emphasizes that instead of asking candidates to complete an assignment at home on their own time, it’s more valuable for both parties for candidates to complete exercises that expand on a technical skill set live. “Even if you tell someone to not spend more than 30 minutes on something, people will overcommit their time if they’re left to their own devices to make sure it's perfect,” she says. “Do it live and have a dialogue. There are pros and cons—some people are thrown off when asked to type in front of others, for example—but ultimately, it’s up to you to create an environment where they feel comfortable.” 

Read more: How to Fairly Evaluate Nontraditional Candidates During & After an Interview

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