We are in the process of adding 3 more developers to my team. The CEO wants me to give them real projects that we need to deploy and use in production as test projects to gauge people's skills.

This is a terrible idea, this is a copy of our conversation:

CEO: Should we have {{candidate}} work on the {{feature on our roadmap}}? I'd love to get as many people cranking through work as fast possible.

me: but is it going to be a paid project?

CEO: egh we'll see.....

me: We can’t give people these projects as part of the interview process it's unethical

CEO: You can give whatever test project you want

me: yeah, but it’s unethical

CEO: how so?

me: would you give away our services to another company for free?

CEO: No way. But this is different. Give that project to {{another candidate}}

me: I won't do it.

So the conversation goes on and on, but the CEO doesn't hear me that it's unethical and I don't know if there are any other arguments I can use to convince him that his idea is bad.

I told him we can give test projects that are representative of the type of work candidates would be doing if hired, but he said it was a waste of time and money on our end, and candidates should demonstrate that they want the job bad enough.

How can I convince him that having candidates working in real projects is a terrible idea?

  • Did you provide more than one reason for why it's unethical, or did you just keep repeating that point? "It's unethical to make them do free work", that's true, but if that's the extent of your argument, then it's easy to see why the CEO wasn't budging.
    – RioC
    Oct 14, 2017 at 1:08
  • 1
    Side note: questions ("is that ethical?") tend to be better for convincing people than statements ("we can't... it's unethical") as it's less "you're wrong" and more "let's discuss". Oct 14, 2017 at 7:21
  • 2
    It's not necessarily unethical (e.g. you could clean the code and make it into a test format), but it's not a smart idea (it won't actually help to get feature X out the door any faster as your CEO seems to think).
    – Brandin
    Oct 14, 2017 at 8:50
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    I'm surprised you don't mention what I would consider the main problem: Getting started in an existing, complex project takes time - a lot. I'd estimate that a new contributor to a mature codebase would take days, even weeks of familiarization before being able to contribute. They may be able to work on something during that time, but they'll have to ask so many questions that overall they rather reduce the project's speed. Have you considered that aspect? You can't realistically expect candidates to complete "tests" that take a week or more...
    – sleske
    Oct 14, 2017 at 9:15
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    @ILikeTacos just to reiterate. For a regular employee "I didn't like what my boss was doing so quit" is perfectly reasonable. For someone in a leadership position though, its a failure. "I didn't like what my boss was doing, talked through my issues with him, presented a coherent case, and left when he rejected all my suggestions" is much more palatable. Also you should know that if you object to his practices but stay, knowing that he isn't going to change, your are implicitly approving of his decisions. Oct 15, 2017 at 12:21

9 Answers 9


The CEO wants me to give them real projects that we need to deploy and use in production as test projects to gauge people's skills.

The CEO sees this as a "Have your cake and eat it too" moment.

  • Hire the best developer? Check.
  • Get Stuff done? Check
  • For Free? Double Check.

How can I convince him that have candidates working in real projects is a terrible idea?

Since the CEO won't listen to ethics and morals, tell him/her of the liabilities.

  • Proprietary code? They can steal it now.
  • Game-breaking bug? The company is responsible to fix it.
  • They don't work on it? The Company is still responsible to meet deadlines.
  • Code needs Production Access and elevated-privilege levels? Great time to pull an Equifax.
  • Have the company discussed and listed as a place where the leadership is perceived as incompetent? Priceless.

Put the fear of Red Balance Sheets and Things-Burning-Down(TM) into the CEO's decision-making process.

For everything else, there’s common sense.

Also, get your senior leadership in on this rather poor decision making. The CEO is not God, there are other Gods in the C-Level Pantheon, hopefully someone with more common rather than business sense .

