Career Advice: Never Work For Free

by Scott Bishop on May 2, 2012

We live in uncertain times. Unemployment is high and even if you are lucky enough to have a job the future can still be unstable. This shaky job environment has led many of us to try and add stability in our current job, build experience for a resume, or secure a new client by offering to work for free. It’s popular advice you’ll hear from others. It’s also a tactic I’ve done myself.

It’s also extremely ineffective.

I know the mentality well, as I said, I’ve done free work for people in the past. The hope is that the work provided will develop into something down the road.  Many of us see opportunities for new a startup we know just doesn’t have the budget to hire. Maybe you want a career change so in order to gain experience you’re open to doing free work.  But I’ll say it again and this time I’ll even make the font bigger.

Stop working for people, for projects, for companies for free.

This is a non-negotiable rule. Under no circumstances are you to work for free. To fully understand why, lets evaluate what free means. Right now you’re making the mistake of assuming the term “free” means “no cost”. It doesn’t, free means for nothing, and 9 times out of 10 that’s exactly what you’ll get for the work. Nothing.

Your Talents Are Worth Something

You can sometimes make the case of doing good work without a monetary cost. The problem is that since you are working  for free, you’re not receiving anything in return. This is where you need to change your paradigm and mindset. Start demanding something in return for your work and start demanding it before you start.

This “something” is up to you but whatever you agree upon make sure it’s worth real value to you. In some cases this may be money but many times a written recommendation, a good review, or an important introduction can be worth more than money. Figure out something that benefits you for the work you’re doing and get an agreement that this debt will be paid to you. This needs to be a real commitment, not some “oh I’m sure they’ll do me a favor down the road”.

Both parties need to understand exactly what the other is responsible for and when it’s due. This also demands an upfront discussion and agreement with the party you’re about to do work for.

Say No More Than You Say Yes

Too many times I see the same people busting their ass for project after project with nothing to show for it in six months after they’re finished. This is madness you need not participate in. Not everyone or every opportunity will be able to offer value in return. This is perfectly fine and you need to hold out for one that will. By saying no to poor opportunities you keep yourself open to a project that’s a better fit.

The more times you offer your smarts, your talents, and your skills for nothing the more you diminish the value of both your work and yourself. You deserve better and are worth more. Quit working for free and in the end you’ll gain both more respect and better outcomes. Let me know if there are any tips or situations where you’ve worked for free.

  • Alicia Kan

    Another reason not to work for free: You devalue your profession and damage the ecosystem. Working for free reduces your profession to a lowest common denominator offering where its ultimate value is zero, since clients can get it for free.

    If you do not value what you do enough to charge a fee, think of the ripple effect you are helping to build, one that has repercussions on your industry as a whole.

  • sbishop

    That’s a huge issue in my world. Every person with an internet connection puts “Social Media Consultant” as a job title now and charges nothing or $100 for their services. Before I hopped with an agency I spent at least 60% of my time explaining that I wasn’t a typical social media consultant and why it costs money. The ecosystem is segmented and to some degree poisoned from this. Thanks for the input Alicia!

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  • Jobs Career

    I think it is not a good way to get a job; it is better to find other resource which helps you to find good job. Net is a one the best way to find such useful resources and jobs.

  • Kbareikaite

    I’ve been in a situation where my company milked me in every possible way because they knew I will do anything to simply complete that internship and put it in my CV. It’s a pure exploitation, nothing more as I had to work 9 to 5 (sometimes even longer) every day plus travel expenses that weren’t covered. In the end I got what I wanted, the recommendation, but to be honest, I struggled even for that as I had to keep asking my employer again and again to write a couple of nice words for me. My advice: stay away from companies who live off interns. Check their employees on Linkedin to see how many of them circulated and how many remained in the company.

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