How High Must Prospective Employees Jump?

I wrote an article in 1998 about questionable “tests” employers were requesting of prospective employees. I was asked, under the guise of recruitment, to produce feature-length articles, conference proposals, health columns, and a 38-page editing “test;” all of it live work.

Almost 20 years later, these exploitive practices are still occurring. Over the past year or so, I have been asked to write feature articles (to “see how I think”), blogs, an 8 to 10-page book outline, and website content. One company asked for an in-depth article with a two-day turnaround that they said they “might use,” if they liked it. Another company asked me to write a 1500-word article based on a recent conference audio presentation and said they would pay me if they published it.

For the record, I’ve been a journalist for 24 years. If companies are asking me for free work, imagine what they are able to pull from a recent graduate, or someone who desperately needs work.

As I wrote in my 1998 article, “If you question the process, you are no longer a candidate. If you don’t do the work, you are no longer a candidate. If you do the work, don’t get the job, then file a complaint with the state labor department, the most you can hope for by way of compensation is minimum wage for the hours you worked”- overall, a dismal and demeaning experience.

The pressing question is: why are companies getting away with it?

Why should an employer have the right to request free work during the recruitment process? And why are there no laws in place to prevent this? Is this something that only occurs in the publishing world or is it common practice in other fields? (Click here for a post on a company that requested a job candidate to redesign their website ( How much do companies save by farming out free work to potential employees? Shouldn’t there be standards for job application tests? These questions need to be addressed today – not in another 20 years.

The NYC-based Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) provides testing guidelines with an overview of what is considered a reasonable editing test. The NWU should consider providing some guidance on writing tests for members, to help create a standard that’s greatly needed.

A good article just doesn’t happen. There’s a lot of prep work before words hit the page, like interviews, transcription, research and fact checking. Then there’s the writing, proofreading and editing. It’s a craft all its own and should be compensated accordingly. No company should be requesting free work under the guise of an employment application. It’s unethical, exploitive, and in my opinion, should be illegal.