Your Ideas Are Being Used After a Job Interview Without Any Credit. Now What?

More and more companies are asking prospective employees to do job tryouts or turn in ideas and assignments. Here’s a guide to making sure your fabulous ideas don’t get ripped off.

Yatharth Gupta, a 26-year-old architect, was confident his first project straight out of an internship was going to be special. He had great grades, some good work to show from his internship, and was raring to make his mark on the world.

So, when a potential client approached him to design his large office space, he was beyond excited. “I explained my vision for the space orally to my client,” he told VICE. “He was impressed and asked if I could share a basic layout of my design.”


The client’s palpable excitement about his plans led Gupta to undoubtedly believe he would bag the project. So, he spent the next week prepping an intricate plan for the space, obsessing over every detail, and packing it all in a presentation meant to impress. “As budding architects, we usually don’t have much in the way of a portfolio or past work,” he said. “At that time, sharing the basic layout of my plan for the space seemed like the most sensible thing to do.”

The client, however, turned him down and told him he was going with another architect. 

Gupta was dejected but told himself that you win some, you lose some. 

That is, until he walked into the client’s office some months later and discovered that most of his designs had made it to the redecorated space without any credit or compensation given to him.

“It broke my heart,” said Gupta. “I learnt the hard way to not bother visualising a space until I see money on the table and a formal guarantee about bagging the project.”

Many companies ask prospective employees to do some “spec work” to bolster their chances of getting hired and ensure the company that you’re what they’re looking for. But the fear that a potential employer will steal your ideas without hiring or crediting you looms large, particularly in creative industries and for those trying to land their first jobs. 

A little research can go a long way in keeping you from such a fix. Greg Willaims and Pat Iyer, in their book Negotiating with a Bully: Take Charge and Turn the Tables, explain how it’s important to research about the “varying degrees of bullying” at your prospective workplace. This includes trying to dig out details on the company’s toxic hiring practices that might involve ghosting candidates after they share their ideas. 


Many companies believe they can get away with this because they’re just too big to be called out, and that a vulnerable fresher might not want to risk their career or chances of being hired elsewhere by calling them out. Before you get to the interview stage, make sure you’ve gone through the data available online on your potential boss or company. Check out their website to get a sense of their ethos. Comb through their social media pages and review the kind of feedback they’re getting. Ask past or present employees about their work culture. Read online reviews (especially the anonymous ones), and even check out their financials even though digging this out might be tougher than the other to-dos. 

Even after your due diligence, interviews can be a tightrope walk. How much information should you reveal? Should you go out of your way to impress prospective employers with a wealth of creative suggestions? How much is too much? 

Liz Ryan, an author and journalist who has also worked as the HR head of a Fortune 500 company, explained in the Forbes essay “Don't Solve Your Manager’s Problem” that it is important that a candidate not come up with specific solutions to the “problems” posed by the employer during an interview screening. Instead, she said, demonstrate that you have the potential to be a problem-solver.  


“Explain how you'd break down the problem and go about solving it,” she wrote. “What kinds of data you'd want to look at, who you'd involve in the problem-solving process (by title, since you won't know their names yet) and so on. Let your manager know that you're an ace problem-solver, but that you don't have his or her perfect solution yet. How could you? You don't even have the job yet.”

The priority, she added, is to ask a lot of questions from a prospective employer so you can tailor your plan of action to their needs. Asking questions also demonstrates your critical-thinking skills. 

So, basically, tempted as you might be to present all your good ideas upon command, do not give away free advice. Show them that you have the skills to solve their problems without actually giving them the answers.

This is not limited to newbies like Gupta, though, and should be kept in mind no matter where you might be in your career.

Barry Rodgers, a 32-year-old journalist, faced a similar predicament as Gupta three years back, when he applied for the position of digital editor for the Middle East edition of a popular and highly visible fashion magazine. 

“The HR got in touch, told me they were impressed with my CV, and asked me to take a test,” he said. “It was a pretty exhaustive one. I had to suggest the ways in which their website could grow, the kind of buzz they could build before a cover release, the creative ways in which they could promote their stories, the need to standardise their visual language, the talent they must feature, and even ideas for a new video series.” 


Rodgers gave his everything to the test. 

But soon after, the HR ghosted him altogether. His emails and calls went unanswered. After a few weeks, he just assumed he hadn’t cracked it. 

But after a month or so, when he was randomly browsing through the magazine’s website and social media pages, he found nearly all his suggestions implemented with only a few minor tweaks.  

