Why a working interview can help you land your dream job (and candidate)

April 12, 2022 - 24 min read

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What is a working interview?

What to expect during a working interview

6 benefits of working interviews

4 drawbacks of a working interview

15 tips for a successful working interview

Working interview FAQs

There are lots of different ways companies evaluate talent. 

For employers, it can be difficult to find the talent the organization needs. A tight labor market makes it that much harder.

Hiring and onboarding is an expensive proposition — the cost of hiring candidates who can’t deliver is high. Fast-moving companies, especially, walk a tightrope between hiring for potential and hiring someone who can do the job on Day 1. Yet it is difficult to assess skills, capabilities, and fit for these types of evolving roles in a traditional interview and resume. 

For candidates, it can be equally difficult to read between the lines of the job description and make sure it is the role you want and the type of work you’d like to be doing. 

That’s where working interviews come into play. 

A working interview is an opportunity for employers and candidates to get to know each other. It helps both parties evaluate the open position. And in many ways, it can be a great value add to the candidate experience. If working interviews are done right, it can help tremendously to find the right talent in the hiring process.   

In this article, you’ll learn what to expect out of a working interview — whether you’re the hiring manager or the job candidate. You’ll also learn why a working interview is beneficial, the common drawbacks, and how to set yourself up for success

What is a working interview?

First, it’s important to understand what a working interview is. 

A working interview is quite different from a behavioral-based or informational interview. Instead of a series of interview questions, candidates are given real work. When done right, it’s a good way for both parties to assess whether or not the position is a good fit. 

What to expect during a working interview

All companies approach interviews differently. The same holds true for working interviews, which is why it’s important to ask questions. 

If you’re the hiring manager setting up a working interview, check with your recruiting team to understand the company's guidelines around time commitment and compensation. Also, be aware of not sharing proprietary information or other competitive or protected data.

If you’ve been invited to a working interview, here are four things you can expect.

  • You’ll be asked to do real work. Some prospective employers will give you a specific project. Others may ask you to use your skills to assist in a teammate’s project or another workstream. Regardless, the purpose of a working interview is to show your work

  • You might have to take a technical skill assessment. Depending on the role you’re interviewing for, you may be asked to take a skills test. For example, if you’re a software engineer, you may be asked to write some code. You might be asked to evaluate or improve upon someone else’s code. Or, if you’re a writer, you might be asked to draft a blog or copy.
  • You might be onsite or remote. We’re living in a hybrid work world. Many companies have adopted a hybrid work model or are still working entirely remotely. But if you’ve been invited to a working interview, ask detailed questions about the anticipated time. You could be expected to be there for a full workday. 
  • You’ll likely be asked to discuss your work. Companies generally don’t give a working interview if they’re only interested in the output. Be prepared to discuss what you did and why, and what else you might try, with a hiring manager and potential team members.

    This is an opportunity for them to understand how you think about the work and whether you are able to incorporate feedback and generate other possible approaches.
  • You may be compensated for work. If a prospective employer is asking you to participate in a working interview, they should also be compensating you. Ask questions about compensation and pay for the task, and be clear that it is independent of whether you advance in the process.

    Some employers will pay a flat rate while others may adopt an hourly model. Regardless, make sure you ask questions about pay. If they don’t offer compensation, you’ll need to decide whether or not you want to pursue the opportunity.* 

At BetterUp, we use some working interviews to help find talent. For example, we work with a handful of freelance workers in our marketing department. When we seek out new freelance writers, we pay them. We never “test out” a freelance writer on an unpaid basis. We ask them to do real work that we plan to leverage, so we treat it as a working interview as opposed to a take-home assessment or project.

I’ve been a part of interviews where companies ask the candidate to take part in a take-home assessment or project.  This is different from a working interview. This is a project that is simply used for sample purposes (and won’t be leveraged or used by the company). 

If you’re having trouble differentiating between what the company is asking of you, ask for clarification. Is this a working interview or a take-home assessment? If the latter, the employer should be very explicit about how much time the candidate should spend on it. 

When I was in the job search, I took part in a take-home project. The company instructed me to spend no more than two hours on the project — and it wasn’t a particularly difficult project. It was completely fictional and included sample content that wouldn’t be leveragedto create value for the company.

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6 benefits of working interviews

There are benefits to working interviews for employers and candidates alike. Let’s break down the pros for both parties. 

How working interviews benefit employers 

With working interviews, employers can get a realistic picture of what it would be like to hire a candidate. Here are three benefits of working interview for employers: 

  • Employers get ample opportunity to evaluate a candidate in more depth than a traditional interview. Working interviews are meant to be just that: work. They take time, critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and communication skills. By putting the candidate in a real-life work environment with a real-life project, you get to see the candidate in action.

