The Way We Work
October 12, 2010 by Tamara Rice

As an online contractor, inevitably prospective employers will ask you to show them samples of your work. There’s a fine line, however, between using previous work to showcase your skills and spending time and effort creating something new for a prospective employer to “see what you can do.”

Here are some warning signs to watch for when discussing sample work with a prospective employer, and some reasonable responses for the professional contractor:

Red Flag #1: Asking you to create a sample article or showcase project with a lot of specific requests. For example, if a prospective employer with an auto repair website were to ask you to write a sample piece about repairing a muffler, rather than asking to see any previous piece you’ve written in the field of auto mechanics, your warning bells should start ringing. By a prospective employer asking for a lot of specifics in the sample post/site/design/etc. they want to see before hiring you, then there is a really good chance they are trying to get your work and expertise for free.

Reasonable Response: “If you’d like to hire me to write a specific piece for you that fits those requirements, I’d love to create that for you. Otherwise, here’s a sample from my previous work that shows I am knowledgeable in my field and can deliver when asked to focus on any specific topic.” This response says “yes” to giving them exactly what they’ve asked for, but “no” to doing it for free.

Red Flag #2: Asking you to show what you would do with a website design or other creative aspect of the prospective employer’s business. No matter what field you’re in, don’t ever give away your creativity for free. While you should feel comfortable mentioning a specific idea or two in an interview to give the interviewer a sampling of your brilliance, you would never want to actually share the details on how to improve their website/brochure/software/whatever before they are paying you to do so.

Reasonable Response: “From experience, I can tell you that your website could use some more white space in the overall design. My previous employers have been really happy with how I’ve creatively tackled their challenges and improved their sites. I know I could do the same for you.” Dangle a glimmer of one idea or concept verbally, but don’t give away your creativity for free and especially not in any tangible form.

sample work one

Red Flag #3: Asking specifically for a sample that has not previously been published/used/utilized by another client. If you are ever asked to send something brand new as a sample, run the other way. Sample work should never have to be something done only for a prospective client, until you are on their payroll. If they want to see a sample, consider what you would typically charge for creating the sample they asked for, and if you are willing to kiss that money goodbye.

Reasonable Response: “I would love to create something completely new and unique for you, once you hire me. For now, perhaps seeing what I did for this previous employer will help you see what I’m capable of.” Is the employer still reluctant to take you at your word? Consider offering to do a discounted rate on a test hire for them to see you in action on their assignment. Don’t let your desire for new work manipulate you into creating custom work for free.

sample work three

Red Flag #4: Asking for anything that will take you longer than fifteen minutes to put together. We all reach that point at one time or another, where we are desperate for work and willing to jump through hoops to get a job. But investing more than fifteen minutes of your time to pull together something beyond a resume and cover letter (and maybe some links to previous projects) in order to try to win over a prospective client may prove to be an unwise choice. Be mindful that your time is always valuable. That hour you waste trying to win over one client could have been spent getting paid by one of your existing employers.

Reasonable Response: “I can throw some things together in addition to my profile, however doing the task you’ve requested would involve a time commitment that I need to reserve for my employers. If you’d like to hire me, I’d be thrilled to do that for you.” Be polite, but firm. Telling someone you reserve such time commitments for employers is a professional response to a request that devalues your time.

The bottom line is that when you work for free you are robbing yourself of an income. There are a few reasons to do it (writers, see this post ; developers, see this post ; designers, this one, for more), but those reasons rarely present themselves. Don’t get taken advantage of. And, please, do your freelance community a favor by reporting any scammers directly to whatever job board or marketplace they are using.

Tell us: How did you respond the last time you were asked to do sample work?

Tamara Rice

Freelance Writer and Editor

Tamara Rice is one of several freelance writers on the oDesk Blog team. She joined the oDesk marketplace in 2009, after more than six years on staff at an award-winning national magazine.

  • Giovanni Carlo P Bagayas

    thank you for sharing us the tip, I had encounter a lot of buyers who are only getting information from you and steal your work

  • Tamara

    Nestor, those are valid concerns. I would be very wary of anyone who tries to get you on oDesk, then lure you away. And if you are thinking someone is a middle man who isn’t going to pay you, say no.

    Thanks for all the comments. And, Eddyworks, you make a great point, but I would say that there are times when a buyer is just not thinking through what they are asking you to do, or when perhaps they have just miscommunicated. In those cases, taking time to write a polite and diplomatic/professional response can allow you to land the actual job (IF there is one), even when you said no to the “freebie” part. I would say that a professional response will help you weed out the crooks from the buyers who are just naive.

  • eddyworks

    A piece of good advice indeed, but is that really necessary to be such a diplomat all the time and write three lines of text just to say “Yes” or “No”? I think one can be polite using wisely these words as well.

  • Amnon

    Amazing article. Employers should read that also and understand they are getting better value when paying.

  • http://none Carolina Caro

    This is really a helpful advice. It gives more confidence in working especially to all new contractors in Odesk like me.

    Thanks much for this post.

  • Nestor B. Degoma

    Hello oDesk,

    Thank you very much on your advisory on jobs taken for Free as samples. Actually I planning and supposed to write the management of oDesk regarding this excessive request for sample pieces/jobs from these I suspect not real employers, but middle men.

