What to Do When Potential Employer Asks You to Perform A "Test Job" Before Hiring


When you pursue employment opportunities, anything you do prior to receiving an offer becomes part of an elaborate assessment of you as a potential candidate. In many cases, you are essentially asked to audition for the role. Through resume reviews, interviews and tests of specific knowledge and skills, employers seek to determine whether you are the person they are seeking. Although most candidates understand the resume, cover letter and interview portions of the assessment process, many are caught off guard when asked to perform a test.

Having to do work before you are hired may seem unfair, but hiring takes time, effort and money, and employers want to make sure they find qualified candidates who will stay with them. Seeing candidates perform the job is a more accurate predictor of success in the role than resumes and interviews. In addition, with the proliferation of online job search platforms, employers now receive hundreds -- even thousands -- of applications for one job posting. Pre-hire tests help employers screen the large number of candidates.

Plenty of employment tests exist to help employers screen candidates, and what kind an employer uses depends on what they are trying to measure. Common tests used to gauge a candidate's ability to perform the role include those evaluating technical or professional expertise as well as those measuring certain skills (e.g. presentation, analytical or writing). As the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) points out, “68 percent of employers engage in various forms of job skill testing."

Skills and expertise tests mimic the target role and seek to evaluate your level of competency. The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) defines skills as the “learned behaviors needed to successfully perform a job (e.g. typing)." The best way to evaluate those skills is to see candidates perform them (e.g. analyzing and interpreting datasets, using a specific software to complete an assigned task, designing a logo or addressing a client complaint).

Are Pre-Employment Tests Legal?

Employers can use employment tests to screen candidates only if they are “legal, reliable, valid and equitable," SHRM emphasizes. As such, guidelines exist to ensure that pre-employment tests do not discriminate against or take advantage of candidates. In addition, the government audits job tests and assessments to ensure that employers comply with established rules and regulations. Employers who don't comply with established guidelines for screening tools may find themselves in legal trouble.

Pre-employment assessments, therefore, are not only legal, but they are also expected to become integral to hiring in the future. That said, while many employers have realized that candidates' assessment experiences are important, there may still be those who either fail to understand compliance requirements or who intentionally seek to take advantage of desperate job seekers. To avoid becoming one such job candidate, when asked to perform a skill or expertise test, keep the following points in mind.

1. Relevance

What the employer asks you to do must be related to the role you are being considered to do. For example, since presentations are a key aspect of the work of a career coach, final candidates my colleagues and I interview are asked to create and deliver a presentation on a career-related topic of their choice. The presentation helps us determine if the candidate has industry-relevant knowledge, understands student needs, is able to deliver content clearly and knows how to engage an audience.

From the perspective of the candidate (you), a relevant employment assessment can give you insight into what it will look like to have the role you are targeting. As the candidate, you need to understand why the employer has asked you to perform a test job and how your performance can help them determine if you are a good fit for the role. It is not a good sign if you are having trouble seeing a connection between what the employer has asked you to perform and what you think the role represents.

2. Ownership

If you are targeting creative roles, an appropriate way to demonstrate your skills and expertise is by creating a portfolio of selected previous work. In some cases, employers may ask you to work on a hypothetical project. Case interviews, for example, are a popular measure of a candidate's analytical abilities, thinking processes and problem-solving skills. Although traditionally associated with consulting firms, case studies are now being used by a variety of employers trying to gauge how a candidate may approach common scenarios in a specific industry.

In other cases, you may be asked to address an issue employers are currently facing (e.g. website redesign). While proposing a solution to a problem an employer faces is a great way to make a positive impression, know that whatever you create or design is ultimately your product. If you are not selected for the role, the employer cannot use the work you showed during the evaluation process. As a general rule, if you already have a solid portfolio that highlights your readiness for the role, you should not have to perform pre-hire work for the employer.

3. Time

When a pre-employment test requires you to create a product or present an idea, you should not be expected to commit an unreasonable amount of time on completing the task. For example, if you are asked to give a presentation, make conclusions from a dataset or teach a class, doing so in 15 minutes, 30 minutes or an hour, respectively, may be a reasonable target. Keep in mind that for lower-level positions and for first-round evaluations, it is unlikely that you will be required to spend hours completing an assessment, and if you are, this could be a red flag. As you move forward in the evaluation process, you may expect longer and more in-depth assessments of your abilities.

4. Feedback

Although employers are not required to, it is good practice on their end to offer feedback on your performance on the job test, and you may want to seek such feedback. You want to understand what you did and didn't do well so you can move forward and perform better in the future. This is especially the case when asked to perform tasks that are relevant and integral to the roles you are targeting.

To ensure you approach pre-hire tests appropriately, research your target employer ahead of time. In addition to spending time customizing your resume and constructing stories for common interview questions, prepare for potential job knowledge and skills tests. You could find information on what assessments your target employers use through informational interviews or research on websites like Glassdoor. The more you know about the role you are targeting, the better prepared you will be to both evaluate relevance of any job tests employers may give you and perform those tests. If you have doubts about a job test an employer has asked you to perform, consult with a career coach or a trusted mentor before deciding on a course of action.