Will companies steal your ideas if you're asked to do spec work?

You want the job, but don’t want to be ripped off. Learn how to make sure your spec assignment doesn’t turn into free work for your prospective company.

Will companies steal your ideas if you're asked to do spec work?

Have you ever been asked to do work for a company—before you were hired? It happens. Sometimes, companies assign speculative (spec) work to candidates for them to complete as part of the hiring process. This could be a writing assignment, business plan, social media posts or some other example of the type of work you’d be tasked with at your new job.  

Most of the time, these assignments seem fair. After all, if you don’t have a huge portfolio of work (and sometimes even if you do), the company needs to feel confident in your abilities.

But one fear many job seekers grapple with is whether or not a company plans to use your work­­–and not hire you.

“It can be a very fine tightrope walk between answering a question and providing free consulting,” says Stephen Provost, senior partner at Prestige Scientific, an executive search firm in Milford, Massachusetts.

Monster spoke with career experts, as well as someone whose work got co-opted by a prospective employer, to get their opinions on how to handle spec work asks, identify red flags and take action—all while remaining professional and giving yourself the best chance of getting hired.

Do your research

Social media and online company reviews have gone a long way to democratize the job application process. Most of the time, employers are on the up-and-up when they ask for spec work. But if you’re nervous, do your best to see if there’s any evidence that the company has been accused of stealing work in the past.

“Do they ask for an enormous amount of information, prep and strategy up front and prior to employment, and then withhold making an offer?” asks Roy Cohen, a career coach at Roy Cohen Career Management in New York City.

“This feedback is readily available on websites and through a few networking calls,” he says. “Companies that abuse candidates establish a reputation that precedes them for not following through and for appropriating candidate's good ideas.”

Assess whether they want you—or your spec work

Jake Tully, a public relations officer for Santa Fe Springs, California-based Trucking Unlimited, once had his work stolen by a prospective employer.

As a recent college grad with little experience, he applied for a position with a media company. As part of the hiring process, they asked him to write infomercial copy for a new line of healthcare products, as well as some copy for a forthcoming social media campaign. That in itself isn’t too unusual, but what happened next is what caused concern.

“All the while, no job offers were made, no in-person interviews were scheduled, and any inquiries about advancing in the process were met with utter hostility,” says Tully. “Eventually, I gave up the ghost and decided to seek other employment.”

The problem? That company used his work in their products and social media campaigns. “I saw no point in pursuing any action outside of feeling ire for being duped, but could not believe they effectively used me for free writing,” said Tully.

The lesson: If hiring managers or recruiters care more about extracting free assignments and are silent on the application process, steer clear.

Protect your work with a contract

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a way to protect your work while submitting spec assignments? Good news—there is.

If you feel comfortable doing so, draw up a contract that states the company cannot use your work if you don’t get hired.

“As a candidate, you can protect yourself and show your professionalism at the same time,” says Debora McLaughlin, CEO of New Hampshire-based Renegade Leader Coaching & Consulting Group. “Say, ‘I'm excited to take on this challenge. I'm also happy to contribute innovative ideas as an employee. For now, I'd like to address the challenge and draw up a non-disclosure (or other protection agreement) should we not move forward.’”

Be transparent: Contact the perpetrator’s boss

If the worst-case scenario happens—the company ghosts you and uses your work without your consent—it’s okay to call them out. How? By contacting the perpetrator’s boss.

“Should you discover that your ideas have been borrowed by a person who has interviewed you and who requested work from you, send a detailed email to that person's boss,” says Cohen.

But don’t use your email to complain. “Explain instead that you are writing for two reasons,” says Cohen. “You are flattered that the individual was so impressed by your work to claim it as his or her own. Also, you felt it was important to let the boss know that one of his/her trusted employees lacks integrity and is also ill-equipped to handle their responsibilities.”