    I suspect when the keep on asking for more in spite of sending already a sample of my work.
    Additionally when they ask me to send my sample directly to there private email address. Sometimes we are lured to receive our low-payment directly on our Paypal account on their allege to Save for us the 10% Service Charge of oDesk.

    I will suggest(if allowed) to stop the TEAM WORK scheme, as it didn’t help to employers nor other contractors, like me, but just benefited those unscrupulous people on the net, except for a very very few who are doing it for good, but mostly are taking advantage of other peoples’ labor. And leave oDesk alone as our Legitimate Service Agent and entitled to collect 10% Service Charge.

    Doing so will increase our income and lower the rate that employers will pay. Unlike the present wherein we are pushed to the ground by these unscrupulous middle men on the net, except for a very few good men/women.

    Sorry for my lengthy comment.

    Again thank you very much.

    Nestor B. Degoma

  • Scott

    I never provide free samples. All employers who request them are met with a generic “look at my portfolio” response, which goes into great detail regarding my skills and the quality of my work. If I can’t prove my worth for an article writing job by providing hundreds of previously completed portfolio samples, then the employer isn’t someone I would want to work with in the first place.

  • Lindsay

    I offer to do samples for the client, but then they suddenly get all butt-hurt when the sample I send them is a low-resolution watermarked thumbnail. So, so sorry I have to foil their plan to steal work with that pesky watermark across it…maybe they should have a Photoshop whiz handy to remove it.

    Here’s another red flag from a super-special client I almost had to deal with…listing a budget, but then telling the provider that they only intend to actually spend about ten percent of their listed budget. This person also had no verified payment method and never even initiated a contract.

    Or another good one…demanding half the work before paying the up-front payment. Uhhh, kind of defeats the purpose of the “up-front” payment.

  • Monty


    The issue is quite good.
    AS i am a designer all client want mock up first.Even i am designer now of over 5 years of experience.some time they just take mock up and get the idea for design

  • Valera Ainsworth

    Thank you. This article was very helpful for there have been many times that I have turned away work because I feel they were asking for a freebie. Your suggestions on a response will help in future transactions. Thanks again, Valera

  • barb g

    I get the freebie requests a lot now but one was really obnoxious about it so I sent him this messge: While that sounds great for your company I fail to see how it would help my blog in any way., If I decide in the future to write for free I’ll shoot you an email. Never bothered me again. I love working with pr teams but really the free articles get old fast. I’m also sick to death of the “post this info on your blog & you’ll be entered into this giveaway”! Those are really starting to bug me & I’ve been deleting them.

  • John

    It’s common in the graphic design postings, but I never apply for those jobs that ask (or demand) work up front.

    One employer contacted me in response to my bid on a logo design, asking to see two or three examples of what I would do for his logo. I politely told him that he would get to see my ideas when he hired me. His response was, “Why should I hire you before I see what you can do?” Again, I politely explained that “I have a complete profile here with a portfolio, feedback and test scores, showing what I can do. Why should I do the work up front, then hope to get paid?”

    I never heard another word from him. Good advice, Tamera Rice!

  • Alexander

    Well, all this boils down to the value of provider’s reputation.

    If you are reputable enough you are offered money upfront for a chance to get a service from you. Or, at least when you ask a prepayment you’re not bluntly told to get lost. Not only that – the fee will likely be much above average.

    But when nobody knows you you HAVE to do some work for free or for below-market rates.

    There always will be such discrimination in the world – same work, done to the similar quality standards by two different people will be paid very differently.

  • Lisa

    This happened to me once and I’ve seen requests like these in more job requests than I can count. More often than not, I skip them over in search of ‘real work’.

    I was actually going to write my own article about it, but am so glad you beat me to it! It shows oDesk is on top of things and is looking out for both their contractors and employers (a huge reason I work primarily through oDesk!).

    The person who suggested looking through an employers history had it so right on. I tell everyone I refer the same thing on what to look for there, to beef up their profiles and the pros and cons of fixed vs. hourly.

    Great post! Thanks!

  • Keith Wakefield

    It reassuring to us all that oDesk is on top of this problem, if left unchecked it could destroy oDesk.
    To take something without paying for it is stealing, so these so-called employers are nothing more than thieves and they need to be stamped out.
    Our policy now, is we do nothing until payment is forthcoming.
    If we all stick together we can get rid of this low life and protect oDesk for all of us.

  • Susan

    That makes sense. If an employer can’t look at your previous work to see the quality that you offer, then run the other way. I never prepare special samples. I have lots of material in my portfolio that they can review. I have material published online that they can look at. Freelancer doesn’t have to mean “free” – be smart and keep your portfolio updated. I have lost jobs by not agreeing to a special sample, but I have to be paid for what I do!

  • Carolyn

    Great article!

    This has definitely happened to me. I was suspicious, but went ahead and answered the “interview” questions, which were very specific to the employer’s website and future plans of global expansion. Of course, the company decided to take my advice and shortly thereafter, the job position was terminated.

