Overcome Stubborns

Are You Asking Too Much of Your Job Candidates? How to Get ‘Test Projects’ Right

Current dispatches from the job market describe an exhausting scene. On one side are overloaded recruiters, shuffling thousands of applications for a single role with limited resources and little time. On the other side are weary applicants feeling defeated and devalued by impersonal, drawn-out interview cycles and unresponsive employers.One particular point of tension is the candidate test project. To evaluate applicants’ skills and narrow the talent pool, employers are now frequently asking job candidates to complete test projects or evaluations in the form of strategy proposals, presentations, blog posts, research projects, and video-editing tests, to name a few. But job seekers are getting burned out, sinking hours into unpaid projects with seemingly little relevance to the role, only to be ignored or rejected by an automated email.It's rough out there, especially for well-paid office workers seeking a new job. “Welcome to the white-collar recession,” declared Business Insider. Reports Wall Street Journal columnist Callum Borchers: “I hear from a lot of white-collar workers on the job hunt who say it’s much harder to get hired than the unemployment numbers make it sound.” Said Bloomberg: “Take-home assignments during the interview process are on the rise, irking candidates.”While employers may have the advantage at the moment, they should avoid overplaying their hand, since their reputations are at stake. Job seekers who spoke to From Day One describe growing cynical and suspicious of companies that request burdensome projects, and especially of those that don’t compensate candidates for their time. Yet it may be the delivery and design of these projects, not their intention, that is souring relations between candidates and companies.How Test Projects Go WrongBeth Miller (not her real name)* has built a 20-year career as a writing instructor and communications practitioner in higher education and nonprofits, and for the last year, following a layoff, she has been on the job hunt.After submitting an application for a job in a university’s development office, Miller received an automated email inviting her to complete a performance task: an asynchronous video interview that was expected to take 30 minutes. Uncomfortable on camera yet eager to do it well, Miller sunk four hours into the project.A week later, at about 9 p.m. on the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend, Miller received an email with another request: a full grant proposal to be completed over the holiday, due Monday, she told From Day One. When Miller replied with questions, her emails quickly bounced back with out-of-office messages.“The most difficult thing is that the emails were not coming from a person,” she said. They were addressed to ‘dear applicant,’ and signed, ‘the hiring team,’” she said. Unable to get a new due date for the assignment, Miller gave up her weekend to the project.Miller’s story is like that of many job seekers right now. Unwieldy evaluations are popping up across industries and job types, and in a labor market where the competition is often among the applicants, rather than the employers, candidates are getting burnt out by the requests, sometimes completing several projects before they even speak to a recruiter.“These are, by no means, simple and easy,” said Liane Paonessa, who was applying for director-level roles in corporate PR earlier this year. “They’re complex, detailed, and basically provide the company with a free strategic plan and content from every candidate.”Further, they seem to be redundant. Some employers require a portfolio of prior work samples in addition to test projects. “In most cases, I [got] no feedback whatsoever on the projects, other than a ‘Thank you for your excellent work,’ before ghosting me and later sending me the standard form rejection email,” said Paonessa.Many job applicants who spoke to From Day One believe that employers use unpaid test projects to get free work from desperate applicants. Job seekers describe being asked to draft 12-month strategy plans, make hour-long presentations, pitch detailed article ideas, write website content, produce fresh code, and even provide names of other people who might be good additions to the company.As exhausted applicants churn through these often unacknowledged projects, it reinforces their cynical beliefs about employers’ attitudes towards job seekers. “It’s so dehumanizing to constantly be putting yourself at the feet of an organization and trying to tell them why you’re worth hiring,” Miller said.How Test Projects Go RightJob seekers don’t object to test projects in principle–workers know they have to demonstrate their skills to land a role, and many are glad to show off what they can do–but they do want a better experience: one with boundaries, respect, and communication.When recounting good experiences with test projects, job seekers describe assignments with clear, limited scopes that teach them something about the role responsibilities, an ability to get feedback on their work, and some kind of compensation.Last spring, Tori Zhou, a content-marketing professional in New York City, was in the running for a content-writing role at a tech company when she was asked to complete an assessment that changed the way she thinks of test projects. Not only were the instructions crystal-clear, the project came with a disclaimer, assuring applicants their work wouldn’t be used beyond the hiring process. “I thought it was so considerate that they said that,” Zhou explained. “I also believed it because of the structure of the test.”The assignment included copy-editing a few pieces of content and writing a new introductory paragraph for an existing blog post. But don’t worry, we’re not going to update it, the request read. And even though she didn’t get the job, the company offered constructive feedback on her work.