  • 1
    Welp -- I'm the senior leadership, but I keep fighting the CEO on stuff like this. He's paying ads for our job post targeting young men exclusively. I asked him to stop doing that but I don't have access to that account and he didn't do it. I mention this just to give you a glimpse of the type of stuff I push back on on a day-to-day basis. He deletes candidates from our ATS if they're "too old" despite telling him that it's illegal to discriminate based on age and gender.
    – ILikeTacos
    Oct 14, 2017 at 1:27
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    Send an off-channel (discrete to someone who you trust) to have them ask about the timeliness of the project in question, once the CEO explains about this great idea, have the person lay out the issues.
    – Bluebird
    Oct 14, 2017 at 1:30
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    Option Z is to make this a contract-to-hire position. At least the cost can be mitigated somewhat as the work is still done at a lesser rate (don't need to pay benefits or taxes) then hire the most competent.
    – Bluebird
    Oct 14, 2017 at 1:32
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    "He deletes candidates from our ATS if they're "too old" despite telling him that it's illegal to discriminate based on age and gender" if in the US, consult and have an employment lawyer tell him the potential legal implications.
    – Bluebird
    Oct 14, 2017 at 1:57
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    I suppose it's not "too old to do a good job", but "old enough not to fall for the CEO's nonsense".
    – gnasher729
    Nov 4, 2017 at 12:02

You should discuss the need for (expensive) legal analysis with your boss.

Here are a couple of issues to consider:

  • Copyright ownership. If the candidate is not an employee while writing the code, they presumably own the copyright. Suppose in a few years they find out the code has been used in production and sold, and sue for copyright infringement.
  • Minimum wage laws. If the candidate is treated as an employee while writing the code, you need to pay at least minimum wage and follow other labor laws.

Your ethics-challenged boss may pay at least some attention to legal risks, or at least the cost of a lawyer's time to analyze the scheme.


Your CEO says that:

candidates should demonstrate that they want the job bad enough

That implies he thinks employment is a one-way street: he's the employer who is generous enough to let one of the scrubs on the street get a piece of the money in return for some labour.

You might want to challenge that assumption. Check out how many job openings there are in your region, and how many of those stay open for a long time. Then inform him that good developers (and use yourself as an example if you think it'll help) simply won't do long, production-ready test assignments. They have their pick of a number of openings, and any CEO who thinks he can get free work out of them will simply be glossed over.

The end result of this is that the only people who even start on these assignments are desperate programmers who have been turned down so often they take every chance they have, or junior programmers who don't know their skills are highly desirable.

So both the quantity and quality of responses to the interview process will be low this way. Any programmer who understands their worth will refuse to do this "test".

You can add this to the list of other arguments, such as those proposed by Frank.

  • 4
    Someone quite high up the top of RyanAir (a British airline that is currently in the news for an unimaginable level of incompetence in their management) remarked how wrong their pilots are to think that you can't run an airline without pilots. RyanAir is now trying to run their airline without him :-)
    – gnasher729
    Oct 14, 2017 at 18:33

In the words of Ask a manager's Alison Green

Your boss sucks and isn't going to change

Adding your comments about the illegal discriminatory hiring practices regarding gender and age to the exploiting candidates for free work situation in the main question which itself opens a can of worms with potential legal implications (since if you don't pay them they potentially retain the copyright over anything they produce in the process) paints a telling picture that this isn't a case of someone who has blundered into an unethical situation but rather an unscrupulous individual who simply doesn't care.

People like that don't suddenly undergo a moral 180 because of logic or reasonable arguments from a colleague it takes significant real consequences which short of reporting him to the appropriate authorities you aren't in a position to bring.

My advice is to stop trying to talk the tide out of coming in and get out before the CEO's dodgy practices taint the company's reputation and potentially your own by association.

  • Too soon for that phrase I think. There are plenty of other arguments which can be used before concluding that the boss is a loon.
    – Lilienthal
    Oct 14, 2017 at 12:28

How to convince CEO that giving real projects to candidates is a terrible idea?

Tell them (which you already tried).

When that fails you can always give them an ultimatum (which you already tried).

So now you can abide by their decision or job hunt.

