How to Handle the “Unpaid-Work” Interview

Advice for Freelancers, Content Badasses, Managing Your Content Business, Why You Need a Freelancer

What do you do when the job opportunity you’re interested in wants story ideas and “sample” work before they decide to interview or pay you?

It’s the age-old question: Do you do a whole bunch of free work to possibly land a gig? The answer is frequently fraught and often frustrating–but here’s what you need to know. 

“Send me three well-researched pitches…” and Maybe I’ll Pay You for Them, or Maybe I’ll Assign Them to my Full-Time Staff

I was recently trolling the job listings and came across a freelance ghostwriting gig that looked promising on LinkedIn. It was an “Easy Apply” gig, but upon reading the description, it turned out that the poster wanted applicants to email them directly with as many as 10 (!!!) links to relevant bylines, a cover letter, and a resume. 

“Ok, fine.” I sighed and got to emailing. I also clicked that “Easy Apply” button, just to indicate that I was a serious applicant and interested in the spot. 

A few hours later, I got a note in my LinkedIn Messages. There, the job poster enumerated a proposed “exercise” assignment, as he called it. 

He requested that I come up with a “provocation,” which immediately set alarm bells off in my head. In today’s hotly partisan world, that generally means an “unpopular opinion,” or “hot take,” that frequently smells of rage baiting, a common technique to boost views and interactions on a website. He even went through a list of questions I should ask myself about the topic (cue the deep side eye from experienced journalists). 

His note went on to say that once the company approved my “provocation,” I “will find an excellent expert on the matter,” who could argue that point of view, then I’d reach out to that “expert” to “get their interest,” (MLM anyone?). At that point, the hiring company would decide if I should proceed to “work with that person to write the article.”

The kicker? “We can offer you $500 if we decide to publish the article based on the assignment.


The Issues Around the Unpaid-Work Interview

If you subscribe to my weekly freelance and full-time journalism job listings, you know I pull no punches about how journalists are paid and what professional-level writers, editors, television producers, podcasters, and broadcasters deserve for their experience and work.

I point out when a job or gig is very well paying (those on my list pay at least $1 per word or more for freelance work, and generally above $100,000 per year if it’s full-time) and offer any insight I may have about the workplace. (In case you don’t know, I’ve worked for a LOT of high-profile outlets and places, and I can tell you MANY of the nitty gritty details about all of them.)

I advocate for a fair, living wage to be paid to those of us who are professional journalists working hard to dig up the truth about the world and share knowledge because I sincerely believe (to quote my CNN sweatshirt that hangs on the back of my office chair) The World Needs Journalists. 

All of this brings me to the core issue of the “Unpaid-Work” interview: Sharing story ideas, pitches, and even doing “exercise” assignments before an employer has even decided if they want to interview or hire you is a SCAM that’s perpetuated by corporate overlords who aim to suck every ounce of creativity out of the largest number of applicants. 

Read that again. The Unpaid-Work Interview Is. A. Scam.

How do I know? I’ve seen it happen–from both inside and outside major media outlets.

I’ve watched a number of major media outlets (who will publicly remain unnamed) put applicants through the “Unpaid-Work” rigamarole because they’ve burned out their own journalists and content creators so fiercely that the full-time employees are mere shells.

I’ve seen those stories, pitches, and “exercise” assignments sent in by job seekers, stolen by management, and assigned to junior staff reporters just so those managers can tout how they have their “finger on the pulse” of what’s happening in the world. “Hey, look at how great our numbers are,” they pronounce, knowing full well they mined hard-working job applicants for the ideas. 

I’ve also seen it from the job seekers’ side of the equation–both in freelance and full-time opportunities. I’ve even gone so far as to do one or two of these Unpaid-Work Interviews because I really did want to work for the outlet or publication.

Sadly, after doing a couple of them and later discovering that my ideas had been stolen by the outlet or publication and assigned to someone else, I refuse to do them anymore. I also have put those outlets (and the editors I dealt with there) on no-fly lists, meaning that I will not work for, write for, or publish with those people or publications. 

How to Handle an “Unpaid-Work” Interview?

There are a couple of ways you can handle the Unpaid-Work Interview:

  • Decide to go for it, expecting your content to be stolen if you are not hired. 
  • Decide to pass, and wish the job poster well. (i.e., “Thank you so much for the opportunity to move forward in the interview process, but unfortunately, I’ll need to withdraw my application for this position. Best of luck in your search…”

At this point in my career, the Unpaid-Work Interview is a major red flag that immediately takes that publication and editor off of my radar. It’s really up to you how you choose to proceed, but if you decide to go for the Unpaid-Work Interview, know that your work will likely end up under someone else’s byline. 

Oh, and funny enough, I got the exact same, word-for-word, email in my inbox about 12 hours after the note landed in my LinkedIn messages about that job.

 If you want to see which freelance job I highly recommend skipping, become a paid subscriber, and I’ll send you this week’s newsletter with that position highlighted as one to avoid. 

Sound off in the comments (or drop me an email) about the WORST job interview requests you’ve seen. I’d love to commiserate.