Your career output may be one that isn't exactly visible.
Perhaps you're a coder, programmer, network engineer, or someone who doesn't have a physical product result to put in front of a prospective employer.
That's sometimes a problem, because employers often want to see work examples.
If you were a potter, it'd be easy throw a coffee mug you made last week down in an interview. It's easily quantifiable as good or maybe not so good work.
This is why many positions make a "pre-job project" or assessments of some kind a part of their hiring process...
This can range from working with a data set to creating a bit of code.
The goal, if we look at it from an the best intentioned point of view, is to make sure the company hires someone who knows what they're talking about and can do the job.
The other, darker side of that is that the projects can be used to further the business of the hiring company without compensating the worker.
Essentially, you've worked for free as a part of your application.
So how can you protect yourself from this?
As we mentioned in Episode 30 of Recruiting Hell, making sure that you're investing reasonable amounts of time into applying for positions so you aren't taken advantage of is key.
Three areas to consider:
Is this position complex? - Does this position require more skills than your average member of the workforce has? A call center customer service job should not have a 2 hour skills test, but a 10-15 minute computer literacy test is much more understandable. It's not wrong for the company to match a person to a skill, but it is wrong to put applicants through a gauntlet of tests on topics that are only slightly related to the job that take up their valuable time.
Is this position "intangible" - Does this position create something that exists electronically or can't be held in your hand? Examples of this would be like the IT examples mentioned before, coding and programming, or perhaps marketing as well if it were something other than visual marketing. These projects should be short, and not ask you to work with the hiring company's existing product lines or assets so that the project is able to demonstrate skill, but can also not simply be pressed into service as free work for the hiring company.
Is this position worth the time they are asking me to invest unpaid. This will vary for everyone depending on their financial situation and desired career, but you will have to ask yourself, "Is the free work I'm doing worth the end position, and if I don't get that position, will I be unhappy having spent so much time on it?". I ran across this the other day looking at a position at a local chemical company. Indeed assessments popped up after submitting my application, with a total time estimate of 27 minutes to complete. Considering the position I was applying for was not overtly technical and from the job description did not require exacting detail, these assessments to measure attention to detail were not only a colossal pain but gave me a much lower opinion of the company over all. I completed the application, begrudgingly and looking back, had that assessment page said "30 minutes" instead of "27 minutes", I'd likely have abandoned the application process all together.
You should develop a set of standards for how much time you spend on potential new employee projects. Whether it's time, number of questions or some other factor, the challenge of the hiring process should be in line with the growth potential, benefits, pay, and responsibilities you have in the position. If any of these are out of line, move on to the next company hiring.
There's one thing we never get more of in life; Time. We all have a limited amount of time on this little blue ball we all call home, and choosing to spend it completing projects that don't benefit us in our career search is something we experience at our own peril.