While technical assessments have been common in tech for a long time, take-home assignments have become increasingly popular for all roles in recent years. They’re now a standard part of the hiring process at many companies.
There are many good reasons for the increase in their popularity. Research confirms that take-home assignments can help evaluate candidate skills and predict job success better than interviews alone. A well-designed assignment can give candidates a taste of the work they would be doing, and help them decide if the role and organization are a good fit for them. Finally, assignments can help reduce bias in the hiring process as they help hiring managers focus on the work product rather than a candidate’s appearance, similarity to their interviewer, or other biases that plague interviews.
Unfortunately, poorly designed take-home assignments are bad for candidate experience and can actually negatively impact your diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals. In this article, we’ll show you how to design take-home assignments that help you hire the best person for the job, are fair to all candidates and lead to a positive candidate experience.
Crafting Effective Take-Home Assignments
The most important aspect of a take-home assignment is that it actually helps the hiring team evaluate key competencies needed for the role. It’s simply a waste of everyone’s time to give candidates random busy work that doesn’t reflect what they will be doing in their role. Recruiters and TA leaders can demonstrate expertise and add value by encouraging managers to craft a meaningful exercise.
Once the hiring manager has come up with an exercise, ask them to create a rubric for how to score it. In creating a rubric, they will quickly figure out whether the assignment is relevant or not. If they struggle to create a rubric, it’s likely because they can’t articulate what they are looking for, and it’s not the right assignment.
As a recruiter, some questions you should ask the hiring manager include: What competencies is this assignment meant to evaluate? What does a “good” answer look like? These types of questions are the building blocks of an inclusive hiring process.
Designing Take-Home Assignments For Fairness
Take-home assignments should not be overly burdensome. Assignments that require more than 1-2 hours present an equity issue. Not everyone can fit five hours of unpaid work into evenings or weekends, especially applicants with caregiving responsibilities. Long take-home assignments are especially burdensome for underrepresented candidates, who often have to apply to more jobs to get an offer than their majority peers.
We recommend a 2-hour time limit for nearly all roles. For lower-paid and entry-level roles, we recommend even less time because candidates applying for those roles generally have to apply for more jobs and have fewer resources. For example, a 30-minute to 1-hour take-home assignment is appropriate for SDR positions.
If the hiring team insists on an assignment that takes more than 2 hours to complete, pay candidates for their time. This is the approach we take at Peoplism, where we pay final-round candidates to spend 10 hours working on a project. Even if this isn’t currently feasible at your company or for high-volume roles, it’s a powerful exercise because it forces hiring managers to confront just how much free work they are asking for from candidates.
Ask hiring managers: What kind of work would you be willing to pay for? When you pay candidates for take-home assignments, you’re much less likely to assign irrelevant busy work that doesn’t actually evaluate the skills needed for the job. It also sends a strong signal to candidates that you value and respect their time.
Next, carefully consider your stance on time limits. On one hand, unlimited time frames can lead to disparities in the effort and time candidates put into the assignment. How can hiring teams fairly judge an assignment that one candidate spent 10 hours on while another completed in the recommended 2 hours? Conversely, strict time limits can add undue pressure and don’t reflect the way work gets done in the real world.
We lean toward prioritizing candidate experience, so our advice is to use recommended time limits rather than strict time limits. To make this as fair as possible:
- Ensure that the assignment can be successfully completed in the 2-hour or less recommended time limit. Ask someone in a similar role to complete the assignment to check.
- Be transparent with candidates in your expectations. For example, in the instructions, you could say: “It is important to our company that we treat all candidates as fairly as possible. Therefore we ask that you please stick to the 2-hour time limit for this exercise. We are not secretly looking to see if you will spend more time on the assignment than we recommend.” Of course, that needs to be true! So make sure to communicate this expectation with all hiring managers, too.
Finally, it’s crucial that you give candidates an adequate amount of choice about when they complete the take-home assignment. We recommend giving candidates at least 2 weekends to complete a take-home. You can ask candidates to let you know ASAP if the proposed 10-14 day period is an issue.
5 Key Takeaways for Successful Take-Home Assignments
To sum up, we recommend the following guidelines for take-home assignments in order to ensure an effective and equitable process:
- Create meaningful assignments that measure 1-3 specific, pre-identified skills or competencies that are needed for the role.
- Limit take-home assignments to 2 hours or less. Have someone on the hiring team do the assignment to ensure it can successfully be completed in that amount of time.
- Give candidates a 10-14 day window to complete the assignment that includes at least two weekends.
- Clearly communicate expectations for the assignment with the candidate. Tell them directly that you are not looking for them to spend more time on the assignment than the recommended time limit.
- Use a rubric to ensure that all candidates are being evaluated on the same criteria. Provide guidance on what good looks like to whoever is grading the assignment against the rubric. If the hiring team is evaluating more than one candidate, grade each assignment anonymously to reduce bias.
Take-home assignments have become standard practice, but few companies are using best practices in this area. In fact, many candidates are tired of burdensome and irrelevant assignments. By implementing these guidelines, you will promote fairness, improve candidate experience, and increase the chances of hiring the right person for the job.
Liz Kofman-Burns, Ph.D., is co-founder of the DEI consulting firm Peoplism. She has over a decade of experience studying and implementing high-impact DEI solutions. At Peoplism, Liz and her team partner with companies to measurably increase diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging through strategy, training, and process change. Her work has appeared in Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Inc., TechCrunch, FastCompany, SHRM, and others. Liz has a Ph.D. in sociology from UCLA.
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