7 outrageous things that shouldn’t happen in job interviews – but often do

by Rachel Smith
06 May 2020

We’ve all heard clients or editors’ horror stories about freelancers not delivering or job applicants not working out – but what happens when the shoe is on the other foot? After spotting a story about a writer who’d done three different writing tests totalling hours of work, but never heard if she’d gotten the job, I decided to throw a call-out to the freelance community asking for their job interviews war stories… and boy, did the floodgates open!

Unpaid writing tests

If you have years (or decades) of experience and your work speaks for itself, you shouldn’t have to do a writing test – but such requests are unbelievably common in job interviews these days, it seems. Like the writer above, one anonymous journalist told me that she did a copywriting interview that required a 5-hour ‘homework’ test. “I had a week to do it, had to write on 4 different clients. They even said, ‘This will take around 5 – 7 hours’! Completely unreasonable.” Another journo told me: “If someone asked me to do a writing test I would tell them to get stuffed – what an insult.”

Story ideas being pinched 

The majority of editors I’ve come across have been professional and highly ethical, with many of them having done stints in the freelance trenches themselves. However, not everyone is so lucky. “When I first started out in journalism I pitched to a food mag editor a story about a chef in France, and this editor then rang and had a chat and asked for the name of the chef etc. I said ‘Great, I’d love to write this for you!’ Oh no, they just wanted the contacts to do it in-house. Rank and overt stealing of a naive freelancer’s ideas…. I never pitched or wrote to them again and when I saw her after that, I’d think, ‘You don’t remember me, but I sure as hell remember you’.” Another journo recounted a similar experience: “It often happens after the job interview, but being asked for 5-10 story ideas, not getting the job then seeing all your story ideas in print six months later. Hello! If I didn’t get the job it’s called a commission, you thieving a***holes.” Eek.

Picking your brain, then ignoring you

In writing this post, I heard some shocker stories about people being asked in for job interviews, only to provide comprehensive plans and budgets that would rescue struggling mags – dressed up as part of the interview process. Call me crazy, but isn’t it highly unethical to request a very experienced editor provide what amounts to their intellectual property with no intention to give them the job? One of these stories was from an anonymous editor who was called in for several lengthy interviews with a beleaguered monthly magazine and asked to critique the current issue, and create a detailed action plan for the first 3 months. “In the interview, I was asked to do a full plan including changes I’d make to the magazine, my priorities for staff and departments such as advertising and production, the roles I’d require for the team and why, and the type of budget that would be required to make the changes. I did spreadsheets and powerpoint presentations and mock-ups. In the end, I gave them everything they wanted; it took hours and was a huge amount of information. I had it on a USB key and they downloaded it onto their computer. They promised to be in touch in the next week. Two weeks after I followed up. Crickets. Never heard from them again, and only realised I didn’t get the job when I read the announcement in Mumbrella.”

Really inappropriate questions

A study by JobBuzz found that out of 800+ people polled, a whopping 90 percent said they’d faced awkward or inappropriate questions during job interviews. Women were mostly likely to face questions about marriage, kids, weight or age, and men most likely to face intrusive questions about lifestyle habits such as drinking and smoking or religious/social preferences. “Are you married or single? Do you have kids? When do you plan to have kids?’ These are often asked, even though they’re not allowed to,” one journo told me. Another revealed, “I went for a job at a really luxe fashion magazine and was asked what my husband did for a living”. Another told me, “I went for a job at an ad agency in Sydney and was asked, ‘If your boyfriend left you, would you move back to [hometown] Brisbane?’ I mean, what the…?” Yet another said, “I was asked for my star sign and assessed on that basis. He wasn’t mean about it, but it was outside my understanding and seemed discriminatory.”

Being asked to do something way above your pay grade

Along with ludicrous writing tests, another gripe was requests for tasks you might not have the experience or knowledge to do. “I was asked to write something really vague with no specifics (I think it was ‘Write a marketing plan for our business’) and present it in a 10 minute presentation at a second interview,” remembered one job applicant. “The worst part was this was for a low level, basically new graduate type job!”

Surprise phone interviews

I’m guilty of springing the surprise phone interview on people in the past, simply because I was busy and had a window to ring that person. However, I fully accept that it’s a crappy thing for an interviewer to do – not letting the person know a time you’ll be calling so they can prepare. “The only thing worse than a surprise phone interview,” one journo told me, ” is the surprise phone interview that lasts for over an hour! That’s before you’ve even gotten to the meet-in-person interview stage!”

Scope creep before you’ve even started 

Meeting with a client you’re hoping to start working with is something freelancers have to do all the time – but what happens when you land the project, start working on it, then they change the scope or parameters completely? “I applied for a role with a startup and agreed to submit a web page draft template. They came back with revisions which basically changed the entire brief and would need a whole rewrite. I said, thanks, but I’m no longer interested in future involvement. He was AGHAST!”

Your turn to vent: have you got an interview horror story?

Rachel Smith

6 responses on "7 outrageous things that shouldn’t happen in job interviews – but often do"

  1. Collette says:

    I recently got the surprise phone interview! It totally threw me because I didn’t know this was a thing, and it wasn’t until the end of the conversation that she said ‘if you’re successful and you move past the phone interview stage…” and then I realised what had just happened. I was so annoyed, because I could have just gone and sat in front of my computer for a quick scan of my cover letter etc, but alas. Needless to say I didn’t move past the phone interview stage!

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      Argh! I’m never pulling that stunt again. To be fair, I only did it because the applicant said on her letter, ‘Here’s my number, feel free to give me a call anytime’. But much better to set a time via email.

  2. Petra O'Neill says:

    Story ideas being pinched is a nasty one and lining up an assignment only to see the editor hand it to someone else is mean, but the worst was being asked in by a tourism organisation to talk about my story pitch with no further communication from them only to see the story appear in print 6 weeks later written by someone else, the trip hosted by the same tourism organisation.

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      Very hurtful and extremely unprofessional. Did you confront them about it, or let it go?

  3. Emily says:

    I actually like writing/editing tests – so long as they’re well designed and within reason, e.g. 45 minutes alongside an interview to write on a well-defined subject. I’d rather be assessed on my skills than my ability to sell myself. However, I once got asked to edit (in an hour) an outrageously shocking piece of web copy – it came with about 7 source documents to unravel. Afterwards I was told they knew it was impossible – they said it was representative of the job and they wanted to see my process, e.g. if I would ask for more information, phrase queries diplomatically etc. Most stressful hour of my life! In the end I got offered the job but didn’t take it.

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      I think editing tests as part of a formal interview process are fine, and yes – as you say, Emily, within reason! I had to do subbing tests in London to prove I knew how to use Quark (back then!) and sub a simple feature which I completely expected as part of the interview process. But I think some writing tests given out these days to job-seekers are a joke and can take days…

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