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Is it ever OK to work for free?

Categories: Career, Hacking Life, Working? Living?


My husband regularly works long hours and even pulls all-nighters in order to clear his plate at the office. I used to, too — before a pay cut made me take a second look at how much my time was worth.

Sure, hard work always pays off, as the saying goes. It just seems like sometimes it pays a lot less than it used to. When the work piles up and I can’t get it done during the work day, instead of automatically bringing it home with me I find myself calculating the dwindling dollars and cents of my hourly wage and deciding that I’m more than willing to do it on company time, for pay, but not at home, for free.

To be honest, I was a little reluctant to write that last sentence there. It just smacks of having a bad attitude, doesn’t it? I don’t mean it that way — I’m not trying to “stick it to the man” or anything. No… my point is that I’ve noticed that the more I’m willing to do for less, the more I’m expected to do for less. It’s a vicious cycle.

It also plays into a topic that Mir tackled at The Cornered Office a couple of years ago (on the post that first brought me to Work It, Mom!, as a matter of fact): “You deserve a decent wage for your work, and settling for less makes it harder for every working writer out there to get it.”

So, is it ever OK to work for free? In spite of my griping, and in spite of Mir’s great point, I have to say… yes. Sometimes, it is.

I recently took on a project that turned out to be a major time suck. It was voluntary, and I wasn’t getting paid, and it got complicated, but you know what? It was worth it, because it allowed me to give back to a community that I’ve wished I could do more for over the years. So… working for free is OK when it’s your way of donating something to a community or company you value.

I also think it’s OK if you’re being compensated in other ways — like directing traffic to your website or creating clips for your brand-new, I’m-still-getting-experience portfolio. Then it’s more like bartering; you might not be getting paid in money, but you’re still being compensated for your work.

I’m a journalist, and I know that writing and editing are strange beasts in the working world. So I’m curious… in your profession, whatever it is, do you ever work for free? Why or why not?

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11 comments so far...

  • Lord, yes, we work for free plenty. Of course, it isn’t presented that way. We might have a fixed fee and then end up doing 4x the work that the fee justifies. We do a lot of stuff on contingency, which could end up being for free. When I realize I’ve been spinning my wheels, I don’t charge for that. Nor for the out-of-scope work where I know it will be more trouble to document, bill, explain, defend, negotiate, etc., than to just do the work and shut up. And then there are those “good will” projects where the other party has good intentions of paying you but hasn’t gotten her boss / board to sign the contract “yet” . . . . Add on the work of several nonprofit boards . . . pro-bono work for friends in need and friends indeed . . . if I keep thinking much longer, I’ll be saying that most of my work is free . . . .

    It’s great to say that you should get paid for every minute you work. But that is limiting in the long run. People won’t keep you in the loop if they are afraid you’ll charge them for every phone call or brain fart. Then you won’t be in a position to provide the real high-value products / services. Ultimately, it’s about building relationships, which is hard to do if you’re a clock-watcher.

    SKL  |  November 5th, 2009 at 2:20 am

  • That’s a good point about building relationships and how clock-watching can ruin it. I guess, for me, after 15 years with the same company I don’t feel like I need to build my relationship with them in the same way that I did when I first came on board, or even when I first started in my current position.

    Getting paid doesn’t always have to involve money, as I mentioned in my post. The project I wrote about wasn’t for my main job — it was entirely voluntary. But I took on extra work at my main job in exchange for being able to work from home one day a week. I took on work for a different department at my company in order to build up a weak part of my resume. Neither pays in money, but both will pay off well in the long run — for me and for my company.

    But I’m on salary. I think it would be different if I had to punch a time card every day. Where does one draw the line about clock watching if the company makes you log each minute you spend at the office?

    Lylah  |  November 5th, 2009 at 8:09 am

  • I used to work at a “Big 4″ accounting firm, so I had to log at least 8 hours a day, minute by minute. But the reality was that I worked at least 10-12 hours a day, often much more. At my level, approximately 50-60% of my theoretical 8 hours was supposed to be “billable” (to clients). In order for this to be possible in addition to all the administrative nonsense, meetings, work travel, marketing, continuing education, holidays, etc., one necessarily had to “eat time” in order to build those long-term relationships (with clients as well as colleagues) necessary for some sense of job security. (High pay is much easier to come by than security in a company like that.)