    For example, let’s say you’ve invited two candidates onsite for a full day of work. One candidate is engaged throughout the day. They are asking a lot of questions, they are confident in their communication skills, and they contribute new ideas. They may get stuck in certain areas but show a growth mindset and willingness to learn.

    Now, let’s say your other candidate comes in the next day. This candidate was a strong communicator in the previous interview. Yet when asked to help with a project, this candidate doesn’t show much interest.

    She doesn’t ask many questions and seems focused on delivering her own assessment without input from anyone else. She might get defensive if you ask her to explore a different solution to a problem.

    Coming into the working interviews, you held both candidates as even. Because you were able to get to know about their working styles and strengths throughout the day, you have a more differentiated perspective on them. You feel equipped to make a final decision. 

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  • Working interviews allow your team to participate in the talent acquisition process. It’s rare that every single member of your team will have the opportunity to participate in the interview process. With a working interview, your team can collaborate in building a great team — they feel a sense of autonomy, empowerment, and ownership in the decision-making process.

    If your working interview requires collaboration and communication, gather feedback from your team. You want your team to work well together. You want your team to feel invested in the hiring process. And you want your team to feel like their perspective is valued.

    A working interview is a great way to engage employees on your existing team as long as you align on the role in advance and set their expectations. Team members often feel energized to be part of the process as long as you explain that it won’t be a decision made by a majority vote. 
  • Working interviews can help generate creative, new ideas. A fresh perspective feeds curiosity and helps us practice imagination in our own work. It is something we talk about a lot at BetterUp. Oftentimes, our newest employees come in with a fresh set of eyes to fuel creativity and innovation. Working interviews provide a micro dose of new hire energy. 

How working interviews benefit candidates 

Working interviews aren’t just beneficial for employers. Candidates can benefit from working interviews, too. Here are three reasons why: 

  • Candidates get a real sense of the day-to-day of the role. Have you ever been in an interview and struggled to answer this question. “So, what’s the day-to-day like?” Yep, same. Even if you find the perfect answer, it’s probably not going to come close to illustrating what the role actually entails.

    A working interview gives candidates an opportunity to evaluate the role in a hands-on approach. They are exposed to the work, the team dynamics, the systems and tools, and the manager. They may get a better idea of the challenges. They can gather how the team works together and their communication styles. Especially in this candidate’s job market, it’s a great way for potential future employees to gauge whether or not the role is right for them. 
  • Candidates can experience the company culture. Company culture is a huge factor in the employee experience. Company culture is important to employees. According to a Deloitte report, 94% of executives and 88% of employees believe a distinct workplace culture is important to the company’s success.

    It’s rare that a candidate gets a good sense of the company culture in a one-hour interview. Depending on the nature of a working interview, you’re able to see how the culture shows up in the workplace. This can be little things, like how people communicate and interact with one another. Or, it can be big things, like how well people collaborate or support each other’s success.
  • Working interviews can be more equitable than traditional interviews. Of course, unconscious bias and discrimination are still very much alive and well in the workplace. Hopefully, if a candidate is taking part in a working interview, they can spot — and avoid — overtly toxic traits.

    But the plus side — if a company does working interviews well — working interviews can be more equitable than looking at resumes and asking people about past education and employment. At its heart, a working interview is about skills. You get to show your stuff without the baggage of not having the “right” set of schools or former employers. You can tap into your curiosity and passion for the work instead of getting sucked into nervous self-doubt.

    Working interviews are about finding the candidate who is most qualified to deliver what the position needs and who will be a cultural add to the organization. It can help reduce the unconscious bias that bleeds into the interview process.

working-interview-people-collaborating

4 drawbacks of a working interview

While there are plenty of benefits, there are also drawbacks to a working interview. Here are three drawbacks of a working interview: 

  • It’s a huge time commitment. A working interview is an investment. It takes a great deal of time for all parties involved. The sheer preparation for it could be hefty. 
  • Scheduling can take time, which means you could risk losing great talent. Especially in a hot candidate market, scheduling a full work day could really delay the interview process. This might mean you risk losing out on talent altogether, especially with candidates often interviewing for multiple roles and fielding multiple offers
  • It can be a lot of work with legal and payroll. In order to pay the person interviewing, they’ll likely need to fill out the necessary paperwork in order to be paid. Work with your HR and legal teams to determine the best way to set up the working interview process to make sure all your boxes are checked. 
  • It isn’t automatically more fair or unbiased. A hiring manager may be unaware of how the working interview set-up and context favor some candidates over others.

    For example, a working interview held onsite all day may eliminate working parents who need more flexible work arrangements. If the team is homogenous, even superficially, that might throw a candidate off such that they don’t perform as well as they might with more time to build trust and develop a level of comfort with teammates.

    Be thoughtful and intentional about how you are inviting people in, keeping the time commitment reasonable, and making the experience accessible to a range of candidates.

