Spicoli doesn’t consult for free, why should you?

There’s an on-going debate over what to do when a prospective employer asks you to provide what could be deemed as “free consulting” during the interview process. That could manifest in a variety of ways from a simple, “How would you go about reaching this demographic?”; to the more complex “Please provide a detailed presentation on your solution to this case study.” In either case, you could be providing an actual solution to their very real problem…for free.

Case in point, a company recently provided a case study where they asked a prospective project manager to create a solution to a customer’s problem. When asked why a project manager would provide a solution vs. a plan of execution for an existing solution, the company stated that they ask all prospective candidates to do so to see if they are consultative in their approach.

Well, the candidate went above and beyond and provided a 50-slide presentation on EXACTLY how they would solve the issue and how to execute this plan. The good news? The candidate impressed the panel and they wanted to move forward with hiring her. The bad news? Due to restructuring, they were unable to move forward with an offer and had to promote an internal candidate instead. So, the question now becomes, were the hours dedicated to that exercise worth it for the candidate, and what happens with that detailed plan the company now has possession of?

In an Alec Baldwin podcast, Oscar-winning screenwriter Cameron Crowe discussed how they cast Sean Penn for the now infamous “Jeff Spicoli” character in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”. It is commonplace for directors to ask actors to audition for a part and get into character to “sell” them on their ability to really nail that particular role. (See where I’m going with this?) When asked to read for the part, Sean refused to get into character. At the early stages of his career, this was considered highly out of place. However, Sean maintained that he grew up in Malibu and continues to live on the beach. He knew exactly who this “Spicoli” character was, however he was not about to give away his work product for free, only to potentially have the casting director fall in love with his interpretation of the character (or his solution to their problem) but select someone else play it.

We all know how the story ends. Sean Penn immortalized the 1982 character which is still oft-quoted and helped the movie reach enormous box office success. But what if he did read and they had someone else play his interpretation? What if you refuse to go along with the interviewer’s request to provide a solution? Will they dismiss you as a candidate?

It could be an innocent question or request to see how you think or approach a problem. Or, it could be a free way to get outside perspective or consulting on a specific issue they are facing. When dealing with these types of situations, I would advise you to approach it from a high level, outlining the steps you would want to cover, without providing great detail. Perhaps calling in to conversation similar challenges you have tackled with previous employers and the level of success you reached, again without providing the detailed plan. It is incumbent on you to sell them on your ability to do so, without giving it all away for free.

In the words of Spicoli, “No shirt, no shoes, no dice.”

-Eric Kinsey is Founder and CEO of Forward Progress Staffing

(Spicoli picture courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

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