Lessons learned in auditioning for jobs

Lessons learned in auditioning for jobs

Judith Rohatiner, a Web and graphic designer, identifies all the work she does with a watermark and states, ''This artwork cannot be reproduced'' as a warning against unauthorised use. Reuters

Talking to a business owner located in a hard-to-find part of town, Mark suggested putting a map in his ad and even drew a sample one to show how it would look.

The following week he saw a reprint of his map as part of the business’ ad — in the competing newspaper.

That experience rings true for many job seekers today, who are often asked to spend hours to produce examples of their work as part of the job hunting process. Most times, they do the work. Sometimes they hear nothing back — and occasionally, they see their creations used without payment or permission.

Matthew Goldenberg, a longtime Web producer who was looking for a job a few years ago, is familiar with such situations.

“I remember, in particular, one well-known publisher I interviewed with had a Web site and gave me a homework assignment — ‘Go home and tell me what would make us more profitable and successful,’ ” Goldenberg said. “I invested four to five hours in it, turned it in and never heard from them again. About a month later, I saw some of my ideas on their Web site.”

Goldenberg does not know for sure that his work was stolen. “I’m not saying I’m so brilliant that they could only have been my ideas. And it would have been okay if there had been some sort of follow-up.”

Such experiences leave a bad taste. And job hunters are in the uncomfortable position of trying to figure out where to draw the line — especially in these times, when so many people are competing for so few jobs. They want to be cooperative and available, but not exploited.

Nor does this problem just arise in job interviews. If you have your own business and are seeking clients, how far should you go?

Judith Rohatiner, who works part time as a Web and graphic designer, has been in this position.

“The first time someone said they wanted to see my work, it seemed reasonable to design a logo or write a story and I fell for it,” she said. “I would get an e-mail back saying, ‘This is not for us.’ Then I would Google the company and see my work.”

Rohatiner said she had sent e-mails questioning the companies’ use of her product, but never received a response.

Now, she identifies all the work she does with a watermark and states, “This artwork cannot be reproduced.”

While she knows an unscrupulous business can still use her work without paying her, “It does tell them, ‘This is a red flag and I know what you’re doing.’ There are predatory people and you need to have a few hard knocks before you’re aware of it. There may be a legitimate reason to have you work on a product but it shouldn’t be before a face-to-face meeting.”

Outplacement firm Lee Hecht Harrison senior consultant Jean Baur said that employers had a right to request that job candidates produce work. After all, she said, professors are usually required to teach classes as part of the interview process and scientists are almost always asked to do a presentation.

And Baur, like others I interviewed who are involved in the job search business, says she thinks it’s rare that a prospective employer uses such work in an unauthorised manner.
But at the same time, job hunters should be wary and savvy. As Rohatiner discovered, there is something wrong if a company assigns you something before ever meeting you.

“If it makes you feel uncomfortable or you think you’re being taken advantage of, then you are,” said Ontario-based executive search firm, Perry-Martel International managing partner David Perry. He suggested looking in Google for the name of the company and “interview tactics” or “free internships” to see if there was any buzz about the company’s practices.

But once you have made it past the door and have an interview, how do you handle requests for work?

“It’s tricky,” said Baur, who is also the author of the new book, “Eliminated! Now What?” (Jist Publishing).

The issue, as Goldenberg said, is not just that you are putting in hours of work without getting paid for it. It can also be awfully hard to show your best side when producing something for a company that you are not familiar with.

“Unless you’re given lots of data, you end up giving them a laundry list of ideas, and you’re bound to hit one they’ve already tried and failed,” he said. “But you don’t want to just say, ‘I won’t do that.’ You want to show that you have the expertise.”

Of course, each situation is different. Do you think you are one of dozens of people being asked to submit something? Then it may not be worth your while. But if you are one of three finalists? Then you may be much more willing to put in the time and effort.

If you decide you are willing to do extra work, but are concerned about some aspect of it, don’t acquiesce quietly. Ask questions and negotiate.

Make sure you understand what the employer wants. Perry, for example, said he was recently recruiting for a company looking to fill the position of sales vice president. At the end of a long interview process, the final two candidates were each asked to give a 15-minute presentation.

“This is a legitimate way to find out if the claims made on a resume are valid,” Perry said. “After all, when does anyone say on a résumé, ‘I’m mediocre?’ ”

The candidate who ultimately got the job spent an hour asking questions to hone his presentation, said Perry, who is also the co-author of “Guerrilla Marketing for Job Hunters 2.0” (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

“For some jobs, we give people an hour and a half to rewrite copy,” he said. “Some people just delve in. Others ask questions. Those are the ones we want.”

Also, you don’t have to simply say yes or no. See if you can tailor the work to meet your needs as well as those of the prospective employer.

“If you’re being asked to put in 15 to 20 hours of additional work, say something like, ‘I’d love to accommodate you and would normally devote X amount of hours to this, but given my client commitment, can I focus on just one aspect as a representation of my ability to deliver value? ” suggested career coach training firm Academies founder and president Susan Whitcomb. “Pick out one area where you’ll shine the most.”

Another option, Baur said, is to suggest, if you are asked to do something that will take a substantial amount of time, that the company hire you on a contract basis. Then you will be paid, there is no commitment on either side and you will have a foot in the door.

Finally, if you want to do the work, it’s fine to ask — politely — if it will be used for any commercial purposes. “Most people won’t lie,” Perry said. And if the interview process feels unethical or exploitative, the job probably won’t be any better.

“If it really is free work, you don’t want to work there,” Baur said. “Most people can come up with a reasonable plan that’s fair to both sides.”

The New York Times work week is seen steady at 34.3 hours. Employers tend to extend hours for existing workers before taking on new employees. Average hourly earnings are seen up 0.2 percent after being flat in November.

The Labour Department will publish annual revisions to household survey data from which the unemployment rate is derived which could see revisions for the past five years.

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