“No one’s going to admit it,” he said when asked whether he followed up with the HR again. “They would have, in all likelihood, ghosted me again and simply blamed it on coincidence. This has happened to me twice, so I’ve now vowed to never sit for a ‘test’ again even if it means losing out on great job opportunities.” 

There are several ways you can proof yourself against a situation like this.

One is to establish a proper paper trail, especially if you’re sending in ideas that can be easily implemented by the company. Make sure you’re sending in writing to them that your plans and ideas are being shared only for the purposes of the interview. Do not share your ideas over a call or in person.

“The email can end with a confidentiality note,” said Jashaswi Ghosh, a lawyer with one of India’s leading law firms Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas, and who has worked widely on cases relating to intellectual property rights. 

Ghosh suggested attaching this addendum to your email packed with the requested ideas as part of your hiring process: This is confidential and is intended for the recipient specified in this email, for the purposes of the interview. Please do not share the contents of this email with any third party without my written consent. Further, please do not use the contents of this email for any purposes, commercial or otherwise, without my written consent.


If your test is bound to take up substantial time and energy – anything beyond a couple of hours, that is – you can even ask for monetary compensation, however small that might be. You can choose to ask them to pay you in case you’re not hired but if the company does implement your ideas. A well-intentioned employer should not object to this. Make sure you set the details of this agreement in writing.

But what happens when the ideas are not to be shared on email, but on Zoom or in a physical interview? In the case of Priyanka Aggarwal, a 27-year-old currently working for VICE as a social editor, the whole process of being cheated off her ideas unfolded almost entirely off-email. 

“I had applied for the position of a social media manager with a big company,” she said. “But it was strange. Usually, pre-tests are filed over email but I ignored the [fact that it was a] Zoom test because I didn’t think this very reputed company could do anything unethical.”

Her interview lasted for more than an hour over Zoom, during which she felt like they “extracted” almost every ounce of her creativity. “I shared how they could creatively use climate-related ideas as part of their social media strategy because it forms a significant part of corporate social obligations in India, the many ways they could repackage their content, and new IP ideas even beyond my job description,” she said. 

When Aggarwal followed up to know whether she’d cleared the interview, the boss started gaslighting her for asking too many questions, even demeaning and infantilising her. The HR, who had asked Aggarwal to contact the employer directly, later said that her application was under review. But just a month down the line, she discovered that though no one was hired for the job, nearly all her ideas were being executed. 


Ghosh, the lawyer, said that in cases where the candidate is sharing their ideas over Zoom and not on email, it’s better to put a disclaimer on email before the interview is to be conducted. 

“Either sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) or simply state on email beforehand that all the ideas that will be shared on the call are only for the purposes of the interview,” he said. “With their permission, you must also record the interview.”

If a strong paper/email trail has been established, by way of such NDAs and legal disclaimers, the matter could be tenable before a court, should you choose to go down that route. “So, if they still steal your ideas, you are in a negotiating position,” said Ghosh. “You can decide if you want to settle out of court with a good monetary compensation, or still take matters to court.”

If the work being asked of you as part of figuring out if you're the right fit for the company is something much bigger – like, say, developing an app, writing a code, making a website or a novel design – you can even think about patenting your product before turning it in. 

It’s important to bear in mind that “ideas” by themselves cannot be protected by copyright, and you must be able to prove that your work is unique with demonstrable prototypes and concrete technical drawings. But, as Ghosh suggests, it is advisable to begin the process of patenting while you are in the process of fleshing out the idea. 

“If you find the copyright or patenting process time-consuming, clarify certain things on email,” he said. “So, in the case of Gupta, because it was a novel design, he should have ideally patented it.” 

If you’re feeling terribly wronged and particularly sassy on a given day, some suggest that you might just want to shoot an email to the boss of the person who cheated you off your ideas – leading with how flattered you are that your ideas were considered useful enough to be actually implemented, and ending with how unethical their junior has been. You can choose to take to social media to air your grievances, too, but companies are usually wary about hiring someone who washes their aggrieved laundry in public. And because stuff lives on the internet forever, you might not even know the repercussions of these actions. Consider doing it anonymously on websites like Glassdoor if you’ve not managed to build a good reputation or standing in your industry yet.

And if you’re an employer reading this, remember that candidates have lives outside of their jobs, and that it’s unreasonable for them to do hours of spec work for free, and downright unethical to use that work in your plans without compensating them for it. Don’t be shady because “boomerang” is not just an Instagram effect.

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