  • I ended up job hunting -- interestingly enough, I joined my new position as VP at a large company a day after this answer. In the meantime, the CEO has gone through 6 developers (they all resign after a month) and he has been exploiting Asian labor over the last few weeks
    – ILikeTacos
    Apr 30, 2018 at 20:36

I'm going to jump in with a long answer. I don't want you to misunderstand me, so let me be clear first: your boss' idea is a bad idea. It's a bad idea for a lot of reasons, most of which have been addressed in other answers. Here's the biggest problem though:

You're playing by the wrong rules

It sounds like you are in a leadership position in your company and work closely with the CEO. Having been in such a position myself for many years, I want to be clear about one very important skill you need to have to be very successful in such a role: you need to learn to speak the language of business. "This is immoral and I won't do it" is an absolutely useless response when the CEO asks you to do something. If you are going to say that then you need to be okay with the possibility of being fired and you should be frank with your next potential employer about what happened here. It's one thing to say "My boss asked me to do something illegal, and when I refused he fired me" (stuff like that can definitely happen in the USA), and many employers (especially the good ones) will look favorably on such a thing. However, "I disagreed with my boss about something he asked me to do, refused to do it, and got fired" looks a lot less favorable to you. You are insisting that this is immoral, but the reality is a whole lot more fuzzy. As someone who takes morality very seriously I don't consider this to be immoral: just a bad business decision. If your resume came across my desk and you explained this situation to me, I would just see someone who is stubborn and doesn't know how to work with business people.

In short, if you are going to take a strong stand against things that are otherwise legal, but you object to for reasons of morality, then you need to find someone to work for that has the same morals as you.

The right rules to play by

As a person who works closely with the CEO you need to learn to speak the language of business: money. That's all you need. The response you gave to your CEO is completely useless, and there is absolutely no way any argument along those lines is going to change your boss' mind. That can sound very mercantile, but it is simply the reality of business. A counter-example is the owner of the company I work for: he is a very reasonable person and not at all tight-fisted about money, but when I tell him we need to buy some tool or software package for our developers, his answer to me is always the same: "Give me a cost/benefit analysis" (not his exact words). From my perspective, that is the only right response. Even Google has a limited amount of money, and must pick and choose how to "spend" it.

The problem comes when a business owner is unable to see the long-term costs/benefits of short-term needs. The other answers here have already given you plenty of good examples of long-term costs that come with trying to do what your boss tries to do. Right now he only sees the short term "benefit" (it's not really a benefit): "I can make people write code for me for free!". He doesn't see the long-term cost. If that person isn't hired, how long will it take you (or someone else on your team) to figure out how it works? How much time will be spent fixing bugs since the person who wrote it isn't around? How do you deal with the fact that it doesn't properly work with the rest of your system since the person who wrote it knows nothing about your system? What about the very real loss that you will incur because your hiring process will absolutely drive away the best guys in your industry?

Your boss is only seeing the short-term benefit. For a person in your position, your job is to move past your own gut reactions and give an analysis of the situation that your boss can actually use to make decisions. If in the end your boss is incapable of seeing the bigger picture (or executing it) then that is a good sign that it is time to move on to a new job. If, however, you are incapable of properly communicating the big picture to your boss, that one is on you. What you have tried so far is definitely not going to get the job done.

And in the end, if you strongly object to the kinds of decisions your boss makes, that's also a sign that it is time to move onto a new job. Be upfront about the reasons you left your current job though, because it will be best for you to find a business that thinks the same as you.

