How fair is the take-home assignment?

Hiring for Tech
August 10, 2020

A woman sitting on a couch, working on a laptop

Take-home assignments allow candidates to work comfortably, but they also have a huge cost. Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

I recently discussed how working through a small project is an effective way to evaluate a candidate’s practical skills. In that article, I posed a question (updated now based on the importance of independent work): is it better to implement the project interview with a take-home assignment or as part of an “onsite” with independent work?

I believe you should default to an onsite, which in COVID-times could be conducted remotely, but the take-home assignment does have its place.

An unbalanced time sink

The fundamental problem with a take-home assignment is a candidate has to put in time the employer doesn’t. A candidate may spend hours on a take-home, and the employer rejects them after only a cursory glance. Independent work during an onsite can be similar, but the interviewer should still be checking in on the candidate.

Even worse, the take-home assignment is usually in addition to an onsite. This is expected, since some component of the interview should evaluate the ability to work together. But, that means taking more time off or working during non-work hours. The latter can be difficult for those with families, leading to ageism.

Finally, take-home assignments usually come early in the interview process. Before an onsite, the candidate usually has a chance to evaluate the employer through recruiter conversations or a phone screen. If there isn’t a fit, only a little bit of time was lost. With a take-home assignment, the candidate learns little about the company until the assignment is submitted.

This discrepancy makes the power imbalance I talked about earlier even more more drastic.

What are take-home assignments good for?

Despite all this, a take-home assignment has a huge advantage: they replicate how software development actually happens. The candidate uses tools of their choosing, they get to do so in an environment they’re comfortable in and they get to do it on the schedule that works for them.

The flexibility in schedule is actually quite important. For example, a student with classes during the day may want to work on an assignment in the evening, and you don’t want to interview candidates that late!

Some part of the other benefits can be replicated by a combination of letting candidates work on their own and doing the interview remotely. Such an arrangement also allows the interviewer to check in on the candidate from time to time, answering questions along the way.

Using a take-home assignment effectively

Given these trade-offs, I think it’s possible to effectively incorporate take-home assignments into your hiring process. I haven’t actually implemented the following into a hiring process myself, but here are my ideas:

A central theme above is to make take-home assignments a way candidates show their strengths, instead of making them gating mechanisms. And the way to achieve this is to respect the candidate’s time and preferences.