Q: I work in financial services, and I was excited to be part of the process on a hiring committee—at first. Part of the interview process includes assignments in relation to role responsibilities, such as in-depth research, a roadmap to fixing a certain problem, or pitching a new product idea. A colleague told me that the company does this sometimes to get new ideas with zero plan to hire the presenter who thinks they’re a finalist for a non-existent role. Is this common? Morally, what should I do? What should candidates do if they suspect this is happening?
A: Since you found this out from a colleague, consider the possibility that his or her accuracy may be questionable. Find out the truth about these alleged practices before anything else. It’s a stretch to believe that an organization employs this technique, as it is a huge waste of time. Interviewing a bunch of people is much more time consuming and costly than just hiring the people to actually do the desired work. I don’t think this is a realistic strategy an organization uses to deliberately get work done or get new information.
Companies use all sorts of hiring methodologies. Many of them are challenging and include pitching a product, solving a problem, or giving a presentation, all depending on what the hiring committee has identified as the necessary competencies and capabilities of the people they want to hire. If you are on the hiring team, you can easily find out if this is for a real position or not. If it’s not for a real position, express your discomfort in being part of a process with no integrity.
While I believe this exact process is a myth, there are similar practices in other realms of talent acquisition that might inform these kinds of rumors. Some search firms and placement agencies will call people when they don’t actually have a job for them, asking about their qualifications or other people they know who might be qualified. These people want to build a database of potential candidates should a similar position come up in the future. The myth of this interviewing practice may also emerge from the fact that, in the interview process, a hiring company may naturally get ideas or inspiration from the people they interview.
The allegations around this practice might also be the result of a disgruntled candidate who went through the process—but didn’t get the job. Usually three final candidates go through the intensive interview process. For the two who don’t get the job, the content they presented isn’t necessarily protected by any agreement. Some candidates may feel that these assignments are a waste of time, asking “Why do I have to do free work for you just to have the opportunity to interview?” In reality, these kinds of assignments are no different than showing a portfolio or demonstrating something you’ve programmed in the past. Think of it as a higher level version of the old typing test.
For any candidate concerned about having ideas poached, there are two approaches. One, if you truly believe your work is so significant and worth protecting, you can introduce a non-disclosure agreement. That being said, if the work is as innovative and groundbreaking as you think it is, you shouldn’t be using it in an interview in the first place. If it’s crucial in conveying your capability for the role, approach the manager and say “I’m very interested in this problem and my research around it, but this is a conversation that I would prefer to have with you alone to show you my capabilities.” Or, if your work is a great fit for the organization and might clinch the position for you, give a condensed presentation as a teaser—and when you’re hired, you can give them more.
At a certain level and in certain industries, you have to accept that this interview process is standard—and not likely being used for nefarious purposes.