Toli Elenberg has been looking for work as a project manager for three months, and was called in to interview at numerous Israeli startups that are considered desirable companies to work for. Every single one, he says, gave him a take-home assignment, ostensibly to assess his skills.
In one case, immediately after submitting a three-day task he received a laconic rejection. The complex challenge came with no instructions, no preliminary conversation, in fact no conversation at all. “It was simply, take this, start working and we’ll see if you suit us,” he says. Another company gave him a relatively easy task, to play with the company’s product and tell them what needed to be improved and how. The deadline was one week. “That means you can work on it for an hour or a full week. I realized there was a lot of competition for the job, so I worked for a week,” Elenberg says.
One company sent him a message saying his application had passed an initial screening and the firm wanted to send him a task to complete at home – but only after signing a nondisclosure clause and waiving all rights to any material he submitted.
There was “a disclaimer stating that they’re working on a similar project and the ideas I submit may have already been discussed by the company. It’s an amazing company and I really wanted to be hired, so I signed,” says Elenberg.
“After several hours the test arrived and I was shocked, because I understood how massive it was. I was supposed to do market research on four competing products available only for iPhones. I needed to borrow a phone from a friend. The task was to build a competing product. Generally take-home tests involve improving a product or creating a new feature, but they wanted an entire idea. It didn’t even state the scope of the task – specifications? Visualization? Mock-up? It seemed pretty cynical to me.”
Take-home assignments are an accepted part of the hiring process in high-tech, where they considered an opportunity to judge candidates’ capabilities. But in the past few months, perhaps due to Israel’s skyrocketing unemployment, they’re coming in for new criticism.
Avigail Levine, marketing and ecosystem relations manager at the Samsung Next TLV Fund, opened up the topic in a Facebook post that received hundreds of comments and shares. “There are currently many initiatives at employers that are still hiring during the coronavirus crisis. They receive a lot of exposure, and they have their own landing pages to make it easier to apply. These are wonderful initiatives, but no one talks about what happens right after you send in your resume.”
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“In closed groups, I witness dozens of candidates going through torture in the application process: a lack of transparency regarding the process, the number of steps and what they include; initial interviews with a bot, as if we don’t suffer from social distancing enough as it is. Massive amounts of time wasted on take-home tests and candidates left hanging. Don’t even think about getting a phone call.
“Even in normal times the situation wasn’t great – I went through some screening processes over the last few decades, and they all forget you exist the moment they decide you’re not right for them. But we’re not in normal times. I’d expect employers to be more sensitive, but what’s happening right now is the opposite,” she wrote.
Changes in a robust industry
High-tech is well suited to working from home and has been relatively unscathed by the coronavirus crisis, but this sector too is undergoing changes. A Central Bureau of Statistics survey indicates that 89% of people employed in high-tech before the crisis began still work in the field now. One-third of companies said their revenue had declined by up to 25%, while one in 10 said it was down up to 50%.
According to personnel company Ethosia, the job hunt has become particularly challenging during the crisis. As of August, there were only 5,500 high-tech job listings online, versus 12,000 in August 2019. Between March and July, there were only 2,600-3,150 listings, an industry low. Meanwhile, some 7,500 high-tech workers are on unpaid leave.
Elenberg believes the pandemic has made things worse. “I was already looking for a job a year and a half ago, when the startup I worked at folded. My resume hasn’t changed much, but the market has. The demands are higher and the process has become harder and more frustrating.”
Over the past week, TheMarker spoke with 15 people who have looked for jobs during the coronavirus crisis and read over posts by dozens more. All had experience in high-tech, primarily in auxiliary areas such as sales, marketing and business development. TheMarker reviewed a double-digit number of take-home tests sent to candidates.
The picture that emerges is of long processes, exhausting tests, a lack of transparency regarding the stages of the process or answers and, in many cases, a failure to coordinate expectations and a lack of feedback. All of the following examples come from well-known Israeli technology companies, from startups to established corporations.
The job that didn’t exist
Ghosting is a term usually associated with online dating. Two people meet on a dating app, exchange some messages and maybe even meet in person, and it feels like things are moving along until one side disappears without explanation. It turns out that ghosting is a common practice in hiring as well.
Take for example Anna (a pseudonym). “One startup asked me to make a thorough presentation that took a week of work, and after they reviewed the presentation they told me they were bothered by the fact that I’d never worked based on sales quotas. But even before they gave me the task they’d known that. Ultimately they told me they’d need to think about it. That was a month ago and I still haven’t heard back.” Under Israeli law, employers must respond to applicants within two months, or within two weeks of hiring someone else.
Anna has 12 years of experience in business development, but she says nothing prepared her for the current job search. “I’ve been looking for work since I was put on unpaid leave in mid-March, and I’ve had a ton of interviews for managing business development and partnerships. Some of them told me they’d received hundreds of applications for one job. The most frustrating part is the disregard for my time, and the ease at which they give me tasks. They’re using complicated take-home tests as a screening tool instead of assigning them after several interviews,” she says.
Anna says that at one startup, she reached the final phase of the hiring process, preparing a detailed presentation that took five work days, only to be told that the company had decided to hire from the United States instead. “In other words, I invested my time and energy for a posting that didn’t exist. I felt like I’d been cheated,” she says. “And that’s without mentioning companies that I applied to through friends, who told me that the jobs don’t really exist – the startups are just trying to create the image of growth and business as usual.”
‘Infinite staffing reservoir’
What would improve things?
