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 an 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 (uncompensated) 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 candidates are likely going to want to invest themselves.
If you’re committed to running an equitable process, be explicit about how much time you expect candidates to spend on something. Keep in mind that candidates will often spend more than the suggested amount of time on an assignment, especially those who have multiple marginalized identities and feel more pressure to perform or prove themselves. It’s important to make sure that the scope of the assignment is reasonable for the time limit you’re offering. Be explicit about the degree of completeness you’re looking for, too. 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. Think of this as a first—not final—draft. We’re just hoping to get a sense of your thinking and approach, 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, 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 presentations or emails that a candidate produced in the course of doing their job.
Sample language: “We’ve found that it’s helpful to look at actual work samples to get a sense of how people operate. Do you have a 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, a proposal, or anything you’ve created that would give us a sense of your 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. Please feel free to remove names or other details you’re not comfortable sharing.”
You might combine this with exercises created specifically for your hiring process, but for many roles—especially senior ones—this can be a helpful supplement or initial screen that’s not time-intensive.
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. Use their work for assessment purposes only. For example, it’s fine to ask candidates to write a sample press release about a fictitious or past event, but don’t ask them to write one that you might actually send out unless you will pay them for the work. We recommend that if the assignment will take more than two hours, you should compensate the candidate for their time. 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.