How to Ask Job Candidates for Work Samples, Exercises, or Simulations

While you’ll never be able to eliminate hiring mistakes altogether, you can dramatically improve your hiring decisions by having candidates simulate activities similar to what they’d be doing on the job before you hire them.

But what exactly should this look like? What’s reasonable to ask for? How much is too much? And how can you explain what you’re doing so that candidates are enthusiastic about the process?

Here are four guidelines for asking candidates for work samples, exercises, or simulations. (And you can find ideas for specific exercises here.)

1. Pay attention to how you frame the request. You don’t want to sound cavalier about the person’s time, since that can drive away good candidates. Instead, explain what you’re doing and why, and acknowledge that you’re asking them to invest time in you.

Sample language: “Because we’ve had a tremendous response to our posting, we’re asking the most promising candidates to complete a brief exercise relevant to the work of this position before we interview people directly. We realize this requires a bit of investment of your time, and we appreciate your help in determining if we’re a strong fit for one another.”

2. Be thoughtful about the time commitment you’re asking for. Asking a promising candidate to spend an hour or two on an exercise is reasonable, but asking them to spend a day on a project generally is not. You should also factor in how much time you have invested in the candidate; the less time you’ve invested, the less time good candidates are likely going to want to invest themselves. So, for example, you might ask finalists who have already interviewed with you to do an exercise that will take several hours, but you should avoid asking that ask that of someone you haven’t talked to yet. (Most candidates will be far more willing to spend time on exercises after you’ve done an initial screening and determined that they’re a promising candidate for the role, and when they have had a chance to ask you their own questions about the job.)

Keep in mind, too, that candidates may not know how much time you’re expecting them to spend on something, so be explicit about that whenever you can. For example, in asking for a writing exercise, you might say something like, “I’m sure you’re busy, so we’re not looking for more than a few paragraphs. We’re just hoping to get a better sense of your thinking, so please don’t spend more than an hour.”

3. Consider asking for existing work samples. If you want to see people in action without asking too much of them (particularly at early stages in your process), consider asking for samples of work they’ve already done. In some positions, this might be obvious, like looking through a graphic designer’s portfolio or asking for writing samples. But you can also ask for things like memos, presentations, or even emails that a candidate produced in the course of doing her job.

Sample language: “We’ve found that it’s really helpful when we’re able to look at actual work samples to get a sense of how people operate. Do you have any kind of work product you could share that might help to give us that sense – it could be a particularly substantive memo, an email you sent to your team or project members, a proposal, or anything you’ve created that would give us a lens into what we’d see if we could watch you at work? It doesn’t even need to be directly relevant to the X role you’re applying for; we’re just interested in getting a better sense of how you think and operate. We’ll keep anything that you share with us confidential, and please feel free to remove names or other details you’re not comfortable sharing.”

You might combine this with exercises or other work created specifically for your hiring process, but for many roles – especially senior ones – this can be a helpful supplement or initial screen that doesn’t take much of the candidate’s time.

4. Be ethical when asking for work. For both legal and ethical reasons, be careful not to ask candidates to do unpaid work from which you, the employer, will derive the preponderance of the benefit; their work should be used for assessment purposes only. That means that, for example, it’s fine to ask candidates to write a sample press release about a fictitious event or an event in the past, but you shouldn’t ask them to write a sample press release that you might then actually send out, unless you plan to pay them for the work. (And if you think seeing more involved work would help you make a better decision, don’t be afraid to make it a paid freelance project.)