What to Do When Someone Asks You to Work for Free
When close friends have career conundrums, I’m quick to ask more questions. Like a good friend should be, I’m eager to help.
But other times, I’ll get messages from people who I barely know or haven’t spoken to in years. The most astonishing are the ones from people I’ve just met or, in fact, have never met. They usually start with some polite greeting, move into a “realization” that I’m a career counselor, and then make a direct request that I have a look at their resume or talk (read: counsel) them about their careers—for free.
It’s a bizarre experience when someone asks you to work for free. It’s flattering at first to be recognized for your expertise, but it doesn’t take long to grasp that they don’t appreciate it enough to actually want to pay you what it’s worth. In the end, it feels pretty awful.
Sadly, it keeps happening—and it’s not just career counselors. This seems to be a rampant problem in creative industries, especially. Graphic designers, writers, photographers, and more all experience this on a regular basis.
So, how do you respond when someone asks you to work for free without screaming, “Would you ask your dentist to work for free?” I’ve spoken to a few more seasoned career counselors, and this is what I’ve come up with.
1. Assume the Best Intentions
It’s always easier to respond when you assume the best. In this case, assume that the person does want to pay you. If you’re interested in having someone as a client, respond with, “I’d be happy to help,” then go ahead and launch into your services, corresponding fees, and next steps.
Of course, these inquiries might not be the best place to be developing clients, since their initial assumption was that your work wasn’t worth payment. With this in mind, you may want to consider declining your services.
2. Say No
The next step, then, is to just say “no.” A mentor of mine suggested something along the lines of, “I’m flattered that you’re seeking my advice (or services), but unfortunately I’m not taking on additional clients at the moment.” This way you are clearly declining the request, but you’re also assuming the best in people by responding to them as if they were seeking to be your client.
3. Offer Alternatives
To ease the blow a little bit, since many times you will want to preserve what little relationship you may have had with this person, offer up other professionals who might be able to help. I’ve frequently directed people to other career counselors whose work I’m familiar with. This way, not only are you offering another solution, you might also have the opportunity to educate this contact about the value of your work (if, for example, the other recommended professionals have their fees posted on their website).
4. Throw in a Bonus
Finally, depending on your profession, you might be able to throw in a free resource to show that you care, you just can’t work for free. I’ll sometimes direct people to specific articles on The Muse or to a particular career assessment that I’ve seen help others in a similar situation. While I’ve seen others handle this in a much more statement-y fashion, I can’t bring myself to retaliate against someone who is probably going through something unpleasant at his or her job, or worse, doesn’t have one.
All that said, I still wouldn’t work for free, and I hope you won’t either. I’ve written quite a few of these uncomfortable emails, and they’ve all worked out. May your conversations go as seamlessly as possible, too. Good luck.
Lily Zhang serves as a Career Development Specialist at MIT where she works with a range of students from undergraduates to PhDs on how to reach their career aspirations. When she's not indulging in a new book or video game, she's thinking about, talking about, or writing about careers. Follow her musings on Twitter @lzhng.More from this Author