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Stop Asking People for Free Work

Seriously, just stop. (Image description: a woman with dark, curly hair holds her open hand in front of her face.) Photo by Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash

A few months ago, an old friend reached out. A former colleague of hers was looking for some help getting his organization’s name out in the wider world. Was I interested in speaking with him?

I was, and she connected us, and after a lengthy phone call with this person and his colleagues, I sent a comprehensive proposal that explained my approach to strategic organizational storytelling. One of the steps in the proposal—a step that I had accounted for in the project budget—was the creation of an annual communications plan.

Not long thereafter, I received an email from my contact at the organization stating that the organization’s founder wanted more from me and the other consultants they were considering—would I mind creating a marketing plan for an upcoming event the founder would be speaking at?

There was no compensation offered in exchange for this request.

Now, mind you, what he was asking for was not the full communications plan that was part of my proposal, but it would have been a component of it. I was immediately uncomfortable with this request…but sadly, I wasn’t surprised.

I can’t tell you the number of times while pitching work and applying for jobs that I’ve been asked to create a marketing plan, or to write a piece of thought leadership, or to conduct a comprehensive edit of existing materials, for free. Not only is this exactly the kind of work I charge clients for, but if I agree to do it, I’m also taking time away from that paying client work. If I had agreed to write this marketing plan, it would have taken about four hours of my time; they would have wound up with a functional marketing plan, and I would have wound up four hours of billable time in the hole.

That’s a particularly egregious (if not particularly rare) example of the free labor requests I and many other consultants receive, in which we’re being asked to give away our product for free in the hopes that paying work will materialize.

But even when the people asking for the work aren’t planning on using or publishing the product they’ve requested, they need to consider that what they’re asking for is still free labor. Just this week, I was told that I wouldn’t get paid for the sample blog post I was asked to write because “we won’t actually use it—we just want to get a feel for your style.” I had already sent them half a dozen writing samples; they should have had a feel for my style. Creating something new for them—and at the end of the month, as I’m trying to complete other projects, to boot!—would have required my valuable time, regardless of whether they ever even planned to open the document at all.

I get the desire to have a thorough understanding of someone’s capabilities before investing in them as an employee or adviser, but you have to honor their time and their talent. So if you’re looking to fill a role on your staff or hire a consultant, here’s how to do that without asking for unpaid labor:

  1. Ask for samples — but be specific. Don’t just ask a candidate to submit examples of their work. If you’re going to want someone who can ghostwrite a blog post for your CEO, request examples of work that showcase the applicant’s comfort writing on behalf of a range of voices or organizations. If you want them to work on an eBook, ask them to show any other longer-form content they’ve produced. This gets a little tricky when you’re talking to someone about strategic planning—for example, I’d never feel comfortable showing a client’s communications plan without their explicit consent—but perhaps the candidate has a template they can share with you that explains their approach to this sort of work.
  2. If you want something new, be prepared to pay. If you’re asking someone to write you a marketing plan, a blog post, or even a sample tweet, acknowledge that what you are asking for doesn’t usually come free, nor should it. Think about what your budget for the overall project or position is and determine what you think is a fair rate for your request…and be open to negotiating if your candidate feels your number is low.
  3. Understand that time is money. Streamline your processes to reduce or eliminate the amount of time candidates will have to invest in the process after submitting their initial applications or proposals. Or, if you can’t, acknowledge what you’re really asking of them when you’re following up with further requests. You may not be asking someone to create an entirely new product, but if you’re requiring a second set of work samples, four rounds of phone calls, an in-person presentation, etc., you should at least concede that you’re asking this person to take time away from their day jobs or paying clients, and offer some form of remuneration proactively. I spoke with someone recently who used to have “try-outs” for candidates at her company. Understanding that she was asking someone to spend a few days at her office and away from their other obligations, she offered a per diem and was also open to working on weekends and holidays if it were more convenient for the candidates, so they wouldn’t have to rearrange their work weeks or lose out on guaranteed income to come in.
  4. Don’t dismiss someone when they ask about money. That guy who wanted me to create an event marketing plan for his organization’s founder? When I responded to his email and told him what I would normally charge for that work, he ignored the point of what I was saying and replied that if I didn’t do the work, they’d have no way of evaluating me against the other consultants he was considering. But of course he did: he had proposals and project budgets from all of us. It wouldn’t have been that hard to compare.
  5. Remember: this will hurt you, too. The expectation that you can solicit work for free, even if it’s as a sample, devalues your work as well. If you aren’t willing to pay someone for their time—even if you haven’t decided whether to forge a long-term relationship with them—you’re contributing to a cultural mindset wherein eventually, you’ll find that someone will be unwilling to pay you for your time, too. Instead, think about how you can lead by example and show others that you value the time and energy of all professionals.

It may take some time and advanced planning to move from asking for samples to paying for them. But you can get there. How do I know?

Because there are companies that already do this. I was recently paid by an organization that, as they were considering candidates, asked me to provide some thoughts on how they should invest in their content. Although they eventually elected to work with someone else, this company showed they respected my time and they understood my ideas to have value, and I was left with a highly favorable opinion of the organization and its leadership.

But you know who I don’t have a favorable opinion of? That organization that wanted a free marketing plan. Or the one that asked me for a sample blog post. The requests alone showed they didn’t see the value of my work.

After all: you wouldn’t like it very much if someone asked you to do your job for free. Why would you expect it of anyone else?