Paid Projects: An Effective Method of Evaluating Candidates

Giving candidates a limited paid assignment can be an excellent way of evaluating their fit with a job.
By: | September 7, 2018 • 4 min read

It’s long been a criticism that interviews are limited in their ability to provide accurate information about a candidate’s true ability. Interviews done properly—such as when using behavioral-based questions—can offer great insight. But there are other methods companies are starting to employ that—when used in tandem with a proper interview process—can have great results that inspire confidence in the hiring process by all involved. One method is to actively audition a candidate’s skills with a “project for pay.” It’s almost like auditioning for a part in a play where the job candidate can demonstrate her talents and abilities, and get paid for her time. While it is helpful for a hiring manager to evaluate many different skills, such as writing and web developing or evaluating action plans and proposals, it is especially useful for managers recruiting for highly creative roles—and as a way of choosing from a very limited pool of highly qualified candidates who’ve made it to the final stage of the interview.


The Limitations of Traditional Evaluations

The value of paid projects arises from a fundamental realization: Workers in various fields are much more than merely the sum of their resume-based accomplishments and the positive opinions of their colleagues past and present. Without firsthand experience of their work skills, it can be difficult or impossible for a prospective employer to gain a genuine sense of what a candidate is capable of—or not capable of—doing. Just as the creative process itself is a dynamic activity that takes place in real-time, a candidate may be best able to demonstrate his or her worth if they are observed at work over a period of time set by an employer they are trying to impress. This has been something employment agencies know well, as we specialize in placing candidates on a temp-to-perm basis. But candidates who are already working full-time jobs don’t have the ability to be hired in this manner.

Despite this, many companies make it a practice to ask them to create proposals, offer ideas on how they would approach a project or actually submit a sample project. These activities can be time-consuming for the candidate and are usually performed during the candidate’s personal time—which can be very limited if they are currently employed. As a consequence, many candidates believe these types of requests take advantage of them and their skills, particularly in the case of a long interview processes—and they start to be fearful that their ideas will be used in spite of not getting the job.

This practice may tarnish a company’s reputation, with disgruntled candidates fostering resentment or negative bias toward a company if asked to perform a task they deem unreasonably time-consuming—particularly if it runs the risk of compromising their work at their current position. Companies may also not get to see what a candidate is really capable of doing, as the candidate may not be able to produce her best work in a limited amount of uncompensated time. Further, candidates may be reluctant to inform a recruiter or manager that they’re unable to comply with the request for many different reasons. An unreasonable request could also compel a candidate to leave a negative review of the company on social media, resulting in a tarnished brand.

Why Paying Can be a Win-Win

In light of this situation, it’s easier to understand why it can make sense to pay candidates for test projects so companies can evaluate their work firsthand. Right off the bat, this practice demonstrates to candidates that their time and effort are truly valued by the company—even before they’ve been officially brought on board and regardless if they’re actually hired. In addition, asking candidates to work on paid-for projects helps companies potentially avoid the waste of time, energy and expense that can stem from making the wrong hiring decision. Both the employer and candidate get the chance to evaluate whether or not the position is the perfect fit before making a long-term commitment.

As an example, a candidate being considered for a web producer role might be asked by a company to describe how they would lay out a website—and then to go ahead and actually create a mockup version of the site. Paying the candidate to conduct such a task shows how the company values the effort that’s involved. Payment also proves the company’s integrity, since it might adopt ideas or work generated by a candidate even if he isn’t ultimately hired for the position. Other scenarios may involve a candidate being tasked to give a sample presentation or to prepare a marketing plan. In every such case, the candidate’s time, opinions and effort won’t have gone to waste if they’re compensated.


I’ve personally employed this approach when hiring writers and paid them hourly to work on a few projects with me—and was able to see how they researched, managed deadlines and edited.

Ensuring Compliance

Paying candidates for small work comes with an administrative burden but if it makes the candidate feel validated, it could make all the difference. Companies will either need to have the candidate fill out a W2 or have them paid through a third party. Candidates paid under $600 within the year don’t need to claim the work on their taxes, but companies will need to be transparent in their reporting.

There are many benefits to instituting paid projects as part of the greater interview process when evaluating candidates for appropriate positions, and they’re likely to grow in popularity. With careful thought, preparation and execution, paid projects can be yet another tool that hiring managers can use to attract the best and brightest talent in a range of fields.

Rebecca Cenni-Leventhal is the CEO and founder of Atrium, a staffing and contingent workforce solutions firm that offers clients a consultative and personalized approach to their talent management needs.