  • 1
    A quick not to "if you are going to take a strong stand against things that are otherwise legal". In this case this practice is not legal. It involves creating a work that is copyrighted and this copyright stays with the candidate who applied for the job. As far as I understand this, there is no legal contract at this point regarding copyright, the code is not prepared on the OP company computers. Any code used there is a risk.
    – Zefiryn
    Oct 15, 2017 at 10:19
  • That's a question for law.stackexchange. It's not clear to me who would own the copyright, although it would be very easy to have candidates sign something before they do the coding assessment granting copyright to the company. In fact, if they are going to be building actual code, they will likely be given access to the company's current code base, which means that some paperwork has to be signed regardless (either that or the CEO is a complete fool). A paragraph stating that the company retains ownership of all code is very simple at that point. Oct 15, 2017 at 11:31
  • The OP location is US but if this was done in Poland, where I reside the possible situations would be two fold: no paperwork signed means candidate keeps full copyright. If there is some document stating that the company keeps copyright to the code it requires payment for the copyright transfer or explicitly stating that no payment is required. As the copyright law is one of the most synchronized I would argue that similar provisions (ie. when nothing is signed) may be in US law as well. In my opinion, the OP should seek legal advice to not be caught in copyright lawsuit in the future.
    – Zefiryn
    Oct 15, 2017 at 20:19
  • I understand your point, and IANAL, but I think the situation in the US is different. I seriously doubt there are any clear laws regarding this, and I am more certain that even if this was done the chances of the business facing any legal reprocussions are zero. Again, whether or not this is illegal is a question for law.stackexchange.com, however I can guarantee that the CEO in question wouldn't be at all concerned about this being potentially illegal. Oct 15, 2017 at 21:33
  • @ConorMancone I think the law in the US is clear - the copyright belongs to the candidate. It would not be against the law for the company to use the candidates' code. However, the candidates can sue the company. An acquiring company might want some affirmation that no such litigation is possible. (The primary asset of your company is code and I don't want to buy your company and not get the code.) Using candidate code may weaken the CEO's exit options. A candidate not hired might wait until your company is acquired by google to to litigate.
    – emory
    Nov 4, 2017 at 12:05

The CEO wants me to give them real projects that we need to deploy and use in production as test projects to gauge people's skills.

How can I convince him that have candidates working in real projects is a terrible idea?

Is this company in the habit of throwing random crap into Production?

Rather than approaching it from an ethical angle, have you discussed how stupid it is to put Test Projects into Production in general?

And have you explained how much worse it is when the Test Projects come from individuals with unverified abilities and no company loyalty?


This is a bad idea, but many of the cons can be avoided.

  1. Copyright assignment The work definitely belongs to the candidate. We can mitigate that by not using it. You will probably want to hire external reviewers so that the candidate's intellectual property does not inadvertently go into your code base.
  2. Proprietary Code as an open source enthusiast I see this as a nonissue. If your company views its code as proprietary then that is the primary problem. Nonetheless using a plugin based system it is possible that the candidate can solve your problem without touching any of your precious proprietary code.
  3. They did not work on it but the company still has deadlines to meet You should do all your planning assuming that the candidate is going to blow off the exercise. Indeed if you hire an external reviewer, the candidate should have no effect on your schedule. If you do not use an external reviewer, then whoever reviews the contribution will need time to do that. So if we assume it takes 4 hours to review a contribution and the candidate blows it off then your project has 4 extra hours.
  4. Code Needs Elevated Privileges Your properly hired developers should not need elevated privileges. Your candidate developers should not need them either. If they do, then you have other problems.
  5. Put Random Crap Into Production The candidate's code should never go anywhere near production at all. If it did, then a proper CI/CD process should filter out crap code.

What can not be avoided?

It is illegal.
Working for free is illegal. No one should do it. There is no way to get around this law.

You should offer candidates at least minimum wage. If you offer at least minimum wage then you can get the copyright. This would mean that you would not have to hire an external reviewer.

If you offer them minimum wage, do not be surprised when many blow off the task. When planning for deadlines you should assume that they will all complete the task, the person employed to solve the task will need time to review the candidates' task submissions, and the candidates' submissions will all be unusable.

If you do not want to offer money to candidates then you have to give them problems that have no business value to you.


Your CEO thinks candidates should demonstrate that they want the job bad enough.

If he provides twice the going rate as salary, free first class food and a massage at lunch time, and a few other things, then I will demonstrate that I want the job bad enough. For what he others? No way.

Here's my attitude, and everyone who is good at their job will have the same attitude: You pay me good money, and provide a nice working environment, and I'll do a good job. You want me to do a day's work for a job interview? No problem, if you pay me for a day's work. You don't want to pay and use my interview work in your product? I have the copyright, and if I find out, I'll sue your ass off.

I mean, why does he think I want that job badly? There are lots of jobs, and few good developers. He has competition, and my impression is that he is nowhere near the top.

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