DreamSometimes, the job you were sold on doesn’t live up to the hype.

Before I started writing for a living, I was a teacher. I landed my first full-time teaching job at an inner-city school in New England, and when I got the phone call telling me I had officially landed the gig, I was absolutely ecstatic. Sure, it was an underfunded and understaffed school on the cusp of “turnaround” status, but the opportunity (as it was painted for me) was exciting and full of possibilities. I would have the chance to work with students in a workshop model of teaching! I would have almost total control over the curriculum! The school was planning big things for the year: Latin lessons! Community gardens! A reading lab!

Rather than drag anyone through the mud, let’s just say that all of this turned out to be not quite true. The job I found myself in was not the job I was promised. When the school and I parted ways at the end of the year, I was even more overjoyed than I had been when the school initially hired me.

Put simply: I never should have accepted that job offer, and the school probably never should have extended the offer in the first place. We were not a good match for one another.

The Problem of ‘Overselling’ a Job

Tony Wilmot, director of U.K. recruiting website Staffbay.com, sees this problem a lot: a company sells a job to a candidate by painting the job in a certain light; the candidate eagerly accepts the job, thinking it will be a perfect role for them; the candidate, now an employee, soon learns that the job they were promised is not the job they received; the employee grows dissatisfied and walks away from the role, sometimes wishing they had never taken it at all.

“[This overselling of roles] is quite endemic on the employer’s side of the table,” Wilmot says. “Standing in the middle as recruiters, this is one of the biggest [complaints] that we see from candidates.”

Overselling jobs is ultimately damaging to both employers and job seekers. Employers end up making bad hires — a costly mistake – and job seekers end up making major career and life changes, all for nothing.

But how can we keep this sort of thing from happening? After all, Wilmot says, “In my 25 years of doing this particular function in recruiting, I’ve not come across [the company] that has never had this problem.”

According to research carried out by Staffbay.com, the answer may lie in letting potential employees work for free before joining a company. That may sound a little ridiculous, but Staffbay.com found that 71 percent of the people it surveyed were “happy to work for free for up to three months to get their dream job.”

Crossed FingersSo, should companies be “hiring” candidates for free before deciding whether or not they’d like to take them on? And what can job seekers possibly gain by working for free?

Working for Free Doesn’t Exactly Mean Working for Free

Staffbay.com’s suggestions regarding working for free didn’t sit well with me until Wilmot offered a new spin on the subject.

“I think the whole concept of ‘working for free,’ we have to tone it down a bit,” Wilmot says. “Because ultimately, it’s not for free. From an employee’s point of view, they’re not going to get monetary value, but they’re certainly going to get an opportunity to assess the work environment and the colleagues and culture of the business that they are going to potentially join. It gives them the ability to cut through any of the employer oversell that happened during the course of the recruitment process.”

What Wilmot means is that, by working for free for short periods of time, candidates can get the answers to important questions like:

  • Can I do this job?
  • Do I want to do this job?
  • Is this company a good fit for me?

Answering these questions before accepting a job offer puts candidates in a better position to reduce their chances of picking the wrong jobs — of making major life changes that don’t work out.

In Wilmot’s eyes, the “working for free” model isn’t so much “free” as it is “priceless.”

“How can you put a price on some of those answers there?” Wilmot asks. “[How can you put a price on] being able to make the right decision before you take the leap [into a new role]?”

A “work for free” arrangement can help job seekers make better, more fulfilling career decisions — and it can help employers make better hires. If companies can “test drive” employees before taking them on, they can better assess the candidate/company fit, avoiding costly hiring mistakes and lowering turnover rates.

Instituting ‘Trial Periods’ for Prospective Hires

LightbulbIf creating a “work for free” arrangement sounds like a logistical nightmare, Wilmot points out that needn’t be the case.

“You have to make something like this as true to life as possible,” Wilmot says. “No extra biscuits, no extra tea and coffee required that day. It’s business as usual.”

Basically, in Wilmot’s opinion, employers need only institute brief trial periods for prospective candidates. These periods could be as long as a week or as short as a day. During these trial periods, candidates are simply coming into the office to shadow people and participate in some of the typical activities they would participate in if they were to be hired.

“Otherwise, the whole thing becomes an extension of an interview, which is very forced, and that’s not what you’re trying to achieve in a trial period,” Wilmot says. “It’s got to be real. That puts both the employer and the candidate in a position where they can make the right decisions.”

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