“This is such a positive memory for me. I feel like it’s the best test I’ve ever done,” Zhou said. “I still look at their job careers page, even today, because I’m like, ‘Wow, that just left such a positive impression on me. I would just happily apply with them again.’”Candidates also want to learn something from the evaluation process. Olivia Ramirez, a job seeker who interviewed for a role at a financial services company, said test assignments have helped her decide whether she wants to pursue the role. When the hiring manager assigned a lengthy and technical writing project, “it definitely made me question whether I was the right fit for the company,” she said. “I wasn’t having the most enjoyable time writing about this topic. It’s a good way to understand what the actual day-to-day grittiness of the work is like.” And even though the assignment was a tough one, Ramirez said she liked having the chance to show the work she’s capable of doing.Zhou once completed a test project that was much more technical than she imagined the job to be. “That helped me think about, ‘OK, is this job really right for me?’” she said.How to Improve Interview Test ProjectsFrank Hauben is the global VP of product management at technical-interview platform CoderPad. He believes that sound candidate assessments have three characteristics.First, evaluations should be time-bound. “By time-bound, I don’t mean 40 hours,” he said. “On the order of 30 minutes to two hours is what we find to be a reasonable sweet spot.” Not only do boundaries limit the scope and complexity of the assignment, it helps make the interview process more equitable. As a parent of two young girls, Hauben said there’s no way he has 40 hours to spend on a project, and couldn’t compete with someone who does.Time boundaries are different from time estimates, and both matter. Employers should assume that applicants will exceed the time estimates attached to these assignments. When applicants need the job, they’ll sink their teeth in. One company told Tori Zhou not to spend more than two hours on the project. A self-described perfectionist, Zhou invested four, and estimates she has spent seven hours on another assessment. Ramirez describes spending upwards of 12 hours on a single take-home project.Next, instructions should be clear, said Hauben, and applicants should be given the opportunity to ask questions and receive responses about the evaluation.And finally, evaluations should give candidates the clearest possible picture of what the job is, said Hauben. But they don’t need to represent the entirety of the job. “What would you be walking somebody through on their first day or week? You want to give somebody something that is obviously realistic and relevant, not something out of a textbook or the most complex problem.”Consider, for example, asking candidates to come up with a solution to a problem you’ve already solved. “You know what the answer is, or what one answer could be,” Hauben said. And when you acknowledge that the problem has already been resolved, applicants don’t have to wonder if their work will be used after they’re ejected from the interview process.Compensating Applicants for Their TimeEvery job seeker who spoke to From Day One said that they want to be compensated for the time they spend on test projects. When they’re sinking multiple hours or days on an assignment, one that could ostensibly be exploited by the employer, they said, payment only feels fair. Many employers don't agree, which has created its own social-media debate. Applicants seldom have the luxury of turning down a test project when they really need the job, Miller said. “When you’re seeking employment, you’re really not at liberty to pass anything off. I know that companies take your work and use it. I know that they do that. To not be compensated for it is just validation that your concerns were right.”Miller, who’s still in the running for the job in college development, said that the hiring team asked about her experience with the test project, but as long as she’s a candidate, she feels that she can’t be completely candid.Ramirez, who was once compensated for a tough test assignment, said she thinks twice about companies that require unpaid test projects as part of the interview process because, ultimately, the candidate experience reflects the employee experience.“It would make me think about what their culture is like and what they’ve been implementing to be at the forefront of companies today, in terms of equity in the organization and advocating for their employees and potential employees,” she said. “If it’s paid, then I think that’s a great signal that the company is considering best practices and trying to stand up with the best of the best in the space.”Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance journalist and From Day One contributing editor who writes about work, the job market, and women’s experiences in the workplace. Her work has appeared in the Economist, the BBC, The Washington Post, Quartz, Fast Company, and Digiday’s Worklife.(Featured photo by Amenic181/iStock by Getty Images)*Editor’s note: Because she is still interviewing with the organization described here, Beth Miller asked that she not be identified by her real name.

