Will You Work Free for Me?
Imagine that a prospective client engages with you about the offering they need, which you provide. He or she wants to “pick your brain.” At first you talk on the telephone multiple times, then in person. The conversations flow naturally, as they should with good business relationships, and you are excited to work with this new client. Then your instincts take over and you pause. “Wait a minute,” you say to yourself. “I’ve talked to this person twelve times, but I don’t have an agreement or any hours I can invoice yet.” At what point will you say enough is enough? “I do not work for free. My time is valuable and we need an agreement before we proceed.” Perhaps you’re familiar with the Gold Rule. No, not the Golden Rule—the Gold Rule: Those with the gold make the rules. One of those rules is to get as much as they can out of you for as little as possible—perhaps even for free, if you let them. Why not? This is business. It’s not personal—at least not for them. Ah, situational ethics, it’s nice to see you again, my old nemesis. People’s business tactics reveal their intentions. How will you recognize the signs?
- Your request for fair-value business engagement is ignored.
“We have more important things to discuss right now. Can you help me with this?” They might even cry poor. You’ve sent your proposal without receiving acknowledgement. After delivering free product samples, the professional courtesy of a response remains unmet—even after multiple voicemail messages.
- Your instincts sense that someone is taking advantage of you.
You know the feeling, something’s not quite right. Perhaps you’ve seen this movie before. In some business environments, if you don’t know who is being screwed, then it’s you. Trust your gut.
- Someone asks you to do something for free for which you normally charge a fee.
“Will you work for free for me?” is asked in so many glorious forms. If you find yourself providing more than a work sample, stop. Decide for yourself whether you have agreed to work for free or not. (Anecdotally, note that I’m not being paid to give you this advice!) When you are operating from a position of scarcity (that is, you don’t have enough money), the temptation becomes greater to submit to subtle demands to work for free to prove your value. It can take the internal fortitude of an NFL linebacker to say, “No, I will not do that,” when you don’t have enough money. On the other hand, when operating from a position of abundance (having more money than you need), it’s much easier to say, “I don’t work for free. You’ll get what you pay for. Perhaps it’s time for us to move on.” They might even demonstrate their respect for you by paying you—or they might not. A business friend of mine shares a useful technique for managing requests for free work. She wrote to me and said, “I actually keep a little purple plastic champagne flute on my desk-- a friend's business-promotion gift-- and I put a quarter into it every time someone asks me to work for free, whether or not I consciously choose to do so. It fills up fast, and it keeps me conscious of recognizing when I'm being asked to work for free.” I must confess that I have a soft spot for my former students, readers, and audience members. I choose to work for free for them—on a one-time basis, for a set amount of time. But when I’m asked to work for free and I haven’t chosen to, you now know what I’ll say. What will you say? Copyright © John J. McAdam. All Rights Reserved.