When You Should (And Shouldn’t) Work For Free

Many freelancers have experienced being asked to work for free. However, whether or not they should do it is a controversial topic. Some feel taking unpaid work is necessary for establishing their career, while others claim it devalues the work of all freelancers.

When You Should (And Shouldn’t) Work For Free

Regardless of which side of the debate you land on, there are both pros and cons of working for free. Unpaid gigs can launch your career, or cost you a small fortune. It’s all about determining when unpaid work is a rung on the ladder to success, and when it’s a thinly disguised scam.

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In this article, we’ll shed some light on the unpaid labor debate, then share some guidelines to help you determine whether an unpaid job could be worth it for you. Let’s get to it!

A Brief Look at the ‘Unpaid’ Labor Debate

Practically all freelancers have encountered requests for free labor. A potential client may have asked you to do unpaid work, and there are always posts on job sites listing “experience” and “free coffee” under the payment heading.

Though some say this practice is tied to the 2008 recession, it’s likely been around since time immemorial. Regardless, unpaid work is still considered standard by some in the freelance economy, and many freelancers have strong opinions on whether or not it’s ethical.

Even if there’s no money involved, there are positives in working for free. The chance to build a portfolio, gain exposure and experience, and make connections that lead to bigger, paying jobs are considered a form of compensation by some.

Others feel that working for free is expected in their field. With an estimated 56.7 million freelancers in the U.S. in 2018, competition is fierce. Refusing to work for free could set you behind others who’ve used unpaid work to make connections and pad their resumes.

The arguments against unpaid work are just as strong. Some point out that other professionals aren’t asked to work for free. What’s more, freelancers and creative professionals shouldn’t have to go without pay when the people hiring them would be offended if they were treated similarly.

Many in this camp also claim that not getting paid degrades the quality of freelance work and damages the freelance economy overall. Campaigns to end unpaid work promote friendly competition, and the idea that freelancers and their clients should value their work.

When You Should (And Shouldn’t) Work For Free

Whether or not to work for free is ultimately up to you, although if you are willing, you’ll want to make sure you always receive something for your work, and clients aren’t taking advantage of you.

Let’s look further at the two choices.

1. When You Should

Unpaid positions can offer other valuable benefits than income. Many freelancers take unpaid work to build their portfolios, gain exposure or hands-on experience, associate with influential brands, or for altruistic reasons.

When you’re first starting your freelance career, it can be difficult to find clients willing to take a chance on you without a well-stocked portfolio. If you’re trying to break into freelancing, unpaid work can provide you with a well-rounded portfolio or more lines of experience on your resume.

Unpaid work can also provide a platform for self-promotion. For example, you might link to your income-generating blog in the author section of an unpaid article you wrote, or mention your business during an unpaid speaking engagement to source clients from the audience.

If you’d like to learn or practice new skills in order to expand your offerings, unpaid work could earn you crucial hands-on experience. This will give you the chance to practice in a real-world setting and learn from more experienced professionals in the industry.

Doing unpaid work for well-known businesses can provide you with brand association that gains clients’ trust quickly. If you can list a recognizable business on your resume, you’re more likely to be able to convince prospective clients that you’re worth paying for.

Finally, sometimes taking on free work has nothing to do with career advancement. If you’re passionate about a certain cause and want to help out, there’s nothing wrong with doing unpaid work for charity. The benefits of helping others can be valuable, too.

2. When You Shouldn’t

Working for free is risky. If you’re considering whether or not to take an unpaid job, and it doesn’t fit into one of the categories we’ve mentioned, it probably isn’t worth the time and energy the work would require.

Working for free should never come at the cost of your financial stability. If your unpaid work is cutting into your ‘paid work’ time and it’s affecting your income, you probably need to start saying “No” to clients who can’t (or won’t) pay for your work.

It’s also okay to turn down work because you have a bad feeling about the client and their proposal. If you feel uncomfortable, trust your instincts. The benefits of unpaid work aren’t worth the risk of being locked into an demanding agreement with a client who isn’t paying you.

If you’ve been working unpaid for the same client for a while now, it may be time to negotiate for pay. Once your unpaid position turns into a paying one, consider using our services to track your work and create invoices.

Finally, knowing the labor laws in your area can help prevent clients from taking advantage of you. Make sure you know your intellectual property rights, and whether the work you’re doing classifies you as an employee rather than a freelancer.


Unpaid labor is becoming more and more an expected part of freelancing. Whether or not you think this makes sense or hurts the freelancing community is subjective. On the whole, be careful not to make a decision to your own detriment.

When considering whether or not to work for free, remember these guidelines:

  1. You should consider whether an unpaid position might have other benefits to offer. Remember that value is not denoted by dollar signs alone.
  2. You shouldn’t work for free if it will put you in a tough financial position, or you feel you’re being taken advantage of. Remember, both your time and work are still valuable.

Do you think unpaid work is beneficial? Let us know in the comments section below!

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