Beware the hiring process that takes your ideas for free


When Nicole Cueto interviewed for a public-relations-director job nine months ago at a biotech company, the Upper East Sider felt taken for a ride.

“They asked me to come in for a trial day to see how I’d fit in,” she says. “They gave me an assignment — create a year’s worth of editorial calendar for the company.”

After fulfilling the task and providing a list of potential influencers to collaborate with, the recruiter told her she wasn’t the right fit for the job.

“Yet they kept my work and, down the line, I saw my strategy executed. Basically, they got free work out of me,” says Cueto.

The recruiter ultimately told her they were looking for someone with more tech experience, something Cueto questions because the recruiter previously indicated “how much they loved me and if they could sign me up tomorrow, they would.”

After noticing that an influencer she had recommended to them started promoting their product, the p.r. pro felt “betrayed and naïve for giving them so much. I will never again give up that amount of work, experience, knowledge.”

Submitting sample work may be considered part of the hiring process, but unfortunately, employers may actually use that work for their own benefit for free.

Mark Spund, partner in the employment-law firm Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP in Midtown East, says that when a company asks candidates for new work during the hiring process, it becomes a judgment call for the applicant.

“On one hand, you want to show your talent to a prospective employer. On the other hand, you don’t want to be working for free,” he says.

Legally, he says, Cueto doesn’t have much recourse. “The editorial calendar and list of influencers were provided voluntarily as part of the hiring process — at that point, the company can do what it wants with the material.”

While it’s not practical for job seekers like Cueto to insist potential employers sign a non-disclosure agreement (most companies, he points out, “will say, ‘No thanks!’ ”), Spund says job seekers can help by keeping each other informed about the practices of a particular company via word of mouth and sites such as

Greg Williams, author of “Negotiating With a Bully: Take Charge and Turn the Tables on People Trying To Push You Around” (Career Press), recommends asking employers if requested work will be published or used in any manner outside of the position’s application.

“If one is suspicious, a better question might be, ‘How might this be used?’ Request in writing how your content will be utilized. If your request is denied, that might serve as a red flag,” he says.

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