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.
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.
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?