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Charlene Stevens covered all the steps. She submitted her résumé, presented her portfolio and sailed through her interviews. She felt confident about her odds of landing a position at Nested Bean, a baby sleepwear company. Then, as though she were a contestant in a reality competition show, she was thrown a twist. Or shall I say, a test?

The interviewer assigned a project: create an infographic for the company’s anniversary. Stevens was informed the homework was a test to help the company analyze her thought process and rate her creativity. Then she was told, “if your work gets selected, you’ll get paid. If not, you can put it in your portfolio.”

The pitch didn’t sit right with Stevens. “I felt I was getting taken advantage of.”

Unsure of how to proceed, Stevens sought my advice. As the professional mentor for Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s Graphic Design Certificate Program, I’ve fielded a mounting number of these inquiries.

My introduction to the phenomenon occurred in 2014, when another mentee presented a similar situation. Maren Swanson was asked to create in-store signage and a product card to be considered for a freelance position at Clover Food Lab, a Massachusetts restaurant chain. She forwarded the cheerful email congratulating her for ranking among five finalists. The message outlined an assignment and concluded with a disclaimer: “By participating in this next stage of work you are giving Clover permission to use your ideas or any derivatives for the indefinite future. Of course, conversely, you are welcome to use any of this work in your portfolio, web site, etc.”

“Why is it OK for them to ask this?” Swanson inquired. Both students questioned whether it’s appropriate to assign homework to test creativity and if the companies could use the work produced.

The practice known by many names—hiring homework, creative tests, etc.—is a growing trend, notes Anna Berk, recruitment manager at creative staffing agency Creative Circle. The playbook is to assign a project to take home, by which the employer subjectively judges the applicant’s creativity. While Berk discourages the exercise, she estimates that 10 percent of her clients currently require testing assignments.

The practice has spread from North American technology startups, where applicants are quizzed to prove their skills, says Ana Masut, managing director of the International Council of Design (ICoD). Typically, applicants are given a task to perform on the spot, like a coding drill, as a capabilities test. Also influencing the trend are shows like Mad Men and gig sites like Fiverr where free creative is produced with the hopes of getting paid.

Inspired by Silicon Valley and Hollywood, employers have combined the above concepts and applied them to hiring. While the assignments run the gamut, from designing an Instagram tile to developing an integrated campaign, they share certain characteristics. The “tests” are frequently real-world projects, on tight deadlines and without recompense, much direction, or the promise of a job or gig. Candidates are occasionally senior, but are most often recent graduates or early in their careers. Lastly, completing the assignment is a condition of continued consideration.

These last points are especially troubling. Inexperienced creatives are less likely to push back. And with intense job competition, applicants may feel forced to comply. “This is work on speculation,” says Rebecca Blake, advocacy liaison for the Graphic Artists Guild. “But it’s the worst kind of spec work, because it takes advantage of people’s desperation to find a job.”

These companies are going the lazy route. They’re putting the burden of proof on the candidate instead of doing their homework.” —Rebecca Blake

Employers claim assignments are necessary. Nested Bean did not respond to repeated interview requests, but Clover Food Lab founder and chief executive officer Ayr Muir spoke openly about his hiring philosophy. He views the assignments as opportunities to showcase creativity. For those who fail to interview well, it’s a chance at redemption. Muir says he doesn’t hire for creative positions regularly and called the above exercise “a failed experiment” that has never been repeated due to the applicant “not working out.” But over the years, Clover has employed various tests to hire its more than 800 employees. “It’s a great way to get more information, and the more information we have, the more we can guarantee a fit,” Muir says. “We want to avoid bad hires.”

“There’s a huge cost to the wrong hire. You want to get it right,” Berk agrees.

The question is, does hiring homework really help companies get it right and hire the best talent? “The tests don’t tell you shit,” says Mike Monteiro, author, speaker, and cofounder and design director of Mule.

That’s because the tests aren’t realistic. They’re assigned out of context, without collaboration or background. The result is a mock-up created in a vacuum. Ultimately, it doesn’t speak to the applicant’s ability to cooperate, respond to criticism or overcome challenges. Most companies “don’t know any better,” says Monteiro. “Either that, or they’re just looking for free work.”

“These companies are going the lazy route,” adds Blake. “They’re putting the burden of proof on the candidate instead of doing their homework.”

When asked if there was another way to hire creatives, Muir responded, “I don’t know how else to do it... And my guess is that it’s not illegal to ask.”

Mark Hanna, a labor and employment lawyer and partner with Murphy Anderson PLLC, disagrees. He points to the Fair Labor Standards Act, summarizing, “If you’re not paid for your work, that is wage theft.” At the very least, he adds, the employee must be paid the minimum wage.

