The Way We Work
February 16, 2011 by Guest Blogger

By: Alison Green

We’re big fans of Ask a Manager’s business and career blogger Alison Green, who recently touched on a few areas of the hiring process that many contractors worry about.

Here she answers three important questions nearly every remote worker has at some point:

“Should I offer to work for free so a company can try me out?”

Question: I am currently job hunting and a few days ago stumbled upon a position that was the perfect fit for my skill set, experience, and place. I have been job hunting for about a month now, and today thought of trying something new when following up since the vast majority of my follow ups illicit no response. I offered to come in and have the arrangement be a trial unpaid internship to familiarize myself with the operations of this organization and see if they like me. What are your thoughts on this approach? I’m thinking of using it more often, but wanted outside advice.

Alison’s Advice: Unless this is a nonprofit, it would be illegal for the employer to accept. With the exception of nonprofits, the Department of Labor requires that unpaid work be primarily for the benefit of the volunteer, not the employer. And if it’s not, they can reclassify you as an employee and require the employer to pay back wages for all the work you did.

However, even if this weren’t the case, I’d be skeptical of this approach because (1) it significantly undervalues your skills, which would signal desperation to a company, which in turn would signal that you weren’t the best candidate, and (2) it would be a lot of work for a company to train and acclimate you for a month without knowing the investment would pay off for them in a hire at the end of it.

“How long is too long for a cover letter?”

alison green 1 page fileQuestion: How long is too long for a cover letter? I’ve done some hiring myself and I know that with stack and stacks of applicants, each bit of paper only gets so much time. I’m editing ruthlessly but it’s still about 600 words long. After graduating two and a half years ago and working for a restaurant in the meantime, I am still trying to get a job doing some kind of social research. I feel like my cover letter has a lot to accomplish– show why I want this job at this firm, show how my academic work and restaurant work make me a qualified candidate, and address that even though my work experience does not correspond perfectly to the announcement why I’d do an awesome job anyway. Is there an absolute cut-off where your eyes glaze over and you toss the whole thing in the trash?

Alison’s Advice: Keep it to one page. And don’t cheat by shrinking the font size to get there.

“Why do employers bother to interview if the job just dissolves in the end?”

alison green no jobQuestion: Why does an employer go through selecting and interviewing candidates if in the end the position ends up getting dissolved? I have interviewed for four positions in the last year and I felt very confident about my interviews at the end of each. After going through testing phases for some positions and interviews for others, I later received emails that said the company had terminated the position and they would not be hiring at that time. I understand that there are situations in this economy where a position may be dissolved in a company, but why go through the trouble of interviewing numerous folks and frankly, getting candidates’ hopes up?. I am just wondering how frequently this situation happens. As a job searcher, it makes me wonder if I just wasn’t the selected candidate and the company just took the easy way out of a rejection.

Alison’s Advice: Yes, this happens. Sometimes it’s because there’s new financial news, or a reorganization, or priorities shift, and sometimes it’s because of disorganization/lack of communication. I can almost guarantee you, however, that it’s not a lie to avoid having to reject you — rejecting people is a part of doing business, and while employer don’t enjoy rejections, they don’t tend to give them panic attacks either. (Besides, if they were squeamish about rejection, they’d use the far more common coward’s tactic of just never bothering to contact you again.)

How about you? Have you ever worked for free and regretted it? Wrote a short cover letter that got you the job or interviewed for a job that just disappeared? Tell us about it in the comments below.