Working for free isn’t always a bad thing. But is it right for you?
When done right, unpaid work can be a small step towards a bigger goal.
If you’re working for free without a game plan. Quit while you’re ahead.
And keep reading to find out when you should and shouldn’t work for free.
What is it called when you work for free?
Working without getting paid is called either volunteering, interning, or working pro bono.
Working for free to gain experience is a common career development strategy.
However, there are times when you should and shouldn’t work for free, which we’ll explore in the upcoming sections.
How long should you work for free?
You should only work for free for up to 30 – 90 days or 1 – 3 months. This timeline is typical for many internships or volunteer projects.
Ultimately, working without pay should only be temporary and considered a means to an end.
When You Should Work For Free
Now that you understand what it means to work for free. Let’s explore situations when you should consider working for free.
1. When it fits into a larger goal
Working without pay should be a small step towards a bigger goal.
It should never be the end goal.
For example, the goal of an internship should be to land a full-time job afterward.
For a professional speaker, the goal of speaking for free is to gain experience and exposure to land paid speaking gigs.
Ultimately, working for free is a good strategy to gain momentum toward your long-term goals.
2. When the benefits outweigh the money you’d make
If you’re debating whether or not to accept an unpaid opportunity.
Ask yourself this question — Will the benefits outweigh the money I’d make if this were a paid gig?
If the answer is yes, you may want to consider working for free (temporarily of course).
There are several non-monetary incentives you should think about when considering working for free. Here are some of them.
Incentives for Unpaid Work
- Access to a high-value network
- Exposure to a large audience
- Opportunity to build your resume or portfolio
3. When you want to break into a new industry
Working for free to gain experience during a career pivot could be a smart move. The key is to set a clear timeline for the free work.
4. When you migrate to a new country
Working without pay temporarily could be a good idea if you move to a country where your prior work experience isn’t recognized.
In this case, unpaid work could help establish credibility and get your foot in the door.
Be sure to research the work requirements before moving abroad.
When You Shouldn’t Work For Free
Now that you know when it’s appropriate to work for free. Let’s talk about situations when you should not consider working for free.
1. When the motivation is being associated with a big brand
Let me start by saying this — Big brands can afford to pay you. Don’t let them tell you otherwise. And don’t you dare work for them for free.
Being associated with a big brand is flattering. But if the association doesn’t come with the bag, you don’t need it.
This means, stop going out of your way to promote big brands unless you have a paid brand ambassador opportunity with them.
Stop letting your employer use you for ‘special projects’ (aka free work) that aren’t getting you promoted.
Remember, your time has value no matter where you are in your career.
2. When you have plenty of transferrable skills
Transferrable skills refer to the skills you take from one job opportunity and apply to the next.
As you can gain more experience, you develop more transferable skills.
Don’t be so quick to work for free without considering how your past experience can apply to your desired opportunity.
You might be overlooking skills that can set you up for your next role.
3. When the opportunity doesn’t have a clear end date
Again, working for free is only a means to an end. Meaning it needs to have a clear end date. Internships or volunteer projects should only last a few months.
Don’t get tied down doing too many unpaid projects that you’re unavailable for work that can pay and promote you.
4. When you have financial obligations and can’t afford to
Unpaid work might be out of the question if you have dependents that rely solely on your income.
While working for free for experience is often a good career growth strategy.
It shouldn’t come at the cost of your security and peace of mind.
Deciding Whether or Not to Work for Free
Only you can decide if working for free is right for you. Hopefully, this list gives you a starting point. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers.
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Over to You
Would you work for free for a year to get your foot in the door at your dream company?
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