Alternatives to a working interview 

There are different ways to assess a candidate’s skills and working style. You could consider partnering with a temp agency to help fill roles without the commitment of a full-time employee. 

You could also pivot to a take-home assessment, simulation, or technical skills assessment. Make sure you’re explicit that the take-home project is just that: a take-home project. Be clear about your expectations, including how much time the candidate should spend on the project. Also, be clear that this project is for sample purposes only (i.e. no compensation). 

15 tips for a successful working interview

If you’re ready to pursue a working interview, here are some things to keep in mind. 

For employers 

If your company is opting for working interviews, keep these tips in mind. 

  • Set clear expectations — and communicate them clearly.
  • Work with your HR and legal teams to make sure all your ducks are in order.*
  • Be transparent about compensation and pay.
  • Make sure you give a detailed overview of what the candidate can expect.
  • Structure working interviews to be the same for all candidates who reach that part of the hiring process to help eliminate bias and ensure that you learn as much as you can about the candidates.
  • Be prepared for questions (and for scheduling delays).
  • Build in time to debrief with the candidate and with the team separately.
  • After a working interview, try to make a decision quickly.

For candidates 

If you’ve been offered a working interview, these tips can help. 

  • Communicate your expectations upfront. 
  • Be prepared (and ask!) good, thoughtful questions. 
  • Thoroughly research the job description and the company. 
  • Review the job description and think about what characteristics of your work approach will and the style you want to try to emphasize in advance.
  • To make a good impression, be flexible and open-minded, but come with a perspective — and deliver good, quality work. 
  • Follow up after your interview
  • Ask about pay and compensation for the task upfront.

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Working interview FAQs

We know working interviews are complicated. Here are four answers to common questions about working interviews. 

How long is a typical working interview? 

Generally, a working interview is a full workday. But it all depends on the company. Some companies may ask that you commit to a half-day of work. Others might ask for a full day of work. No matter what, make sure you ask your potential employer how long you can expect the interview to last. 

What to bring to a working interview 

There’s no easy way to answer this question. So, the best answer is to ask the recruiter or hiring manager. At a minimum, we recommend bringing a couple copies of your resume (and a cover letter, if you have one). You should also bring a pen and notebook. Never show up without something to take notes with. Here are some sample questions you can ask about what you should bring: 

  • Will I need my own laptop or computer or will you provide one? 
  • If I’m staying the full day, will lunch be provided? Or should I bring a lunch? 
  • Should I bring any samples of my work? 

Are working interviews paid? 

We are big believers that employers should pay candidates who partake in working interviews. But legally, it’s a bit of a sticky question. Make sure you ask plenty of questions about whether you will be compensated and how the payment will occur. Some companies pay an hourly rate while others pay a flat rate. And yes, some companies don’t offer pay.

For hiring managers, consult with a legal and/or HR professional about laws and regulations in your respective state. There are different ways companies can approach compensation. It’s best to be informed by the experts directly.*

Are working interviews usually followed by a job offer?

Well, fingers crossed! We sure hope that companies can make a quick decision after a working interview. However, don’t set your heart on getting an answer at the end of the day. Some companies have processes that require more consensus or give everyone in the pipeline the opportunity to compete.

Are working interviews usually followed by a job offer?

Well, fingers crossed! We sure hope that companies can make a quick decision after a working interview. While in the interview process, ask questions. Here are some to keep in mind: 

  • What’s your timeline for filling this role? 
  • What’s the ideal start date for this position? 
  • How many candidates are interviewing with a working interview? 
  • When can you anticipate making a decision? 

Be prepared for your job interview

Finding a new employee (or interviewing for a role) is a strenuous process. The hiring decision is no easy decision to make and often takes some time. And at the end of the day, a working interview is another component of the whole job interview process

If you’re an interviewee, do your due diligence prior to interviewing. Make sure you’re asking good questions and doing your research. Especially when it comes to human resources and compensation, you’re only doing yourself a service by being informed. 

If you’re an employer, work with human resources team to make sure you’re in compliance with your state and department of labor’s regulations. This might also include checking in with our friend, the IRS. (Yes, even if you’re interviewing independent contractors.) Make sure you ask culture add questions, not culture fit questions

And remember, the working interview is the opportunity to find the right candidate or the dream job. It’s a great way to assess skill levels and skill sets in one day. And hopefully, that interviewee will convert into a new employee. 

As a job seeker, a new hire, or a team leader or hiring manager, BetterUp can help. With BetterUp, you can become the best version of yourself — and reach your full potential. Get started with virtual coaching today.

*This content is made available by BetterUp for educational and inspirational purposes only as well as to provide general information and a general understanding of the covered topics, not to provide specific advice. All content is provided AS IS and may not be relied upon. By using this website site you understand that there is no direct relationship relationship created between you and BetterUp in regards to the content. This blog should not be used as a substitute for competent professional advice.

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Published April 12, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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