    I’ve also worked at companies where I had to punch a clock. It still made sense to spend a little extra time for the sake of quality. If a deli customer asked for sliced meat 1 minute before closing time, the meat slicer still needed to be properly cleaned and disinfected, even if the union said I had to punch out “now.” In the factory, if I was in the middle of fixing a problem or had a mess around my machine, it made sense to make things right for the next person’s shift. In the nursing home, I gave up breaks and lunches when other staff weren’t prompt enough to help folks to the bathroom. We needn’t act less civilized just because we punch a clock.

    If you stand back and look at the big picture, it’s the clock watchers who never move very far up the ladder. They may be getting paid for every minute they work, but personally, I set bigger goals for my life.

    SKL  |  November 5th, 2009 at 9:34 am

  • Ahhh - the old “settling for less” issue. This comes up almost daily in the voiceover world. If every person with a laptop and a USB mic declares themselves a voice artist and then offers to do jobs at a ridiculously low rate, they are undermining those of us who have spent years honing our craft, developing our voice(s) and who work within a certain rate (I’m not talking union).

    For me, each voice job that comes around is somewhat negotiable. And I base the rate on the work involved. Sometimes that rate doesn’t cover the work I eventually end up doing. A current project has taken about 4 more hours than I intended and, you know what, I’m ok with that because it’s part of doing the job right.

    Working for free? It certainly depends on what it’s for. A fellow voice actor who needs an extra voice for a client they are trying to impress? Certainly because I know I can count on them for the same. A person who emailed me that they have a great product and they love my voice and would I just record a short piece for their website? Not so much. And as mean as that sounds, if I did that for everyone that contacted me with that question then I’d spend a couple of days a week working for nothing.

    There is one project I’ve worked on, and am still working on, at no cost. That is the health care reform bill currently waiting to be voted on. I spent hours voicing and editing, along with 80 other voice talents, to make the bill accessible to everyone. The bill is in its 3rd edition now and we are still at it. I’ve not spent nearly as much time on it as the two woman who developed and organized the whole thing and who maintain the website so people can download the bill for free, but reading something as tedious as legislation and making it sound palatable is a real chore. Actually, now that I think about it, I’m not doing it entirely for free; I’m getting more practice, acquiring a new skill and, eek, learning a little in the process.

    As for the clock watchers - how happy are you in your job if you are constantly watching the clock, waiting until you can punch out? I like what SKL said about doing the little bit extra so that everything is in order for the next person. You should be doing that even if the next person is you.

    Mandy Nelson  |  November 5th, 2009 at 10:44 am

  • I like the point that SKL made about that, too — for some reason, that doesn’t seem like “do more work for less money” to me, because it’s common courtesy. The things I balk at are more along the lines of what Mandy mentioned — the “Oh, I love your work, would you just do this leetle tiny bit for me for free?” It’s not the same thing as watching the clock, in my book; it’s more like insisting that you deserve to be compensated in some way for your time and effort.

    Sometimes, that compensation *is* the relationship with the client. And that’s fine — great, even. Sometimes, it’s the fact that a well-executed (and more time consuming) project has more value than one that you did quickly and shoddily.

    I’m much more willing to take on extra work if it can be done while my kids are asleep, too. Do you draw the line in a different place if the extra “free” work you’re asked to/expected to do eats into time you’d normally spend with your children?

    Lylah  |  November 5th, 2009 at 11:30 am

  • In answer to Lylah’s most recent question, I don’t get paid depending on “when” or “where” I do my work. Most of my work can be done at any hour with me sitting in my jammies at my computer. But if something absolutely needs to be done during my “family time” in order to save a deal that I care about, then I’ll do it, regardless of how I’m compensated for it. We make the decision to bid on work or not, based on whether it’s what we want to do. It really isn’t about money. Of course, we’ll bid an amount that doesn’t leave us starving, but beyond that, we’re really more about producing a satisfying result and building a good reputation. That said, I wouldn’t agree to bid on a job that necessarily takes away my kids’ time on a regular basis. Our little time together is priceless. (I may feel differently when the girls are 13 . . . .)

