Five questions to ask before you agree to work for free

Should you work for free? Five questions to ask yourself first.

work for free
“So, we’ll need you to write 2,000 words, you won’t get any writers credit or payment for your time. Keen?”

You may laugh but that’s literally an offer that came into my inbox from an organisation recently. What’s worse is that this company makes enough money to pay its contributors but chooses not to. And I’m not alone – so many of us are approached to work for free, particularly if you work in social enterprise. Most of the time we absolutely want to say yes but please don’t forget that we all have rent to pay or mortgage payments to keep up with.

If you’re wondering whether you should work for free, here’s 5 things to consider before you say yes to not being paid for your time:

1. Experience. How experienced are you at what you do?

If you’re starting out as a fresh graduate or are looking to get your foot in the door, you will have to build up a portfolio or show reel. It takes time to build up these examples of your work from scratch so you will likely need to take on unpaid gigs to build up that experience.

I can definitely speak to this from giving up countless evenings and weekends spent in the name of student journalism or community radio. You may have seen articles about the perils of unpaid internships but this experience could be worth it if in it’s a role that would provide you with credible experience and core skills in the field you’re interested in. The trick is to ensure that you then start asking to be paid as a freelancer or switch to a paid role once you have the required skills and a portfolio of work to back this up.

Working in community radio for years has been a reward in itself but the price for that choice is accepting that I’m not being paid for my time. Whether it’s musical theatre or leading a community board, you may have a similar passion that you’re willing to contribute hours of your time to for free because you benefit from the experience. Whatever stage of life you’re at, ensure that the experience you gain is worth the salary you’re sacrificing.

2. Ask fellow professionals. Do you speak to people at work about your salaries?

Whether you’re working in a restaurant or in an office job, there’s huge benefit to discussing your salary with colleagues. Existing taboos around discussing money at work only benefit the company because not talking about your salaries means that they can get away with paying people different rates for the same work.

When I was new to Australia and serving up fries on the weekend, I didn’t know I was entitled to overtime because no one told me I was. When my friend was approached to speak at an event for free, they didn’t know that others speakers were being paid because no one told them. Sometimes you need to be the one to ask about being paid and start these discussions.

If you open yourself up to having these conversations with others in your field, you can ensure that you’re being paid what you’re worth.

3. Exposure. Does exposure pay the rent?

If you’re unfamiliar with exposure, one example is Instagram influencers (read: reality stars) approaching local businesses to provide them with free services or products for ‘exposure’ (read: getting it for free). This deal essentially says that if you provide a cake for free to someone with 10K followers on social media, their followers might see this post and buy your product. It’s a gamble which for some businesses clearly pays off and leads to more sales of their services.

However, exposure alone doesn’t pay the rent. You can do a few gigs for free to get your name out there but eventually, the costs of running a business full-time will need to be paid with revenue from customers. If you want to work with an organisation for credibility, feel free to say yes but I’d suggest that you have a plan for how you’ll capitalise on the exposure and how it will lead to future sales.

4. Time involved. How much time will the task take?

If you’re considering whether you should take on an unpaid job, add up how long it will take you to achieve, work out the hourly rate you should be paid and consider whether it’s worth you giving away that value for free.

Working out the time it will take you to do a task before you commit means that you can put a dollar value on your time and make an informed choice about whether you want to take on that unpaid work.

5. Volunteering. Do you have a cause you’re willing to volunteer for?

While talking about being paid for work is important, we need to also address the fact that many of us choose to volunteer our time, skills and money for causes we believe in.

My mum is a teacher and I’ve always been willing to volunteer my time to help her plan out activities because supporting your mum is a no brainer decision. As a former teacher myself, if you offered me the opportunity to work with high school students, I’d find it really difficult to say no because I spent years of my life ensuring access to quality education.

If you’re considering volunteering your time for an organisation, ensure that it’s for something you’re passionate about, identify skills you have that can support the organisation and be clear about your responsibilities and time you’re committing to the cause.

THE WHOLE POINT OF ADDRESSING WHETHER YOU SHOULD WORK FOR FREE IS THAT THIS QUESTION FORCES YOU TO THINK ABOUT HOW YOU VALUE YOUR TIME.

Your time is valuable and it’s important to take ownership of how you use it so that you don’t spend the rest of your life working. Considerations such as gaining experience in your field and sharing information with other professionals will enable you to make an informed choice before you commit to working for free.

After working through these 5 considerations, I declined the opportunity to write 2,000 words for someone else without credit or payment for my time because it wasn’t worth it for me. So, the next time someone asks you to work for free, consider whether it’s worth your time first. And remember that you always have the right to say no.

This was first published on Money Bites and is republished with permission. 

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