How to Decide if You Should Work for Free
Whether you’re just starting your career, trying to break into a competitive industry, or launching a freelancing business, there comes a time when many of us are faced with a tough question: Should I work for free?
It’s a complicated issue with valid arguments on both sides, so knowing the pros and cons can help you decide when it may be the right decision for you.
THE ARGUMENTS FOR:
We all want to be paid for our time and effort. There are, however, a few scenarios in which you might consider donating that time and effort. For starters, if you’re just breaking in to an industry and you need to develop certain skills, a non-paying job might give you access to resources that can help you build those skills. “I built my network and job security by working for free very strategically,” Robbie Abed, creator of the Fire Me I Beg You program, tells mental_floss. “It gave me access to connections that still prove valuable today.”
Abed lists a few instances in which working for free can be a smart move: If you get to build connections with people you wouldn’t normally get to meet, or you get access to certain resources, the job might be worth it, he says. Even so, you should still make sure the hours and terms are extremely flexible.
“Basically, only do it if it's on your terms,” says Abed. “If you have hard deadlines, then you're getting used.”
THE ARGUMENTS AGAINST:
Even if you are building skills and experience, working for free can be the wrong choice. Abed disagrees with working strictly for exposure or to build a resume, for example.
“The biggest reason I'm against it to build exposure is that this used to work 20 years ago. Now, we have this wonderful thing called the internet that allows us to build our own brand on our own terms,” he says. “Why work for free as a marketing analyst when you can build your own blog and build your own brand? You can show the world how you can not only create interesting content, you know how to market that content ... So instead of working free for a company, you can work free for yourself and arguably have a better return on investment.”
Beyond that, some argue that working for free lowers the bar for others in your industry. When you agree to produce quality work for nothing, you increase the supply of free labor, which theoretically devalues the services your industry provides.
“I may be overly sensitive from spending most of my 20s in the music business and working three unpaid internships in college, but I'm not in favor of writing for free,” says Kate Dore, a writer who runs the personal finance site Cashville Skyline. “Even with a full-time job to cover my bills, I feel a duty to our community to be compensated appropriately.”
She also agrees with Abed about working for free to gain exposure: “Exposure isn't recognized as currency at the electric company.”
As a compromise, content marketer Katherine Kotaw recommends offering a sample of your work. “Never work cheap, but give your work away when it serves your long-term goals,” she says. “For example, if a potential client insists I reduce my fee, I walk away. If a potential client says, ‘I love your work, but you're twice as expensive as your competitors,’ I offer a free sample.”
Kotaw offers the sample with the below set of conditions. And while her rule of thumb is aimed at freelance work, these conditions translate to internships, too. According to Kotaw, she will only send her free sample if:
- I know I can prove my value ... meaning I am fully confident I will get hired and paid. - The project will benefit both my pocket and my portfolio. It's worth giving a sample to a Fortune 500 company or a potential Fortune 100 company (a startup such as Google), but generally not worth it for a small company or entrepreneur. - If the potential client's purpose meshes with my own, giving a free sample is like giving to charity—I'll feel good about it even if the money isn't great.
Every situation is unique, however, so there’s no blanket, foolproof formula for deciding whether working for free is smart in your own individual scenario. On his blog, writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin suggests some questions to ask yourself before making a decision. Here are a few of them:
- Do they pay other people who do this work? Do their competitors? - Am I learning enough from this interaction to call this part of my education? - Is this public work with my name on it, or am I just saving them cash to do a job they should pay for? - Will I get noticed by the right people, people who will help me spread the word to the point where I can get hired to do this professionally?
If you’re more of a visual person, designer Jessica Hische built this useful flowchart to inform your decision.
The bottom line: Most career paths don’t come with a blueprint, and ultimately, you have to decide on the best course of action for your own situation. If you still can’t decide after weighing the aforementioned considerations, Abed suggests a simple gut test: “If you even have the slightest ‘I think this person is trying to use me’ moment, don't do it.”