4 Things to Consider Before You Agree to Work for Free

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April 17, 2024 at 4:42AM UTC
Nothing will make you clutch your pearls harder than an employer asking you to work for free. After all, the point of working at all is to commit to and complete professional responsibilities for pay. Unpaid work is not for everybody, but it can be for those seeking professional development, extracurricular activities or opportunities to get ahead in their careers. 
In this article, we share the reasons why an employer might ask you to work for free, what you should consider before you commit and some alternatives if a paycheck is what you prefer.

Why would an employer ask you to work for free?

Employers — or even friends and family members — might ask you to work for free if you're skilled or particularly interested in a field. They might also ask for free work if:

1. They're specifically seeking contributors or apprentices

Full disclosure, some companies are not looking to offer financial compensation. They may, however, offer college credit, room and board or publicity in exchange for your free work. Many industries — like photography and cosmetics — also offer apprenticeships designed to train you at a certain job and with a particular set of skills. An apprentice acts much like the student learning the tricks of the trade so they can apply them to their own careers. In these cases, you would be getting compensated... just not in U.S. dollars. 

2. They don't have the budget to hire you. 

Startups and small businesses are often being built while in operation their first few years. It takes time, a fine-tuned organizational climate and sometimes venture capitalism, to get them up and running. They simply may not be able to afford you — yet.

3. They're not sure if they need to create a new position.

They might not even know that they need to create a position based on the responsibilities they're asking of you. In response to the emergence of new businesses and algorithms, new job positions are being created to keep up with them. By supporting a team where they need it most, they might be inspired to create a space just for you. 

4. They want to see how you work before they offer you employment.

In all fairness, a resume and an in-person interview can only share so much about a person. Employers want to see if you'll be a great fit for the position and company culture before they commit. In order to find out, they might offer temp-to-perm or temp-to-hire trial periods. These positions last anywhere from one to six months and are usually paid, so you should be skeptical about accepting a trial offer without compensation.

5. They're asking you to work fewer hours than a part-time position.

Most part-time jobs will require you to work between 20-30 hours a week. An employer looking for free work might require even less than that. These hours may be spread out over the course of a week, or employers might ask you to come in for one or two full workdays. In lots of cases, you'll be able to set those hours yourself.

6. The position is seasonal.

Depending on their niche, many companies peak during some months and coast during others. Throughout the holiday season, for example, volunteers are in high demand in order to keep up with the spike in sales and customer service. From food driving, to gift-wrapping, to Christmas caroling, Santa won't be the only one in need of a little help.

Why might you agree to work for free?

To be clear — if you've got bills to pay and places to go, then apply to paid positions before you consider working for free. But if you've got wiggle room, here are some of the benefits you can reap from free work:

1. If you'll gain exposure to an unfamiliar field.

Whether you're new to the world of work or considering a career change, an unpaid opportunity is a great way to test new waters. Use this time to learn through failure and explore the field without consequence. You can also sharpen your existing skill set, experiment with new platforms and get familiar with the ins and outs of the company. 

2. So you can grow your professional network.

You may not have the credentials to land your dream job, but you can connect with someone who does. By surrounding yourself with people in your desired field, you also establish yourself as part of their professional networks, too. If an opportunity that you'd be a great fit for pops up, you'll already be on their radar. Employers will also prioritize internal candidates and referrals since those prospects are already acclimated to the company culture or have been recommended by someone who can attest to their work ethic. 

3. As a way to build your resume and portfolio. 

Some positions are almost impossible to get without an impressive resume or online presence. Do your research to figure out what experience you need to gain by scoping out the LinkedIn profiles or personal websites of other people in your discipline. Then, set intentions and expectations for your volunteer work before you express interest.

4. Because it could be a valuable experience.

Free work doesn't need to mean boring work. You could volunteer on the set of a new movie, or in an art gallery or for an upcoming conference. If it grants you access to an event that you'd otherwise need to pay for, then why not?

Can employees volunteer to work for free?

According to the Department of Labor (DOL), employees in the nonprofit sector can volunteer their services as long as it's not the same work they already get paid to do. That's not the case with for-profit employers, however, who can't ask or allow employees to work for free under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Even shadowing interns are entitled to pay and employees must get compensated if they voluntarily work through breaks and lunch hours.

Can family members ask for free work?

They can, but the real question is should they? Free work is no simple feat. It requires time, effort and investment. If you're being asked to work for free by a relative, consider working out a deal that could satisfy both parties. You can settle on reasonable compensation, agree to work under your own circumstances or barter your services for a fair exchange.

Good things to know before you agree

Before you say yes to free work, try negotiating compensation with the employer. You could say something like, "I'm flattered by your interest in my expertise, but I'm currently seeking paid opportunities in the X field." If they really want you, they should be open to negotiating a small fee. Or, the company can refer you to an internal position that aligns with your job search.
Additionally, an employer who asks for free work is allowed to tell you the outcome they expect, but they can't tell you how to do it or when to get it done. Since you're volunteering your time, you have permission to set your own days and hours. You can also draw a hard line between what you will and what you won't do, since the extent of your commitment is under your control.  If you're not interested in working for free, you can check out these great companies that are hiring — and paying.

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Stephanie Nieves is the SEO & Editorial Associate on the Fairygodboss team. Her words can also be found on MediumPayScale and The Muse.

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