    This is one mistake I will be sure not to make again, neither on oDesk, nor any other professional medium. I hope others will benefit from this as well!

  • Wangeci Kinyanjui

    Thanks a lot for the info. I have fallen in this trap more than I have landed jobs.

    This article couldn’t come at a better time than this. As I write this, I have been requested to give a specific sample by the employer having showcased my work earlier.
    Am so happy to have come across this info because I have a response at hand and never again will I give my knowledge for free.
    Thanks Again.

  • Waseem Ahmed

    Hi oDesk,

    This is one of best and helpful article i have read from you. I want to share my bad experience and wastage of two hours when i received an offer from “Philippine” employer after reading job description and having a look at his profile i saw his Skype id saying add me so we can discuss about job it was his wording in the message “hi! how good are you at facebook marketing? pls contact me on skype. my id is the10thwraith. thanks!”

    I added him and start conversation, it take more than 2 hours, he grabbed all the information and still not hire me after that time wastage experience whenever i selected for an interview i was very straight forward with employers and even i lose many chances to get hired but, now after reading this really helpful article i’m assured in my inner that i will stand now at win-win position.

    Thank you.

  • Shinta

    I agree to all the points mentioned here. Interestingly, I wrote an almost similar article on my blog regarding this issue. There are also cases when an employer will ask for a fresh sample article and will tell you that he will pay for it. But once you submit the article, he’ll say he didn’t like it, therefor will not pay for it. But alas, he’ll take the article and use it anyway.

  • Tamara

    Thanks for the thoughts, Gerard. Great points to look at a prospective employer’s track record and google them — being aware that there may be more than one Company X or John So and So. Check out our post on researching your employers:

    Thanks for the great thoughts and input!

  • Gerard M Burns

    Thanks for bringing up this issue.

    Fishing for free work by asking a contractor for a “test” is a fairly old trick in the translation industry. On translator-only forums you can see reports of times when a potential employer contacted a large number of translators and asked each one to translate just one or two paragraphs…and as a result got the whole job done for free.

    The truth is, though, that such a translation is liable to be very disjointed, with inconsistent writing style and terminology, and many translators are sure that someone doing something like that would generally end up with very poor translations. However, there are many specializations featured on oDesk that may be more vulnerable to this type of scam than is the case with translation.

    Finally, there is a flip side to this. We have to recognize that many employers will see their own projects as so different from anything else that they can sincerely wonder if an individual is the right person for an important project, and that may mean that they want the reassurance of testing a contractor on the specific type of problem they face.

    Perhaps one way for contractors to judge is to remember to look at the oDesk record of the employer, and also to use Google or Bing to look up the employer when enough information is given. I once used Google to find that a potential employer was someone very convincingly accused of fraud, Be careful though, about the possibility of two or more people or companies with the same name; I am _not_ the Gerard Michael Burns accused of fraud in Arizona and Spain, for instance!

    Professional translators have forums dedicated to review of employer reliability, and I see that oDesk has a mechanism for contractor feedback. If fishing for “free jobs” is a problem here, perhaps someone can suggest a way to amplify that feature.

    Thanks again for the good advice.

  • yug shah

    wow,great work,i like this, its too good

  • Lena

    This is a really very helpful post. I was asked to do samples twice, both did not take more than 15-20 mins though.

    First time I was asked to rewrite a travel news. I did it and I was hired, still working on the contract and am pretty happy about it.

    Second time I was asked to do a translation sample from the document to be translated (half a page). Again, I was hired to do the job (lucky me!)

    But then again I am very cautious when to do and when not to do samples. If the employer is well established, has a good oDesk payment history, good feedback, I am willing to take the risk and do sample work.

    Though, of course, I realize that not everyone is as decent as the employers I was lucky to come across.

  • Ivan Kurnosov

    >> How did you respond the last time you were asked to do sample work?

    As for me – I’ve never been asked to do samples ;-)

  • Myra Rose Ilisan

    Your posts are always helpful, keep it up and we will be waiting for more.

  • Dave Garcia

    Thanks for the great advise!!

  • Budi Achmad Taufan

    This is nice info for me as freelancer in oDesk because the employer want free sample but not hire anyone, from this article I know info to give reasonable respone for employer ;)

  • Dan

    Thanks for this, Tamara.. A great post….

  • Leslie

    A really great post – this is a must-read for all freelancers.

  • Tamara

    Thanks for the responses, Carol and Janell. It’s so true, Carol, that we have to value our time as freelancers. There will be times when desperation may call for desperate measures, but it’s a valuable lesson to see that the prospective employers who operate that way (asking for strange sample work that takes up your time) really aren’t going to hire you, because they want your work for free! So it isn’t worth it. You think you are sacrificing a little time to win a great job, when the odds are you are just getting scammed. When we are truly in need of work, our time is better spent seeking other red-flag-free opportunities where the odds of being hired by a legit employer are good.

  • Carol

    Yes, I’ve encountered buyers like them. And surprise, surprise! Not one of them hired me. So, if you are asked to do something before they do hire you, it sure is a red flag. Same goes for those who try to negotiate and bargain too much that it is not worth your time anymore.

  • Janell Williams

    This is great. Things we can all learn from.