BY Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | June 17, 2024


The From Day One Newsletter is a monthly roundup of articles, features, and editorials on innovative ways for companies to forge stronger relationships with their employees, customers, and communities.

Overcome Stubborns
By Dan Heilman | June 17, 2024

Applying Machine Learning and AI in HR: Proven Playbooks and Approaches

Jason Radisson, founder and CEO of Movo has a simple request of human resources executives: Don’t be afraid of the future.Movo is an AI-powered human capital management tool for the frontline. In a thought leadership spotlight at From Day One’s Minneapolis event, Radisson led a presentation titled “Applying Machine Learning and AI in HR: Proven Playbooks and Approaches,” where he went over some potential applications of innovative technology.“It doesn’t have to be scary, and it doesn’t have to be vague,” said Radisson, who previously was a general manager for Uber. “When I started Movo, I wanted to try to figure out how to bring a modern, flexible experience to everybody else’s workforce.”This early in its adoption process, Radisson says that AI is mostly reserved for the recruitment and retention of white-collar talent. But that could be changing.Jason Radisson of Movo led the thought leadership spotlight in Minneapolis“Now, what we’re talking about is a little bit more like outsourcing,” he says. “If you look at a lot of the different operations that we run in H.R., those are the classic things that already can be automated.“We’re starting to see globally that there just aren’t enough people to take these jobs. How long have we not had traders on the stock floor at most of the major markets in the world? How long has it been since an airline ticket was manually priced? There are all kinds of areas where AI and advanced systems already can generate a lot of value.”Another use case for AI and machine learning in the HR realm could be the ability to treat remote locations and distributed work locations just like you would an office building, says Radisson.“We’re in a flex, multiple-location kind of a world,” he says. “With today’s AI, a person at the head office with a smart system can distribute tasks and follow up on those tasks, wherever the’'re happening in the world.”Radisson left the audience with a piece of advice to continue to progress and stay ahead of innovative technological transformations: “I think all of us right now should have some kind of AI counsel,” he said.Referring to “somebody in the company that’s really looking forward to six months or 12 months trying to see what’s coming: Where would it make sense to pilot this? Do we have the developers we need? Do we need to borrow somebody else's developer platform? What’s the cost benefit? Just experimenting, seeing if a piece of automation adds value to the company.”Editor’s note: From Day One thanks our partner, Movo, for sponsoring this thought leadership spotlight.Dan Heilman is a writer and editor based in St. Paul, Minn.

Overcome Stubborns
By Carrie Snider | June 17, 2024

Fostering Workplace Belonging: Overcoming Barriers and Cultivating Inclusive Culture

