Pre-Hire Assignments Frustrate Job Applicants in Sluggish Market

 The last thing Bryan Ashby needed was a homework assignment.

The 45-year-old had been laid off a month from his job as a software developer. He was juggling a mortgage on his place in Salt Lake City, paying for his 13-year-old daughter’s private school tuition, and applying to scores of jobs. That’s when one of the companies where his interviews were going well told him about the next step: a complex coding project he needed to do using the language C++.

It was a big ask. But Ashby needed the job and wanted to show he cared, so he spent a week on it, head down, electronic music playing in the background as he sat coding. He finished the assignment and turned it in. Then he didn’t hear anything back for two months.

Homework assignments, assessments, projects, and presentations are adding greater stress to a slowing labor market filled with workers let go in mass layoffs from Wall Street to Silicon Valley. While outside tasks have long been used to test applicants’ aptitude, candidates, coaches, and companies themselves now say they see them spreading to more industries and roles, aided by technology and necessitated, in part, by the new rules of remote work.

“The age-old challenge of the employer has been to find ways to motivate effort in employees,” said Julia Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter, the job-posting site. Before remote work, bosses could see when employees were off task and prod them. Now, Pollak said, companies need to be sure they hire staff motivated to work even when they’re not being watched. Interview assignments are one way to gauge that intrinsic motivation.

Data show a significant uptick. Reviews of interviews mentioning take-home assignments increased 86% in the third quarter of 2023 from the same period in 2019, according to employment website Glassdoor. Views of such assignments are growing more negative. While 37% of reviews mentioning take-home assignments reported a negative interview experience in 2019, that figure jumped to 56% in the third quarter of this year.

Some of that negativity may stem from how demanding assessments are becoming, even for early-career positions. All Sasha Desenclos was looking for was a role as a customer success manager after she was laid off from a gifting platform in January. The Atlanta-based 27-year-old was struck when a short-term rental company sent her a five-part assignment this summer. It included a role-play exercise where she had to imagine she was a CEO, as well as tasks such as creating a client’s email campaign and recording herself on a theoretical customer Zoom call.

“It was so weird,” said Desenclos, who spent a full day on the assessment, which also included building a slide deck. “It was also so vague because I didn’t have much information.”

The company eventually got back to Desenclos to say they loved her assignment but had gone with someone internal.

The growth of assessments may reflect a push at some firms to hire based more on skill than pedigree. Yet experts say firms need to be careful, because assigning overly burdensome assessments may create unintended barriers for people with limited time to do outside, unpaid work.

“You could lose good talent,” said Dawn Fay, operational president for staffing firm Robert Half in New York.

Requesting Compensation

One firm lost Shelly La Rock. The 51-year-old mother of four from Portland, Oregon, was laid off from a director-level tech job in May. In June, she was asked by a firm to craft a three-to-five-page business plan for an issue they were trying to solve.

“I couldn’t afford to do work for free,” said La Rock, who asked for a consulting fee and guarantee that if she wasn’t hired, the company wouldn’t keep her work. When the firm declined, La Rock backed out. She was hired at another company a few days later and loves her new job.

Requesting compensation for assignments is “a perfectly reasonable thing to ask,” said Clint Carrens, a career strategist at Indeed’s Job Search Academy. What’s more, if an employer raises complaints about the ask, “that in and of itself may be a red flag.”

Still, career coaches say outside assessments can be helpful. Beyond demonstrating skills, they may serve the more meta-level purpose of showing grace under pressure. Not having enough time to do an assessment doesn’t necessarily mean a candidate should give up completely, some say.

“It doesn’t have to be either, ‘Yes, I will throw myself into this and come back to you with a finished product,’ or ‘I’m offended that you would value my time so poorly,’” said Monique Valcour, an executive coach.

She recommends people with limited time communicate with their interviewers, explaining limitations and offering to talk through what they would have done, had time permitted. Handled deftly, such a move could make a jobseeker stand out even more than someone who spent 30 hours on a project.

Onerous assignments pose risks for companies in an era of social media, notes Chad Van Iddekinge, a professor of management at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business.

Getting Rejected

Dustin Goodwin got over 2,000 likes and reactions to a post he made on LinkedIn that included descriptions of a negative experience with an assessment. The 41-year-old from Austin lost his job at a fintech company last year and spent a weekend analyzing data in an Excel spreadsheet for a prospective company. Their rejection stung, and he said the whole process was demotivating.

When Ashby, from Salt Lake City, finally heard back from the company he did an assignment for, they let him know they went with someone else. He, like many candidates who have spent an entire day or even weeks doing an assessment, said the experience would have been vastly improved if only the firm had communicated its decision earlier.

But in the months since, he’s landed a new job. A big upside: He didn’t have to do a homework assignment to get it.

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post