You've worked your butt off to get where you are today. Then someone slides into your inbox/DM/group chat asking for your expertise - for FREE. They won’t go out and say this bit though, they’ll dress it up in all sorts of ways. Can I pick your brain? Can you cast your eye over X? How would you approach Y?
There are a whole plethora of ways you can turn them down nicely (my favourite tips are from social media queen Phoebe Parke, check her out). But, that’s not what we’re talking about today. We’re talking about if and when you should ever accept work - in any of its forms, from a speaking gig to creative collaboration - without ever sending an invoice.
Unpaid internships were my only way in
When I first started out as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed journalist I knew the deal. It was drilled into me at university that you couldn’t graduate and get a paid job, without enduring the unpaid intern chapter. So, when my friends were finding themselves in Thailand or working part-time during the holidays, I was interning at any magazine or newspaper that would have me.
I worked 6 unpaid internships before I got my first ever paid journalism job (on minimum wage, may I add). And it didn’t once cross my mind to question the ethics involved here. It was part of the journalism career path, as common as attaching a witty cover letter to a CV.
So I didn’t complain when I spent days sitting on the fashion cupboard floor sorting through returns - and let me just burst that bubble right now and tell you that a fashion cupboard is NOT what they sell you on The Bold Type/Devil Wears Prada/Ugly Betty, it was a small, crowded, dusty room with no windows. I didn’t complain when that editor kindly provided me with a colour swatch of her perfect cuppa. I didn’t complain when I covered joyless council meetings for my local paper.
I needed access. I needed names to drop on my CV. I needed knowledge. I justified the free work in my head because I needed them more than they needed me. I would never go as far as to say it’s ‘OK’ for this to happen in the industry, but looking back I don’t feel short-changed because it sadly made all the difference during those early days of my career. Even now, my work experience placements in mag land get people talking.
Post-intern era, I’ve continued to work for free but they were dressed up in other ways. Lengthy writing tasks for interviews. Speaking to students at my old university. Ghost-writing awkward break-up messages. Does being a full-time unpaid mother count? But, over the years I’ve figured out when I need to push back with a hard-no and when I say, “oh go on send it over and I’ll take a look.”
Free work looks different for everyone. Some people work for ‘free’ in exchange for something they need, like 'I'll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine' type of scenario.
Sure, I’ll help you re-write your CV, newly-qualified solicitor friend. Happy to. Oh, but while I’m doing that, could you review this employment contract real quick?
Other times, you might be asked to complete a task to showcase your skills before landing a job or a new client. Even a proposal, in essence, is ‘free work’ because you never know if the time you put into drafting it will get money in your pocket.
But, of course, there is a line. And that line looks different for everyone.
I asked fellow freelancers and followers over on @words.by.elena and this is what you had to say:
Chris Andreou, senior lighting designer and project manager, says that at the start of his client interactions there’s always an element of 2-3 hours of free work as he submits bespoke lighting suggestions to all new leads. He says:
“Being offered the opportunity to showcase work is a good thing, but some clients do like to push the limit. A lot of the time, it’s important when you’re doing work for free to tell people that you’re doing chargeable work for free otherwise you’re not drawing a line and it gets easier for them to keep asking for extra stuff without paying a penny.”
Ilona Jade, student and part-time receptionist, says that passion comes into play for her.
“I think it depends on whether you love your job or not. If you love your job you’re more likely to have it as a hobby or have already done some sort of work around it for free. I think it makes you more open to working for free. I volunteer a lot and I would happily do an odd job for someone without wanting any remuneration for it.”
Katherine Parkes, senior writer at Immediate Media, says her job doesn’t ever feel like work, so doesn’t mind going above and beyond.
“I would work for free if it was doing something I was passionate about, like the writing I do in my current job. I’m quite an all or nothing person, so if I need to work late in order to get something done - I would do it whether I was being paid overtime or not.”
Set boundaries you’re comfortable with
It’s clear from the conversations I’ve had around this topic, that every person has a different take on free work. Some will do it happily, others begrudgingly, and for others it lights up a fire of fury at the very mention of it.
What I’m taking from this, is that everyone has their own tolerance for free work and so if you have a client or prospective client
approach you asking for things that carry a price tag, then be clear from the offset and use your best judgement.
A stranger sliding into your DMs wanting your expertise for nada, maybe slide them back a calendar invite to book in a one-to-one consultancy call? A repeat client who pays on time, always sends others your way, and trusts you? You might overdeliver or offer extra advice when they need it most.
Would you ever work for free? Carry on the convo in the comments or over @words.by.elena