Sometimes it can take live theater to get vulnerable in the workplace. Partnering with Pillsbury House Theatre in the Twin Cities, Mortenson, a leader in the commercial construction, real estate development, and renewable energy industries, helps show employees what’s happening in the organization through different scenes.The theater’s initiative called Breaking Ice included the theater team interviewing members of the Mortenson team. “They learn your language, and they learn your initiatives, and then they actually act it out in front of you,” said Joffrey Wilson vice president of diversity, equity & inclusion at Mortenson. “It’s a way of showing to everyone what's really happening in your organization.The result? It’s been impactful. “It has been a different way to build a sense of what equity it is,” Wilson said. As one of five panelists during a session at From Day One’s conference in Minneapolis, Wilson spoke about creative ways they help break down barriers and develop an inclusive workplace. Brandt Williams of the Minnesota Public Radio moderated.Live theater is only one way Mortenson is actively creating an inclusive culture. They are also branching out and partnering with new sources for recruiting so they can reach a wider audience. They’re also partnering with organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers, the National Society of Hispanic Professionals, and more to bring in more diverse talent. Ultimately, Wilson added, DEI is never a one-and-done event or training. It’s a state of mind that businesses must adopt and be consistently looking for ways to make their company culture better. Where You Are, Where You’re GoingIn an organization’s quest to cultivate inclusion, the best place to start is taking stock of where you are so you can figure out where you need to go next. That has been the case for Marvin, the century-old manufacturer of premium window and door solutions.“When we say culture, what do we mean? What does that include?” asked panelist Renee Rice, senior director of communications and culture at Marvin. “We did some pretty extensive research to identify not only where our culture was strong, but also where those opportunities were with our culture.”From there, they looked at their five-year business strategy to answer some key questions: “What does our business need from our culture? What does our business need from our people in order to be successful?”From that research and from goal-setting, Marvin has layered the two to create a roadmap that centers on getting employees to think differently and work differently, all in support of that business strategy. This has helped them to define what culture at Marvin is and what they want it to become.The panelists spoke to the topic "Fostering Workplace Belonging: Overcoming Barriers and Cultivating Inclusive Culture" at From Day One's conference in MinneapolisBetter communication is one big one. “When you’re talking about establishing a DEI strategy,” Rice said “when you're talking about modeling certain behaviors, any one of these topics can have the tendency to fall flat unless there is strong communication with your employees about why we're doing this. Specifically, what behaviors do we want to see modeled?”Focusing on inclusion will help companies to retain employees, she added, as will offering coaching and mentoring to help employees develop skills. When they feel a company is investing in them, they feel included, she says. Making Space HumannessPanelist Bethany Kurbis, senior executive coach & consultant at The Bailey Group, shared her unique journey into HR. It began with her work in peaceful conflict resolution in Southern Sudan using the “Theater of the Oppressed.” This experience highlighted the importance of creating space for human messiness and complex, nuanced conversations. Later transitioning into HR, Kurbis found that the best leaders are those who make room for difficult conversations and deeply listen to their employees' motivations and needs. This approach, which she described as creating space for humaneness, has been foundational to her coaching methodology. “What we’re really talking about here is behavior change,” Kurbis said. “And behavior change is slow.” Creating the space for that change is key in helping your team feel included and get to the root of what’s going on at an organization. So, how to facilitate that behavior change?“As HR leaders, you understand how busy your schedules or calendars are,” she said. “Creating that space to have the difficult conversations to seek understanding so that we can build everything we've already heard about is a good starting point.” Employees must feel psychological safety in order to feel inclusion. “The ability to fail in front of people and have it be okay, you can still show up your job, you can still be a part of your team, you can still succeed, learn from that failure,” Kurbis said. Her advice is to help people pause, create space, take a deep breath, and allow humans to be human. Employee Resource GroupsThere are many dimensions of diversity, according to panelist Michelle Anderson, AVP, global learning, development and diversity at AmTrust Financial Services. Which is why employee resource groups help people to feel included.At AmTrust, ERG’s are completely employee led so they can take ownership and have control over where they go with them.“Anyone can come to us and say, ‘we’re interested in creating this group based on this demographic, this ability, this characteristic,’ and then they can work with us to build that,” she said. Being less formal helps employees feel more comfortable in those settings. But the groups also shed light on what her leader calls the “Diversity Wheel.” There is a lot of depth to diversity, and we tend to assume rather than seek to understand. “We bring the diversity wheel together to help people see that even if we might look the same, we’re not the same,” Anderson said. “There are different avenues of diversity. Everybody's experiences are different. So we introduce that and incorporate that in all of the things that we do from a DEI perspective as well.”As a company that has acquired companies to become what it is today, the first priority was to identify what being a leader meant to them. “We started with the middle manager layer and said, ‘as a leader, we want you to be intentional. And what does intentional mean? Intentional for us means you’re curious and aware, it means you are focused on learning more about the individual, helping them with their development, and having a clear vision, and then also being authentic and empathetic.’”Getting very clear on defining these roles has been key, Anderson says. From there they created a leadership development program so they could help new leaders, emerging executives, and everyone in between put their best foot forward for the company while also helping develop a solid company culture.  Integrating Inclusive Leadership into Daily PracticesIt takes practice to get good at anything, and while training and extra meetings about inclusion can be helpful, panelist Siham Adous, senior director, strategic accounts & partnerships at Praxis Labs, emphasized the importance of working it into everyday work.“What we’ve seen to be the most effective strategies to really drive long term impact is understanding that managers are busy,” she said. “These training moments have to be integrated into their talent development moment so that we’re not talking about inclusive leadership as standalone. We’re talking about some of the fundamental foundational skills to just help you do your job better, and ultimately drive higher engaged and higher performing teams.”The challenge then becomes how to create resources for people leaders in the moments that they actually need them in their flow of work, Adous says. It’s all about awareness, but also continual practice. “In the same way that no one here would go to the gym one time and say, I am now fit, you have to go multiple times and really build the muscle of inclusive leadership.”At Praxis Labs, they look at immersive experiences as a way to do that in an effective way. But be sure to take a data-backed approach, and also ask for feedback from your team so you get a true sense of how people feel about their work culture.“We have biannual pulse surveys. We're only an organization of 35, but it's still so critical that we hear everyone's voice and ensure that some of the challenges are addressed in real time. Even taking that data backed approach to what we're doing internally has been huge.”Carrie Snider is a Phoenix-based journalist and marketing copywriter.

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