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We all have experienced frustration with being asked to work for free. I hear about this a lot from others as well.

So let’s put “Work for free” into perspective. There are a couple different ways to look at it.

There are a few scenarios in which we are asked to work for free. The first one is being asked to deliver your products and services that you normally get paid to do, for free. Perhaps there is a hazy trade agreement proposed, or promises of “leads” and “I’ll send you so much business it will be totally worth your time.”

Let’s just call this what it is. You are being asked to perform your job function from someone who needs what you have, and receive absolutely nothing in return. This is never ok.

But, there is another type of “working for free” that is not actually working for free at all.

While you aren’t actually being paid money, you are being compensated in some other way that has a direct benefit to you or your company.

In this scenario, making a smart choice about who you work with, and what you expect to get in return is the key to making this arrangement successful. Lots of great opportunities can present themselves in this way, you can also easily find yourself in a situation where you are just working for free. So you have to tread carefully.

A good framework to use when trying to decide if an arrangement is worthwhile is to first determine what products or services that you can realistically deliver without receiving cash compensation. Then examine the benefits you’d receive as a result of the “free work,” and whether or not it outweighs just receiving the cash.

If the benefit you’d receive doesn’t outweigh the amount of work you are going to put in, it’s probably not equal. Also, if it’s something that you could realistically accomplish on your own with a reasonable amount of time and effort (should you so choose) it’s probably not a good idea either.

For example, I have been offered handbags valued at $500 retail for $4,700 in services from my business. This is an obvious “no” because there is a direct cost to delivering $4,700 in services that a $500 handbag doesn’t justify. Even if everyone on the team receives $4,700 of value in the form of handbags, it doesn’t help the business, it just means we all have new bags.

This is also the case when people promise leads and introductions in exchange for free work. Unless the promised introduction is explicit, very strategic, you cannot get the introduction you need on your own, and it’s more of a “warm lead” than a cold intro, this type of arrangement is rarely equal.

If the benefits of working free don’t outweigh the cash, the answer is an easy “No.” Now you can politely decline and move on with a clear knowing that you made the right choice.

Unless you are in a position where you are financially independent enough to give away your time (your most valuable and most limited asset) for free, more often than not the requests you get to work for free should be granted few and far between.

When we are first starting out in our careers, it’s easier for the benefits of working free to outweigh the cash. But there comes a time when we become more experienced and valuable, yet we may still not be financially independent enough to justify working free. This is the time in our life where free work can be more detrimental than it is beneficial, it creates unnecessary stress in our lives, can weaken or ruin relationships, and overall can do more harm than good.

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