You’ve applied for a job. Your resume has passed the first screen and you feel you are in the homestretch, with a job offer in the near horizon. Then, a new hurdle appears in your path to a new role. Enter the job audition—stage left.

It’s become typical for employers, as part of the applicant vetting process, to ask candidates to work on or complete a project, or in some other way demonstrate what they can do and how they do it. This helps the company determine whether a new hire will be a good fit with the company culture and work well with their new teammates, as well as to more objectively measure their skill-set. It can even be a way to be more fair to applicants who don’t interview well, or whose resumes are less credentialed.

The end-goal is to de-risk recruiting and hiring. Employee turnover is time-consuming and costly, and hurts the performance of a smoothly functioning team.

The catch? Candidates are often asked to work on “audition" projects without pay, or with only minimal compensation, and sometimes invest considerable amounts of time. They’re also asked to offer up their intellectual property without guarantee of a job—or any sort of compensation.

Job seekers are often suspicious, apprehensive, or even downright unhappy about being asked to engage in job auditions. Many see job auditions as a form of exploitation by employers, and worry that if they were hired, the culture of exploitation would continue. Doing work for free sets a precedent, and it’s a bad one. I also heard complaints that the projects they were given were irrelevant to the job, and fears that employers would simply steal the best ideas from these projects.

However, job auditions are the norm in many industries, and if you’re excited about the job, it can be hard to say no. If you’re asked to complete a job audition, keep in mind that there are some circumstances where it may be okay. Consider:

Time needed

If the project will take you no more than two hours, that’s a fair request. (Any more than that is unpaid consulting.) Make sure you tell your prospective employer how long it took you to complete the task. If you could only afford an hour, but other candidates spent 10 hours, they may be more impressed with what you managed to do in a short amount of time. “I actually enjoy design challenges," Alexis Kraus, a UX content strategist at Dell, told me in an email. “I make sure I’m focusing on explaining my process more than polished execution, as I have gotten better feedback that way."

Useful project

A real job audition should involve dummy work — suggestions for a new project, an edit of a document that won’t be published, and so on. If it is work on an actual company project — one that may be used by them — that’s a work that should be paid.

A smarter move by companies is to ask applicants to showcase a previous project they completed. If you’re asked to do real work for the company (for free) you might be able to counter-propose a plan where you show them a prior project you did that was similar to what you’re being asked to do.

Whether you can be paid

One of the critiques of a job audition is that it’s elitist — only people who are already well-off can afford to work for free. In a gig economy, short-term projects are the bread and butter of many workers. You may try to negotiate an hourly compensation rate and a target number of hours, asking the company to treat the audition as freelance work. Be sure to convey how excited you are by the opportunity, so that the company doesn’t look askance at this.

What you might learn

While most job applicants look at job auditions as a one-way street — a stressful demand for them to “prove themselves" — keep in mind that this is also a chance for you to learn about the company. If you don’t like what you’re asked to do, or the way you’re asked to do it, take that into consideration. Audition demands may be a clue about a company, which should be wise to heed.

The ideal job audition functions as a kind of speed dating. Any date, even a really short one, should involve the reciprocal interest of both parties. In the process of auditioning for a job, a company is learning a lot about you. But you should be able to learn a lot about them as well.

The bottom line

Understand your own limits, but be flexible. It’s easy to say “no" to an unreasonable process when you only care a little, but if you really want the job, it might be worth it. Most importantly, if you are willing to take on an audition project, don’t go halfway. This is an opportunity to demonstrate what you can do, and may be a real gift, especially if your resume or credentials are unconventional in any respect. Do great work. If you’re not enthusiastic enough to do your best work, then the audition is not for you and neither is the job or the company.

This article was first published on www.hbrascend.org. HBR Ascend is a digital learning platform for graduating students and millennials.

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