Can A Company Ask Me to Do Work for Free as Part of the Hiring Process?


How far would you go for a job?

In this economy, where applicants outnumber jobs, subjecting one’s self to multiple job interviews and jumping through hoops to impress a potential employer seems like the bare minimum one must do.

In the case of employers, with applicants outnumbering jobs, it only makes sense to subject potential employees to stringent rounds of interviewing and testing to see if they make a good fit for your team and company.

It is a never-ending cycle that has caused frustration among jobseekers in Singapore.

What a Redditor went through in his job hunt

Earlier this month, Redditor u/nayakashish, brought up his experience of “unfair hiring practices”. One company subjected him to create a complete social media marketing deck for the next quarter, which he had readily agreed was fair.

In subsequent interview rounds, he was then asked to write three articles, to see if his writing style matched that of the company’s. Throughout talks with this company, salary details were also kept hush, until his article were submitted, then a lowball offer was made, which prompted him to back out on the deal.

Another company he applied at asked for multiple rounds of interviewing, then requested for him to prepare an entire digital marketing plan, including key performance indicators (KPIs), marketing channels, and even customer demographic studies for an event the company was already working on.

“This feels really iffy to me… [when] a company can actually collate marketing ideas from interviewees for free,” he said.

Although u/nayakashish understood how competitive the job market is now during the coronavirus pandemic, he still called these hiring practices “shady” and wondered if this was common among other job hunters and other companies.

Hiring managers weigh in on such practices

“When you’re looking for the perfect candidate, you do all you can to ensure who you’re getting is best,” shares Ming, a senior manager at a tech start-up, who sits in on one or two rounds of interviews during the hiring process.

Ming usually gives his candidates a quick two-part, on-site coding test – one to spot coding errors, and one to write a code to execute a task. If the tests come back inconclusive, Ming might run through extra coding tests to figure out where these programmers stand in their skill.

Drawing the line with interviewing tests

The one place where Ming definitely draws the line is using interviewees’ work for the company.

“That’s unethical,” he says with a disgusted face. “It very clearly is.”

The sentiments are shared by Candice, editor at TripCanvas. “It’s not just unethical, it infringes on the [candidates’] copyrights. When we give our candidates writing tests, we make it clear that their article would belong to them and not be used by us.”

In her line, it is not uncommon to subject candidates to at least one or two writing tests. “Our tests give us a better understanding of the candidate’s research skills. When they have been shortlisted, we hire them on a freelance position first.”

Longer hiring processes to save on training costs

Offering interviewees a freelance position is like a mini probationary period for them. “We have come across candidates with terrible work attitudes but working with us on a freelance basis helps us assess their potential better without having to invest too much time on training,” she explains.

“We understand that this is a long process, and candidates who are in urgent need of getting a job might not be willing to go through with it. But we do make exceptions for those who surpass our expectations – in those cases, we hire them [to full-time positions] more quickly.”

Ming agrees on taking his time in searching for the right candidate, as the tech start-up industry can be quite competitive and fast-paced. “The last thing you want is someone whose skills do not match up with the pace of the company,” he said.

“Training new employees takes time and sometimes money, so we would rather spend a bit more time on looking for the right candidate than taking a risk on someone’s skills I am uncertain on.”

Jobseekers find these processes tiring

I relayed these thoughts to Devon, who faced similar long-drawn interviewing processes in the creative industry just a couple of years ago. “I get where [hiring managers] are coming from, but it gets tiring very quickly,” he said.

Devon had gone for interviews at about five companies within the span of three months. “The ‘getting-to-know-you’ first rounds are quite standard, but the subsequent rounds can be frustrating when you’re putting in hours for work and not getting paid,” he said.

They’re also unsure of their rights as a prospective candidate

He shares that one company asked for two writing tests, one of which involved him personally going down to a restaurant to write a review on his own dime. “I did ask the company if there was a media tasting I could attend instead, or be compensated for the meal, but was told this was ‘standard procedure’ for them,” he shares.

The position was then rescinded – “they said they were interested and would make an offer soon; I checked back in two weeks and was told they weren’t in a position to hire” – then Devon found his review on the company’s website. Granted, some phrasings had been changed, but the gist of his review was there, sans his name.

“I dropped the person who interviewed me a message on the use of my work, and asked to be paid for it, but all I got was some spiel that legally speaking, they were allowed to use all content written for them in any way they deemed fit. I tried pursuing the matter more but had my number blocked instantly,” he shared.


Turning to the Ministry of Manpower for answers

Devon did not try challenging what he was told, as he did not know if he was legally in any position to. His research on the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices’ (TAFEP) employment guidelines proved to be of little help as well.

TAFEP encourages employers to abide by five principles of fair employment practices:

  • Recruit Based on Merit – where employees should be selected on their skills, experience or ability to perform the job, and to not take into account factors like age, race, gender, religion, marital status, and family responsibilities or disability;
  • Respect Employees – where employees should be treated fairly and with respect, and employers should implement progressive human resource management systems;
  • Provide Fair Opportunities – where employers should provide employees with fair opportunity to be considered for training and development based on their strengths to help them achieve their full potential;
  • Reward Fairly – where employees should be rewarded based on their ability, performance, contribution, and experience; and
  • Comply with Labour Laws – where employers should abide by labour laws and adopt the abovementioned principles.

However, there is no mention over what prospective employers can do with writing tests and other means they might have in screening candidates. TAFEP does ask for employers to “create a proper record of the interview, assessment process and job offer made, and keep these documents for at least one year”. What TAFEP could do with this information, however, is not mentioned on their website.


Advice from a HR consultant

TheHomeGround Asia did try contacting MOM and TAFEP for their views on the hiring processes of both u/nayakashish and Devon, but they did not reply in time for publishing.

In speaking with an independent HR consultant, however, TheHomeGround Asia learnt that going to a third party like TAFEP should be a last resort. Candidates should check with companies on any work they have to do as part of the interview process and the rights they hold on submissions. “If it is done on [the companies’] premises, the company can claim copyright over the work,” said the HR consultant.

She also warned that before a report is made, there should be thorough checks to ensure that the company is not already working on a similar idea. “If it is indeed yours, then in a collegial world, [candidates should] discuss and get [the company’s] agreement, then negotiate for acknowledgement or even a token fee for appreciation,” she advised.

Unfortunately, she does mention that whatever is submitted to a company for them can be used at their disposal.

Transparency needed from employers

For u/nayakashish and Devon, this does mean that they will not be able to pursue the matter further without strong evidence of using their work wholesale.

“It is disappointing to hear that companies have a loophole around submitted work,” said Devon. With little help available, Devon feels that companies could do more to be transparent in their hiring practices.

“I don’t want to be putting in so much effort only to be told I’m not suitable in the end,” he says. He also wonders, “maybe this is why our generation is picky when it comes to looking for work.”




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