06/17/2010 11:52 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the Interview, Offer Free Consulting?

How do we deal with an interviewer asking us for free consulting work, in a job interview?

It's a common scenario. You're in the interview, and the interviewer says "The next thing we need from you is a six-slide Powerpoint presentation that explains how you'd rev up our marketing efforts."

We can't consent to perform this work - not because of the fee (none) but because our consulting brain won't let us present a set of ideas to a client without knowing what's going on, what's been tried, what's at stake, etc. We need more information.

If the Powerpoint request comes from an HR screener, the conversation might go
this way:

THEM: So, Jim, the next thing we'll need from you is a Powerpoint explaining how
you'd get our marketing programs to a new level.
JIM: That sounds great. I'd need more information to be able to put a meaningful
plan together. Can I get on the phone with Sarah, the Marketing Manager?
THEM: Er - I don't know. All of the candidates are being asked to fulfill this
JIM: I understand. The thing is that I can't stake my reputation on a marketing
plan that's based on incomplete data. If Sarah might have time to chat on the
phone with me before I create that presentation, I can get the information I
need from her to put a thoughtful plan together.
THEM: Hmmm. I can ask her.
JIM: That would be great.

What happens when Jim gets on the phone with the Marketing Manager a/k/a His Future Boss? He probes for pain, of course.


SARAH: Sarah Smith.
JIM: Hi Sarah, this is Jim Thorpe. Becca Martin may have mentioned that I was
going to call....
SARAH: Oh, hello Jim! You're the fellow who needs some information from me to
create the Powerpoint.
JIM: That's me! Is this a good time?
SARAH: I have a few minutes.
JIM: Thanks. So, as I understand it, the big issue is that kelp sales are down
from last year....

Jim has no intention of creating a Powerpoint and lobbing it into the void. His plan is to brainstorm with Sarah on the pain and convert this call into a face-to-face meeting. He'd be happy to bring his Powerpoint into that meeting, but he isn't willing to send a Powerpoint over email to Sarah or anyone else. The choices for the company are to meet with Jim and go through his presentation at a live meeting, or get no presentation from him at all.

Let's say that Jim, the job-seeker, had already met the hiring manager. In that scenario, Jim went into the interview 100% focused on digging out the pain and making it the focus of the conversation. If he does that successfully, there is a lower probability that his hiring manager will ask for his Powerpoint presentation, because Jim will already have made it clear (via his highly relevant dragon-slaying stories) how he's surmounted the company's problems in
the past.

Once Jim has nailed the pain and shared some thoughts on how to make the pain go away, he's going to ask the hiring manager "Does this approach, the one we're discussing now, sound like the right idea for your company?" He isn't going to push or 'sell' anything. If the manager says "It might be the way for us to go, I'm not sure" Jim may say "Well, it's not the right approach for everybody, and it may not be right for you."

If the manager nevertheless says "We have other candidates to see, but we'd love a Powerpoint version of this conversation" then Jim will say "Let's do this. I encourage you to talk to the other candidates, and then, if you feel that I'm the right person for this role, let's talk again." He doesn't want to be one in a slate of candidates. He wants the employer to keep him in the running ONLY if his approach/personality/perspective/etc. feel like a fit, and otherwise, he wants to be screened out. So he says "Look at the other people, and only come back to me if I feel like the right fit."

Jim is (still) not ready to perform free consulting work and lob it into space with no guarantee of a face-to-face meeting, at a minimum.