To spec or not to spec: That is the perennial question facing both employees and consultants.
Picture this: You’re applying for a senior-level P.R. job. After your first interview, you’re asked to develop a communications plan that you’d implement in your first six months. No honorarium is offered. What should you do?
First, let’s distinguish between consultants and employees. Asking a consultant to produce spec work is increasingly understood to be inappropriate, in that these folks are external and part-time.
By contrast, asking someone you want to hire full-time, for years to come, to sing for their supper is more common. It may still be wrong, but it’s more common.
Indeed, the higher your position, the more acceptable this ask is. When Nick Clegg — the former deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom — applied for the top communications job at Facebook, he drafted a memo laying out his strategy.
Remember Paul Manafort? He did the same when applying to be Donald Trump’s campaign chief.
Yet just because this is the way things are doesn’t mean it’s the way things should be. Indeed, a reputable firm won’t require unpaid labor.
Standing on Principle
So how should you proceed if an interviewer asks you to perform an assignment without remuneration?
On the one hand, you can stand on principle:
You can politely decline. (Just bear in mind that declining the assignment effectively means declining the job.)
You can ask to be compensated. (The payment should be nominal; it’s not about the amount but about the offer.)
You can provide old work samples. (I took this approach earlier this year.)
Ultimately, companies will continue to demand free trials and tests as long as some candidates comply. So, like a strikebreaker and a striker, you need to decide: “Am I part of the problem, or part of the solution?”
A Means to an End
On the other hand, you can view the task as a means to an end. Sure, it’s insulting — plus, most of us aren’t in the running for a C suite payday, a la Clegg and Manafort — but you want to work there, right?
Then try viewing the request not as a burden but as an opportunity, not as a necessary evil but as a competitive advantage. As Johnny Drama from Entourage reminds us, an audition is a chance to strut your stuff. After all, you’re not the only talent they’re considering; if you don’t play ball, they’ll find someone who will.
A Middle Ground
If you’re uncomfortable with these black-and-white options, then perhaps you can stake out a middle ground: Offer to explain how you’d approach the assignment. Maybe even walk through how you handled a similar project in the past. As a bonus, this strategy allows you to show how much work their request entails.
How to Decide
Over the course of your career, it’s likely that you’ll get handed an unpaid assignment. Here are the asks I remember from my own interviews:
- Take a timed writing test.
- Write a news release.
- Write an op-ed (within 24 hours).
- Edit an op-ed.
- Develop a marketing budget.
- Develop a marketing plan.
I remember these because I did them all. (The marketing plan was 2,200 words!)
Admittedly, this was back when I was young and hungry. Today, I’m much more established; like the writer Harlan Ellison, I benefit far more from cash than I do from “exposure” or burnishing my résumé.
And that’s the point: How you respond in these situations is a personal choice, depending on a variety of circumstances. For example, if you’re desperate for a job, or raring to go for this one in particular, then it makes sense to be accommodating — to make yourself as compelling a candidate as possible.
Similarly, if you develop a rapport with your interviewer, then you might want to make an exception. Even Don Draper can be talked into a freebie.
By contrast, if you didn’t get a great feeling from your interview, then it might make sense to draw a line. Ditto if the company is known to have a lot of money, or if the gig isn’t all that lucrative.
The bottom line: Whether you’re a freelancer or a full-time employee, know your bottom line before you walk into the room. If you fall into the same camp I do these days — no spec work, period — then be prepared to communicate this point in real time. As my wife reminds me, most conflicts in life can be negotiated if you explain your thinking clearly, with empathy, and without an edge.
Jonathan Rick is a ghostwriter in Washington, D.C. He enjoys writing about the challenges and opportunities of freelancing.
A version of the above article appeared in P.R. Daily on November 3, 2022.
Addendum (11/5/2022): Workplace-advice giver Alison Green adds a critical nuance I missed: “It’s reasonable to ask candidates to spend an hour or two demonstrating their skills; it’s not reasonable to ask them to complete complex projects, at least not without pay … Short assignments are reasonable — and smart. The issue here is with assignments that are overly lengthy, have unrealistic deadlines, or will be used for anything other than evaluation purposes.”