What you need to know about intellectual property during the interview process

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In an economy that is ripe with opportunity but also fierce with the competition, the interview process has become a grueling, in-depth experience. Often times, it not only involves a cultural-fit interview, a meet-and-greet with your potential boss, but also skill assessments in the forms of timed or written overviews.

In the journalism industry, edit tests have become multi-paged, multi-day exercises that editors have to schedule into their workflow. Within finance, marketing and consulting, creating a presentation with advice and critical strategy is standard. Though, sure, we want to put our best foot forward and show off what we have cultivated, what happens when we don’t get the gig? Can our ideas and our genius be used by the company? Is it a fair game? 

Many job seekers have started to consider what is reasonable in terms of ownership of content within the interviewing process. As defined by entrepreneur Zoriy Birenboym, intellectual property is anything we have created and have the rights to. The tangible output varies greatly, dependent on the industry but when we are in the market for a new opportunity or want to advance our career, it’s easy to wonder where the lines blur. After all, if you make a killer PowerPoint for one job but aren’t the selected candidate, shouldn’t you be able to reuse the material for another? “Whether that be design, an app, a process or procedure that you use within your work. It’s sort of like your secret sauce,” Birenboym explains. “For a chef, it would be a particular recipe: why the steak tastes so good. They would not want to give that recipe out just as anyone should not freely give out their intellectual property.”

Here, effective measures you can take if you want to retain what is, well, rightfully yours:

Sign — or suggest — an NDA

Though it may feel like an uncomfortable ask during the interview process, if you want to ensure your work will not be used unless you’re hired, Birenboym suggests bringing up the topic of a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA. By law, this keeps anyone from exposing your internal ideas or personal information. It can be an extreme measure to take but it also opens the door to a conversation about how they will use your test or presentation if you aren’t hired. Getting a ‘this will be yours to keep’ in writing is enough to hold up in court, should they take your information and run. 

Be vague

But you want to be expressive and thorough when interviewing, right? Sure — but if you aren’t asked outright to perform a test, it’s better to be non-descript about specific ideas. More often than not, an interviewer should respect you aren’t instant to give out your strategy, since hey, that’s what they would hire you to do. “For a business to steal ideas when you are interviewing is a bad business practice, however; you can control what you disclose in the meeting and protect yourself that way,” he adds.

Amy Cooper Hakim, Ph.D., industrial-organizational psychology practitioners, and workplace expert says by speaking in generalizations, you illustrate your ability to think holistically, and not just on a per-project basis. “If you are asked to give an example of how you might tackle a situation, share what you would do at a very high level. Show the interviewee that you know the topic area and are able to think critically,” she continues. “Emphasize previous success without disclosing anything confidential.”

Provide a clear game plan

So, during an interview, you are given a situation and asked to detail how you would proceed. Sometimes, your response isn’t considered intellectual property. However, if you have certifications in crisis management, it could be. But if the could-be employer asks you to write out a game plan, with specific figures? Hakim says you can do some of the work, but also leave holes where you explain, if hired, you would fill them in. “Do not lay it out so clearly that you are no longer needed. Highlight how your strengths and experience will help you to execute a clearly defined plan,” she suggests. “Share that, if hired for the role, you will meet with key players to customize a project or work product to suit the specifics of the organization.”

Remember, unless you are hired, it’s yours.

When you’re working at a company, anything you created within the term of your employment, belongs to them. However, when you’re in the interview process, and thus, not yet part of their team, anything you create for them is still yours. Much like you wouldn’t share the corporate secrets from your current employer to your prospective one, a hiring manager shouldn’t consider your brilliance as fair game. Until an offer letter is extended and sign, Hakim reminds candidates to stand firm on what belongs to them — and to not be afraid to ask pointed questions to protect yourself and your work.