Is Homework for Job Applicants Effective?

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin September 10, 2018
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​Hiring managers who give homework to job applicants see the assignments as a way to identify talented potential employees, but the practice can pose practical problems and potentially create legal issues for employers.

Job candidates seeking software developer positions often find themselves handed coding homework as part of the interview process, with projects taking hours and sometimes days to complete. Homework assignments for applicants also are spreading beyond the tech sector.

Erik Umenhofer, founder of California game developer Firebelly Studios and senior systems architect for a major file-sharing company, encountered about a half-dozen homework assignments when applying to startups in recent years, the longest taking a full weekend to complete.

"Engineering is hard and complex, so the tools to assess engineers [are] still being refined. I still feel the best way to know someone is to talk to them and see how they think through a series of interviews and questions," Umenhofer said. "I'm still not 100 percent sold on the homework path to this."

'Huge Trend' Has Some Skeptics

Some express concern that onerous assignments push away talented developers, create or reinforce biases against people with commitments that prevent them from spending hours on interview homework, and impose unfair burdens on applicants.

"I see homework as a huge trend. Homework is replacing whiteboard coding and logic puzzles as the go-to for [developer] interviews," said Pete Holiday, senior engineering manager for Atlanta-based call recording and analytics startup CallRail, which stopped giving homework to candidates shortly after he joined the company last year. With whiteboard coding, an engineering applicant writes an answer to a programming problem on a whiteboard, according to Quora.

"We used it for a variety of reasons. The team believed that homework was easy for CallRail engineers … and provided a high degree of accuracy. Over the years they were happy with the results from the hiring process," he explained.

But Holiday considers interview homework harmful to both a company and an applicant.

Senior candidates content with their roles in other companies couldn't be bothered to complete assignments, which meant "a huge swath of candidates wasn't available to us," he said. 

In addition, Holiday said, candidates with the most free time tend to be the ones who complete take-home assignments, which tends to give younger candidates a better shot, he said.

While CallRail dropped homework tests, other tech firms are picking up on the idea.

"More of our clients are asking for software development/engineering candidates to take coding tests prior to interviews," said Sean Dowling, partner and recruiting strategy manager for WinterWyman Staffing's technology division.

Historically, software clients had candidates complete code tests during interviews, but now many assign homework projects before or after interviews, with tests lasting from 30 minutes to hours, Dowling said.

Financial firms have also taken up the practice for their tech jobs, assigning candidates online tests at tech recruiting platform Codility, Dowling said.

Some clients have developed their own tests―random assignments that allow the employer to see the candidate's code, design and logic but that don't involve the actual development the candidate would handle on the job, he said.

Dowling, however, also noted issues with the practice. "Some candidates refuse to take tests," he said.

Some think interview homework is a closer approximation of real work than whiteboarding and logic puzzles, according to Holiday.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Screening and Evaluating Candidates]

However, he said homework can become a crutch for applicants, a way for engineers to avoid learning and practicing interviewing skills.

And homework isn't the objective evaluation tool that some believe it to be, Holiday said. "Too many engineers will judge the candidate based on whether or not they solved the problem the way the interviewer would, which isn't always the best or only good way," he explained.

Potential Legal Problems

Employers should be aware of potential legal problems should their homework go beyond skills testing.

Under California labor rules, for example, a tryout can test a candidate's skills but shouldn't constitute training, noted D. Gregory Valenza, an attorney at San Francisco-based Shaw Law Group.

In California, pre-employment training must be paid, but employers don't have to compensate candidates for tryouts that:

  • Truly qualify as skills tests.
  • Involve productivity that is of no use to the company.
  • Take place over a reasonable time period under the circumstances.

If the product of the test is essentially hypothetical—something not useful beyond showing a candidate's ability—the homework probably constitutes a valid skills test, according to Valenza.

One key question is whether the skills-testing homework replaces an existing employee, he said. If a restaurant tests an applicant's bartending skills by having him or her serve drinks to customers for three hours, for instance, "that's not a test; that's training time, and that's payable," he said. If the candidate makes drinks after hours and the restaurant throws them out, it's a skills test.

A company offering compensation for homework, meanwhile, could be establishing an employer relationship with various tax and reporting obligations that it might not want to take on for an applicant, he noted.

Using outside testing services helps limit liability, as does using the same tests for each candidate, according to Dowling.

Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance journalist and writer based in Philadelphia.

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