“I don’t know how things are for more experienced workers, but when you start work as a junior [someone with up to four years of work experience], you receive take-home tests without them even talking to you,” says Gal Zacharia, who began at a startup three months ago. “As a junior job hunter you have low status and often you don’t have the privilege of making demands. You work around the clock, submit assignments and receive a generic rejection letter, in the best-case scenario. Managers need to understand that if they were to give a sentence or two of feedback, it would create an ecosystem of better candidates. This is an infinite reservoir of staff.”
Ronit Ronen-Karpol, deputy CEO and human resources manager at Western Digital Israel, says the long, vague take-home tests are a sign that the market is now one where employers have the upper hand. “The coronavirus gave power back to employers, there’s economic uncertainty and they’re getting candidates who are ready to do anything,” she says.
“People looking for work are often going through a process of self-questioning, and if they’re unemployed that’s a type of crisis – and the uncertainty in the application crisis doesn’t help them to perform,” says Ronen-Karpol, who has 25 years of experience in the field. “We want to be considering them when they’re at their best,” she says.
She says human resource managers need to set the tone of the process, often in partnership with managers from other departments who don’t generally deal with hiring. “We need to make sure we’re not cynically taking advantage of the situation, and remember that this is ultimately a small community and that we, too – the managers and those hiring – could ultimately find ourselves on the other side.”
The hiring process needs to be based on mutual expectations, and the prospective employees need to understand what the job is and how many hours it entails, she says. “The discussion about salary expectations needs to come before tests; it’s absurd to give someone grueling take-home tests ultimately to tell them, ‘Your work was great but you’re asking for 30% more than what we can pay.’ If you’re giving someone five days of work, I expect the manager to devote 10 minutes to talking with the candidate.”
While hiring managers may not call everyone for a lower-level job with dozens of applicants, the job description, the hiring process and the expectations for acceptance need to be clear, she says. Likewise, take-home tests for these positions need to suit the actual demands of the job. “But the sense is that they’re sending out the same test to everyone, and those who sink, sink, and those who float stand out – no one is resisting, after all. When you’re sent a test with a one-week deadline, the candidate doesn’t know how much time to invest in it. Are we examining his free time or his skills?” she asks rhetorically.
Some take-home tests seem like a way of obtaining free labor at the job-seekers’ expense. Asaf Fybish, the owner of industry news website Startup Stash, recalls interviewing for a desirable sales development position at a hot Israeli startup three years ago. At the time, the startup was already valued at more than $500 million. “I interviewed at 15 companies. The usual test was a sample conversation with the company’s sales team manager. But this company gave me 48 hours to find the relevant contact people at three to four leads – potential customers – that they gave me, and to try to get them to schedule a demo. The team manager told me I’d get ‘a ton of points’ if I managed to schedule a meeting.”
Neta Dumai has worked in marketing for 20 years, including as VP marketing and in other executive positions in startups including Glide and EyeClick. “I interviewed at several companies that sent me a take-home test before even exchanging a word with me,” she says of her recent job search. “Some gave insane assignments – one asked that I make a video of myself for their initial screening; another manager asked for a full one-year marketing plan including briefs, budgets, campaign ideas, marketing content and fully written mailers for customers – and all in two days. I didn’t sleep that night, I worked like crazy. I sent it all in, beautifully laid out, after 48 hours, only to be told a week later that the job posting was pulled. And they were relatively nice about it, they offered to pay me a few shekels for the effort. Others took entire tests and disappeared, all of them CEOs, none of them tiny startups,” she recounts.
Elenberg, referring to the company that made him sign a contract forgoing all rights to his work on the take-home, says “The feeling was that there were hundreds of people like me building [its] products. There’s no chance they could seriously check all the tests. They were stockpiling ideas that could potentially create value for them.”
Adi Gillat, a founding partner at H-F & Co., a law firm with a focus on tech, is skeptical about claims that companies are using the hiring process to “steal ideas” or get free labor.
“If a company is using take-home tests to collect ideas from the public, that could be fraud, but those are marginal cases,” she says. “When companies are interviewing, the chances of a candidate coming with a brilliant idea and the company wanting the idea but not the candidate are minimal.” It’s much more likely that a company, which already has a staff of professionals and experience in its field, already has its own ideas, which it needs to protect from unsubstantiated claims, she says.
According to Gillat, the default in Israeli copyright law is that the first right to the copyright belongs to the creator, unless otherwise agreed. The exception is in the case of an employee, in which the employer has the first right to copyright for products created in the course of employment.
“Because there is no employment relationship between a candidate and a company, the company may send the candidate a contract before the test in which the parties agree who has the rights to the work. This is not unusual. Even when one technology company considers making an acquisition from another company, before the seller provides the buyer with information about the product, the sides sign a nondisclosure agreement where the buyer states to the seller, ‘You should know that if we already thought about this or think about it in the future on our own, it is ours,’” Gillat says.
“There is also logic in protecting the intellectual property rights inherent in defining a task and its outcome. Intellectual property has a concept called ‘blind alley’ – my experience and research allow me not only to invent the next innovative thing, but also to recognize places one should not enter. Sometimes the task definition also has a way of defining a need unknown to others and therefore constitutes a trade secret. If you produced something based on the unique task or need I defined, then it belongs to me, and I want to make sure the contract between us reflects that.”
Adv. Yael Bar Shtainman, a lawyer who heads the firm’s labor and employment practice, says that even in cases of multi-day take-home assignments, the law mandates payment for work only in cases of an employee-employer relationship – and that would be a hard case to make here. Giving someone something that may have value doesn’t entitle you to payment, she notes. And mandating payment for take-home tests wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing for many job-seekers, she adds – it could drive companies to consider fewer candidates or accept only obvious choices.