When to Work for Free
When it comes to any sort of business, people are willing to give an arm and a leg just to get their foot in the door. It’s of course a tradition to do internships, especially during college to gain experience… but when is an “internship” just a cover for a person or company to take advantage of you?
About a year or so ago I was working for a woman( I’m not going to name any names here) who was highly connected to the film industry. She was a writer for an established magazine and an accomplished composer/musician. She wanted to start a company… I was more than happy to help her out, especially since she was incredibly kind and saw potential in me. For about a year I was at her beck and call, having meetings with her, doing research for her, mailing stuff out for her, even babysitting her son for her. She would promise to introduce me to this person and that person, and promise to fly me abroad to join her at festivals and promote her book… but none of it happened. And she virtually disappeared. I can’t help but feel that I was taken advantage of. I gained no helpful experience from it, did not network at all, and wasted my time with her when I should have been working or doing other internships that were worthwhile.
This is not an uncommon story. Craigslist is filled with offers that are trying to lure people in for “internships”. Especially in Hollywood (the film industry), interns and assistants are working 17 hour days for barely minimum wage or even nothing. All for a chance to get a foot in the door. My question is this… when is it alright to work for free?
I don’t have a clear answer for this and I’m sure most people don’t. It’s clear that we can’t always deny free work. When it comes to building portfolios and you have nothing to offer, it is only customary to build experience so you have something to show for yourself. But maybe there are some guidelines to follow on when or when we shouldn’t work for free…
- If at all possible, first and foremost find internships that will not only help your resume, but also help your skills/experience. This means pick the internship that will get your hands dirty with the work you want to do, not with getting someone coffee everyday. Because even in the end if you feel like you’ve been overworked, at least your doing work that has helped you gain skills and an understanding of your industry.
- If you’re going to work for free, it better look good on your resume. So many people claim to be “famous” and “well-established” companies, but you better make sure of it! Just like name brand clothing, recognizable companies on your resume look darn good and are more worth the trouble.
- Promises, promises, promises. My boss promised me a lot of stuff but never saw them through. If your boss promises you the same stuff, make sure they follow through (sooner rather than later)! You don’t have to be incredibly forward with it, but maybe bring it up in conversation or remind him/her.
- In good company. If you have taken an internship for free because of the who you will be surrounded with, make sure you really put yourself out there. Do not waste the opportunity, or it won’t be worth it. However!! Make sure when your tooting your own horn, you don’t toot it too loud. This is to say, don’t become a nuisance, become a friend and colleague.