Should You Give Away Your Secret Sauce in a Job Interview?


You’ve made it through the round of phone interviews. Maybe you’ve even had your first on-site meeting. The next step? The hiring company wants you to complete a project or create a strategy as proof of your expertise. Do you do it?

Testing as part of an interview process isn’t new. Employers want to be sure you know your stuff and can perform job requirements. It’s also not uncommon for companies to not only conduct hiring assessments to gauge your abilities, but also to measure anything from specific skill strengths, communication preferences, leadership style and dominant personality traits as predictors of success in a role. Can pre-employment evaluations cross the line into hiring discrimination, and how much is too much work to offer up for free as part of an interview process?

Pre-employment screening and assessments can be prone to discriminatory practice if administered tests violate Equal Employment Opportunity Commission laws regarding race, color, sex, national origin, religion, disability, or age (40 or older). That’s certainly a concern. However, most professionals have greater cause for unease when they are asked to complete an in-depth, pre-employment assignment that may take a lot of time and require giving away knowledge and strategies as proof of capabilities.

The Problem:

If you are asked to create a strategic plan for your area of expertise, come up with a creative campaign or deliverable, you may be giving a company great ideas, plans and work products free of charge, especially if you don’t get the job.

The Solution:

You want to wow a potential employer and show them your skills, smarts and superior ability to knock it out of the park, but protect yourself upfront.

Ask for details about how the end product will be used if you are not hired. Some companies with savvy legal council will tell you upfront that your deliverable can’t and won’t be used. They may even offer added assurance with a signed agreement to that effect. Other companies may not offer such a safeguard.

Still, you can protect yourself by defining the parameters of what you can provide without pay and you can present a deliverable that meets the requirements but lacks fine details. Otherwise, you may give away your secret sauce that you’ve worked long and hard to acquire through education and experience. It can be disheartening to give it your all and spend hours on a project to find that you didn’t get the job. It may feel even worse, like being swindled or conned, to realize that you literally gave away what would be worth hundreds of dollars in consulting fees.

You may consider creating a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) before accepting the project to protect yourself and your work. Having such an agreement in place can keep your work product confidential and restrict how it may be used. If you don’t get the job and end up seeing your ideas in use by the company, you may have legal recourse.

You can find online resources to help you create a non-disclosure agreement.

If you really want the position for which you are applying, by all means take on the project with gusto, but don’t spend more than a few hours on it and show your business acumen, too, by seeking protection for the end product you provide.

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