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Don’t Let Interviewers Steal Your Ideas


A job interviewer who asks about your ideas might be trying to evaluate your potential—but may end up using your ideas even if you’re not hired for the job. Employers sometimes use the job interview process not only to vet potential hires but also to gather good ideas, client lists and insight into the competition.

Example: A graphic artist mentioned her idea for an online “virtual try-on room” during a job interview with a fashion-sector Web site. The interviewer asked her to put together a detailed digital workup of the idea before her second interview. She didn’t get the job, but the firm used her work anyway.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that job interview theft is on the rise as companies struggle to remain competitive in these difficult economic times. Defending against job interview theft can be tricky. Here are seven prudent ways to reduce your odds of becoming a victim…

1. Decide before the interview what ideas, information and efforts you will share at this stage. Thinking this through in advance greatly reduces the odds that you will blurt out more than you should during the interview.

Consider how much you can say about your ideas without inadvertently giving them away. Identify which of your current employer’s plans and ­projects are confidential and which have been reported in the media.

2. Prepare a polite way to steer discussions away from a current employer’s (or your own) confidential plans and projects. Such queries usually can be redirected toward information in the public domain or information about the company’s past projects without offending the interviewer.

Example: “That’s a good question, but one that I can’t answer fully without divulging confidential information. What I can discuss is what’s publicly known on the subject. Fortune did some excellent reporting about this… ”

3.Treat clearly over-the-line requests for confidential corporate information as tests. Tell yourself the interviewer is attempting to find out if you are trustworthy and savvy enough to look out for your employer’s interests. This might or might not be the case, but it is a good way to reduce any temptation to say more than you should.

4. Mark your creative efforts as your property. If you provide samples of your work, clearly mark these “For interview purposes. Not to be reproduced or used for any purpose without prior written consent of (YOUR NAME).” If you provide writing samples, such as marketing copy, mark each page “© 2012 (YOUR NAME). All Rights Reserved.”

These phrases provide a measure of legal protection and send a strong signal to the interviewer that you know your rights and intend to protect your work.

5. Request a payment agreement for substantial creative efforts. If an interviewer asks you to prepare a detailed sample of your work that will take many hours of your time, say, “I’d be happy to do that for you, but I’d like to get an agreement that I’ll be compensated if I’m not hired and you use my work.” That’s a reasonable request that a well-intentioned interviewer is likely to agree to and is unlikely to hurt your chances of getting a job. If the ­interviewer does agree, send an e-mail confirming the terms of this agreement after the interview.

6. Obtain an informal nondisclosure agreement before submitting valuable ideas. If a small number of big ideas are the core of what you have to offer a potential employer, you might have to share some of these during the interview process to prove your worth. If so, send your contact at the company an e-mail prior to the interview asking for an agreement that the company will not use your ideas or disclose them to others if you are not hired. Ask your contact to respond to this e-mail with an e-mail, stating, “I agree.” Submit your ideas in writing at some point during the interview process so that there is no question later what ideas you provided.

7. Confront interview theft issues with confidence. Confidence sells. If you hem and haw about whether you can answer a question during an interview, you will appear weak and uncertain. If you confidently explain why a piece of information isn’t something you can divulge, a reasonable employer is likely to see your point and not hold the lack of an answer against you.
Bottom Line/Personal interviewed Alan L. Sklover, attorney specializing in employment law and executive compensation and severance agreement negotiation. He is founding partner of Sklover & Donath, LLC, New York City, and author of Fired, Downsized, or Laid Off: What Your Employer Doesn’t Want You to Know About How to Fight Back (Holt). www.SkloverWorkingWisdom.com

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