Many employers assume the applicants completing the assignments are independent contractors. In Hanna’s legal opinion, this is inaccurate. Many independent contractors are really misclassified employees. Determining the difference between a contractor and an employee often boils down to “the right-to-control,” which includes: who directs the work, deadlines, who furnishes tools, and other parameters. Given that these assignments fulfill many of such qualifications, Hanna argues those assigning homework are employers and could be in breach of wage and hour laws. (Read more at dol.gov/agencies/whd/flsa/misclassification.)

Any way you look at it, hiring homework is bad business.

From the employer’s perspective, there are many risks, including the potential harm to the company’s image and its ability to attract top talent. “When you mistreat people, you ruin your reputation,” says Masut. Also, the assignments open employers up to litigation for wage theft. And should they use the work, they could be sued for intellectual property theft and copyright infringement.

From the candidate’s perspective, the drawbacks abound. First, there’s the obvious point of working for free. Then, there’s the matter of respect. “Who will respect the quality of your skills if you’re willing to work for free?” asks Masut. Adds Monteiro, “If they don’t respect you or the work during the interview process—when they’re on their best behavior—they never will.” Lastly, there’s the exploitation. “It’s an abuse of power,” says Debbie Millman, writer, designer, host of podcast Design Matters, and cofounder and chair of the Masters of Professional Studies in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts. “The company has all the power. The candidate has none... No one would dare enter a doctor’s office and demand a free treatment in exchange for a long-term professional relationship.”

“We need to see ourselves as professionals the same way doctors see themselves as professionals,” says Monteiro. That means observing a code of ethics and a duty to each other. Whenever a designer accepts a hiring assignment, it makes it more difficult for others to refuse by ingraining the behavior in the marketplace, says Masut.

Not all hiring tests are bad, however. Blake defines a fair test as one limited to quizzing proficiency, short on time and scope, and equal for all applicants, like an administrative typing test. Many recruiters conduct proficiency tests in design applications before placing candidates, says Berk. The sole value is measurement; the test doesn’t generate creative. But these tests aren’t what we’re discussing.

No one would dare enter a doctor’s office and demand a free treatment in exchange for a long-term professional relationship.” —Debbie Millman

Like my mentees, I oppose the premise that employers need assignments to assess a candidate’s creativity. Not long ago, a résumé, portfolio and references proved my design qualifications. Today’s employers have even more resources at their disposal, including LinkedIn profiles and social media. “Now more than ever, we have the opportunity to see a person’s full dimension,” says Millman.

There’s also the old-school way of evaluating creative thinking— an interview where employers pose hypothetical questions. Mule uses the “newsletter test,” asking the applicant to prioritize items for a newsletter sign-up, such as name, address, race and political affiliation. The candidate who just orders the items into a list is cut in favor of one who asks questions like, “Why do you need this data to sign up?” Monteiro suggests employers figure out their priorities and test for that—in a conversation, not homework.

Monteiro also encourages creatives to take the lead. Here’s his suggested script should you be assigned homework: “My job as a designer is to solve problems... You want to know how I think? I showed you some examples in my portfolio, let’s go over them in depth.” If that fails, talk through how you might approach their assignment. “That’s when you move from pushing pixels around to pushing people around.”

The biggest problem in the hiring homework conundrum is that creatives don’t know what is and isn’t acceptable for companies to demand. “Designers accept these hiring assignments because they don’t know it’s wrong,” says Masut. “The only way to change things is if designers are aware.”

Education is key. To that end, ICoD has added a position against hiring homework to its website (bit.ly/ICODftunp). It’s also essential to understand copyright basics. “If the candidate is required to produce an original work, it is automatically copyrighted to them from the moment it is fixed in tangible form,” says Blake, citing the US Copyright Office’s definition. Most people believe they need to register their work to demonstrate ownership. Registering a copyright is required before pursuing an infringer in court and does enhance protection. But even without the official copyright registration, and absent a copyright transfer agreement, creators retain ownership, Blake says. (More Copyright basics at graphicartistsguild.org/an-introduction-to-copyright-law.)

Beyond educating ourselves, we must rid employers of the expectation of free work for job consideration. That means demanding payment whether it’s for homework or a real-world project, or refusing assignments and accepting we may lose the opportunity.

Further, we must enforce the message that stealing creative is unacceptable. It may mean fighting in court and lobbying our professional organizations to battle for and with us. While we’re at it, we may want to push educational institutions to impose a code of ethics to anyone pitching job opportunities to students.

Lastly, we need to protect our work. Should you decide to submit homework, you need a contract, Hanna advises. At bare minimum, outline the work conditions and ownership before agreeing to it.

“We need to stop expecting people to behave in our best interest,” Monteiro says. “They will keep doing this until it doesn’t work anymore.”

In the end, Swanson politely declined Clover’s test. Stevens handed in her infographic after ten hours of work. She received $250 and an offer for a paid three-month internship with the opportunity to earn full-time employment. Three months later, the pandemic landed her back on the hunt with more homework.

Sadly, hiring homework isn’t going away. So, what will I say the next time I’m asked for advice? “Forward this article to your potential employer.” ca


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