5 Reasons You Should Work for Free

Oct 28, 2014 - Joe Matar
Have you ever outworked a colleague and wondered why their compensation was higher than yours? I’ve been there and it’s not a great feeling. True, statistics show that women still make 77 cents for every male dollar and studies increasingly show that women work harder for their pay, but pay disparity can happen to men, too. Why do some employees accept unequal pay for unequal work? According to a recent survey on new year’s resolutions by Red Bull with Harris Interactive, men are motivated by money, whereas women are more likely to be motivated by the pure satisfaction of accomplishing their goals. How we approach our resolutions says a lot about how we approach our work, since both are deeply rooted in goal setting and accomplishment. But even in the male-dominated environment of financial services, men are every bit as likely to suffer from pay disparity as women. As a gender stereotype, we might be able to predict trends in motivations, but as human beings, it becomes more difficult. Many men made the same mistake I did, which was to believe I shouldn’t be compensated for the work responsibilities that most excited me because I was being presented with an opportunity to do something new. When should you consider working for free? There are a few times, when taken advantage of sparsely, when we can benefit from working for free. (Click here to tweet this list.)

1. It’s a networking opportunity

If the gig can open up new doors or get you in front of industry thought leaders you want to meet, it can be worth taking on a free project, as long as you don’t make a habit of it. Early on in my career, I volunteered to run the biweekly orientation day for new financial advisor because I knew that on each of those days, I’d get the opportunity to speak with the regional vice president of my company. This translated into being tapped for more managerial responsibilities and entry into an exclusive pilot program.

2. It’ll enhance your career skills

A new project can help you gain new expertise or visibility in an area where you haven’t yet shone. Just be careful the project scope doesn’t creep past your learning curve or PR opportunity. The exclusive pilot program I entered was to help advisors become better at word-of-mouth marketing, and it advanced my skills faster because I learned from the best. The drawback was I had to complete it in addition to my normal work responsibilities. But the benefits far exceeded the extra time commitment.

3. It’s a future business or advancement opportunity

A new undertaking can sometimes highlight an already existing skill you can leverage for future business opportunities. If so, the time put in may be worth an eventual pay off. Many of the new advisors I helped came to me for advice, so I ended up mentoring a small group of new employees for free. When it came time for my company to add on more managers, I was a natural choice.

4. It boosts your pay scale or rate

If the project will contribute to an increase your future pay rate, the time spent may be an investment. In financial services, you’re expected to acquire advanced certifications -- on your own time. But each advancement qualifies you for more pay, so it’s a no-brainer to maintain a schedule of continuing education and certification.

5. It’s a passion

Pet projects happen because people are emotionally moved to take a certain course of action. If the job aligns with your life purpose and you need to be involved, go for it. But go in understanding that your time has value and worth, even if you’re not being compensated for it. When I was with my last company, we piloted a personal finance program for high school teenagers and showed them what the financial planning process looked like. It was a lot of fun and extremely rewarding, but did absolutely nothing for my career or bottom line. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

When you should never work for free

Don’t accept free work if you think there’s a chance you can be paid for it. (Unless you’re intentionally gifting your time and expertise.) You can avoid hassles by asking one simple question up front: “What is the compensation for this responsibility?” Often, you’ll find yourself being paid for something you would have done for free, anyway. If not, you can decide if the soft benefits are worth the time you’ll put in. Sometimes they are. Often they’re not. Mindy Crary helps you with not just your money, but the whackjob behind it. Visit Creative Money to sign up for tips on personal finance and earning your worth (yes, they are connected).