Don't work for free in a job interview

One thing I've run into again and again in job interviews is being asked for my feedback on the employer's Web site and how to make it better.

I usually offer a few ideas and offer some ways to improve it, but don't go into an exhaustive overview. After all, I'm not working for the company and don't want to give them all of my ideas without getting paid or researching it more with other workers.

So I was a little taken aback last month when after a job interview, an employer e-mailed me and invited me to a second interview and asked me to review its Web site for content. I'm a journalist, so doing that is no problem, but the same situation could apply to any job seeker being asked for feedback.

It's great to offer original ideas in job interviews, but throwing out everything you have at a job interview is giving away too much. I called and interviewed, via e-mail, a few career experts, and while some of the advice they offered is conflicting, it's probably best to offer at least some strong feedback before courteously declining to offer more until you're hired.

Don't give free advice.

"I would tell people if you want to hire me, hire me, and I'll fix it," said Mitch Beck, president of Crossroads Consulting, an employment agency and executive search firm in Monroe, Conn.

"I am firmly against people giving away something for nothing," said Beck, who likens such requests from hiring managers as robbery.

A consulting fee should be arranged if the work adds up to a few hours or more, he said. Otherwise it's just free temp work being provided. Beck said he has a friend who did $2,000 worth of work for a company he was interviewing at, but withdrew his application when Beck told him to not do any more work for free until the company made him a job offer. If the company wanted to talk to him more without a job offer, he'd bill them for the work he had done.

"Anything worth doing is worth doing for money," Beck said.

Companies can get away with this tactic because the economy is so bad and what used to take two weeks to fill a job can now stretch to a few months as they interview 10 people instead of three, Beck said. Companies can afford to be picky.

Give a little.

"You should not give away all your cookies," but give the interviewer two ideas but not the entire thinking behind them, said Kevin Donlin, co-author with David Perry of Guerilla Marketing for Job Hunters 2.0.

Businesses will spend a tremendous amount of time getting people in for interviews, so gathering ideas for a problem they have makes sense for a short-term solution, but it won't lead to the unique thinking each job candidate has, Perry told me in a telephone interview.

"You're not necessarily going there to solve the problem," Perry said. "You're going there to show them you can think."

What you don't want to do in a job interview is close the door by accusing an employer of ripping you off and that you'll give more ideas when you're hired, Perry and Donlin agreed. It's a bad foot on which to start a business relationship, they said.

Solve another problem.

Instead of answering their question directly and giving specific responses to their company's problem, get them to explain what they're looking for and tell them some stories about situations in which you've solved similar problems, recommends Stephen Balzac, president of 7 Steps Ahead, a management consulting firm.

Focus on the results you obtained, not how you arrived at that solution, so the employer can see you as "the" person to solve their problems.

"Don't be afraid to give examples on-the-spot about how you would go about doing something because it shows the interviewer you're results-oriented," career expert Heather R. Huhman, who founded Come Recommended, said in an e-mail.

"However, don't give away the farm. Add something along the lines of 'If I'm selected for this position, I can produce those results and more' to the end of your suggestions," Huhman wrote.

Stress other factors.

You can give them an answer, but explain that anyone can pick up a book or read a case study and arrive at the same solution you're suggesting. But the solution is a long way from applying it correctly on the ground, said J.R. Rodrigues, co-founder of a company that makes the Job Hunt Express software.

"My advice is to freely and wholeheartedly share your thoughts and opinions and experiences with the inquiring party," Rodrigues wrote in an e-mail. "Just be sure to continually remind the person that it is the nitty gritty details, the perseverance, the discipline, the ability to adapt quickly to changes, etc., that makes implementing such a solution most effective."

If it's a problem you could solve in a few hours, then what would you do on the job after the first few hours? Show your insight and good decision-making skills -- those are what employers want to hire and not just someone with a quick solution in an interview, recommended Steven D. Davies, president of PerfectJob Software.

Turn the tables.

Perhaps the most interesting advice is from Donlin, the guerilla marketing expert. When asked for solutions to a company's problems, he suggests asking them what keeps them up at night about their competition.

Find out five things that worry them about their competition. After the interview, go to your car and call the company's competitors and tell them that you've just learned what is keeping the company you just interviewed at up at night. Or at least entice them with that information. It should get you at least a few more job interviews.

It's fair to use that information to further your own needs, Donlin said. If an employer wants to pick your brain in a job interview, you might as well pick theirs.

All is fair in love and war, and in the job search.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area who can be found at
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