    SKL  |  November 5th, 2009 at 11:57 am

  • Compensation, even in these times is generous at my company. Not as generous as before, but still, when I know the average salary for my peers, is generous.
    So I (and really, the company too) consider a few extra hours here and there as part of the package. But I do note how much time I’m spending and if I’m dipping belw the “average salary level” I’ll dial it back a bit.
    Free work; only for non-profits (the school, church, etc.) I support.

    Mich  |  November 5th, 2009 at 3:27 pm

  • Lylah, this post really resonated with me. Last week, I told a long-time client that I was unwilling to work for free on a monthly newsletter any longer. The newsletter was originally presented as a way to protect my relationship with the company in the event of budget cuts. I said “Yes” from a place of fear. Nearly a year later, I decided that it had become an issue of fairness: I needed to either be taken off the assignment, or paid something, even a token amount, for it. The client was unhappy, but I felt I needed to be true to myself. Found a terrific post that captures why we should only rarely work for free…you and other WIM readers might enjoy it. I felt empowered by its message:

    Jeannie  |  November 5th, 2009 at 5:03 pm

  • I do. Most times, it ultimately means that if I come in late or have to leave early, my boss just enters 8 for my time - but I do work a lot for free. We’re a significantly undermanned flight (AF for “office”) and I don’t have a staff under me trained in the art of planning or writing AF publications. Right now, I write 25 plans and pubs and coordinate on 15 more. Thesse have to be revised once a year, so no sooner do I have one published than the next 3 are coming due review.

    Add to that additional duty assignments that are a full time job unto their own AND the emergency response and operations center management pieces of my job and, well, there it is. I won’t meet my higher headquarters deadlines if I didn’t work for free.

    It sucks, but there it is.

    Phe  |  November 6th, 2009 at 8:37 am

  • I have worked for free on many, many occasions and I try very hard not to do it anymore.

    It seems like for the past ten years I have been in buisnesses that gravitate towards free work and I can definitely say I am over it! I lived in LA for a long time pusuing the entertainment industry. I think tha tLA is the capital of free work. Any position that anyone could ever imagine works for free there with the promise of it leading to paid work, but guess what? The paid work never comes no matter how well you work or how much promise is made. Sometimes, you are even promised pay and then never actually get paid - which happened to my husband on countless occasions. This is especially rotten considering that the grip work he did was 16 hour long shifts of hard labor. Anyone who goes out there without any contacts will be told that if you “intern” enough to build your resume, you will get paid work. However, the truth is that the only people getting paid work are the union people and the only new people taken into the unions are relaitves of the people already in the unions leaving no room for anyone else. After a several years of this, we both got fed up. I did get paid on many occasions but the pay was so low for pulling 12+ hour days that it would have equalled about $2 an hour. Now, several years later I became a real estate agent, and anyone in that business knows that 90% of the time you work for free. It’s a straight commission job, most leads are crap, most people waste your time, and even when you do get a deal it may not close which leaves you with having worked even more for free. I got tired of the straight commission deal (probably because I had been working for free for so long in LA and couldnt take it anymore) so I found an experienced, senior agent to pay me to work for him (and I managed to talk him into a pretty good hourly wage plus commission on both his deals and my own). I still end up working for free on occasion but at least nowadays, I keep it to an absolute bare minimum. I hustle to finish my work during office hours that I am paid for and try to squeeze anyone into those hours to see houses. I am so jaded by free work that the thought makes me cringe.

    Oceans Mom  |  November 6th, 2009 at 10:38 am

  • I have been reading a LOT about this lately - and am actually writing a post about this for WIM myself right now!

    Like you mentioned, in the world of writing, this is a tough call sometimes.

    I think you have to strike a balance - and the only way to do that is to be AWARE. Know what you’re working for. Are you doing it for exposure or connections? Are you doing it for money? Are you doing it to give back?

    I think a lot of people, writers especially, don’t ask that question often enough and end up doing a lot of work for things like “prestige”, and if they asked themselves that question in the first place, they might have made a different decision.

    Miss Britt  |  November 7th, 2009 at 8:29 am