It’s Round 2 or 3 of the interview showdown, and the applicants have already forked over portfolios of their best work. Now they’re being asked to produce something new – something that suits the employer’s exact specifications for a new project – whether that be a website design, comprehensive business development strategy, or ad campaign. It’s due in five days and they want innovation. Ready? Set?

Hold up.

Now, most job seekers would hesitate to pour hours (and, potentially, money) into a project that not only fails to guarantee a job, but could amount to stolen intellectual property. But given just the right mixture of a lousy job market, a will to please, and an already desperate or entry-level job search, applicants may very well comply. And it’s actually more common than you think. This blog post purports that “job interview theft” is on the rise because companies are increasingly struggling to compete in a sluggish post-recession economy.CherryPick

So what happens when job seekers agree to produce free work? In the best-case scenario, an employer selects one procedure/design and hires the creator of that content (Although that means the rest of the applicants worked for nothing). Or, an employer might end up choosing one applicant’s proposal while hiring a different applicant to implement it. Or, worse yet, they may simply cherry-pick the best work and neglect to hire anyone.

In the design world, this practice is widely referred to as “spec” (speculative) work. Online campaigns like NO!SPEC and AntiSpec widely condemn the custom because they believe it deters people from seeing graphic design as legitimate, serious work. (Instead, it's like a coloring contest for adults). The anti-spec campaign asks people to imagine how this request would be tolerated in other industries. For instance, would you ask several lawyers to draft a will for you, only to reject all but one?

Although job seekers are already protected from exploitative working interviews, the only law that governs tangible work submitted as part of an interview process is copyright law. Some career advisers encourage concerned job seekers to contact the U.S. Copyright Office and formally register their work before submitting it. But it turns out you don't have to do so; your ownership attaches automatically. (It’s just easier to prove ownership when you register before the infringement happens).

"So long as it's work you've created, you're free to use the "©," says John Reid, general counsel at TempWorks Software. "And in fact, there may be benefit to doing so, as you can use it as an argument that the infringing party had notice that the work was copyrighted -- whether formally, or just by virtue of you having created the content."

Or you could ask for protection in a mature and well-reasoned manner and cross your fingers.

Advice on how to approach the projects themselves varies, too. There are those who suggest “going all out” and “being brilliant,” despite the vulnerability of your ideas, while others think it's obvious you should hold back.

But what about you, the employer, recruiter, or hiring manager? You probably know that taking ideas under the guise of applicant-screening is wrong, but there are some other signs that it's a bad idea. Consequences, too:

  1. Your Reputation Suffers.
    Two words (or is it one word?): Glassdoor. Disgruntled applicants who go through an exploitative interview process are not going to be shy about sharing that story. Make sure to create a culture of respect and equality for all types of work, from art to business, and to pay for the work you commission -- whether it comes from a current or prospective employee.
  2. You Lose Out On Talent.
    If a hiring manager snaps up a design or strategy they truly love, why oh why wasn't that innovator hired? If they were able to design a stellar homepage without much direction from you, imagine what they'd be able to accomplish if they were a living, breathing part of your team! They'd turn feedback into magic.
  3. Your Hiring Process May Already Be Broken.
    If the interview process requires that much in-depth, real-time testing, do you really have a good handle on who these applicants are and what they are capable of? Portfolios and people should speak for themselves, so if you find yourself needing to administer a design test, maybe that candidate isn't a good fit.
  4. You're Ignoring Execution.
    If one candidate’s ideas are given to another candidate, there’s likely going to be something lost in translation. The person you selected may not be able to implement the plan quite as well as the innovator themselves. Think about morale, too – if you hire someone to carry out someone else’s work, is that person going to be passionate, or detached?
  5. You're In The Legal Line of Fire.
    Candidates are wising up to the tricks of interview theft as it becomes more common. Taking a design you don’t legally own could land you in court for copyright infringement -- especially if you sell that design or use it for direct profit.

Tags: Advice, GlassDoor, Interview theft, Spec work, Free work, NO!SPEC, AntiSpec, U.S. Copyright Office