Should You Ever Work for Free?

At some point in your career, someone may ask you for a favor that involves working without compensation. When does it make sense to accept the request and when is it just a waste of your time? You may reason that it depends on your mood and how much you like the person who is asking, but your decision to work for free should involve a bit more thought than that. Here’s how to decide based on three situations.

1. You’re already established in your career

office work

Work | Source: iStock

One situation where you may be asked to work for free is when it comes to a new company. Resources are often scarce in the beginning, so they’re looking for ways to save money. Some companies, especially blogs that are just starting out, may put out a call for guest bloggers. Some will pay their bloggers and others will not. The ones that do not offer payment may tell you that it’s a good opportunity to link back to your website and get some additional traffic and publicity. However, accepting this type of arrangement may not always be a smart idea. First, if the blog is barely known, what kind of traffic can you really expect to get?

Second, you must take into account how much time and effort it will take you to produce the work being requested. Do you really have the time or the energy to work for free? The answer is most likely ‘no,’ especially if you already have a full-time job. Also, if you are already firmly established in your field, there’s less of an incentive to help out in the absence of a paycheck. You may not want to give away your expertise for very little, if any return.

On the other hand, if a well-known company requests your help, it may be worth considering. We’re not saying you should work five days a week and generously give away your time. However, a free consultation here and there may help you build your network and present your business to a wider audience. In this situation, if you are not being compensated, you may want to limit how much you give away. You may not get paid, but the return may be great if there’s a good chance you can grow your business as a result of offering to help out.

2. You’re a newbie

Man at work

Man at work | Source: iStock

If you’re in the opposite situation, and you are just starting out in your career, offering your services free of charge may be a good move. This will give potential clients a chance to sample your work and hopefully recommend you to others. Just remember to establish good boundaries beforehand. You don’t want to get into a situation where you’re getting taken advantage of. If you ever feel like you’re being asked to do way more work than is justified (for example, your’re asked to redesign a website, lead daily meetings, and clean the bathrooms), it’s time to put your foot down. Before you start work on any projects, make sure both sides are clear on what is expected as well as how and when the work should be done. Get everything in writing so that if anything becomes unclear, you can reference the written agreement. Before any work is done state what you will and will not do.

3. Someone did you a favor

Business colleagues working together

Colleagues working | Source: iStock

Networking involves some give and take. If you’re always the one taking, people will eventually catch on and stop helping you. If a colleague or acquaintance helped you during a rough time in your career, the right thing would be to help him or her in return. For example, if your colleague is launching a new product and needs your help, in this situation it would be appropriate to lend a hand free of charge (but if they offer to pay you, you should accept). Again, just make sure there are clear boundaries in place so that you’re not worked to the bone.

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