Monday, November 16, 2009

How often do you work for free?

My husband regularly works long hours and even pulls all-nighters in order to clear his plate at the office. I do, too -- but not as often as I used to. A pay cut made me take a second look at how much my time was worth, and what I was willing to spend it on.

Sure, hard work always pays off, as the saying goes. It just seems like sometimes it pays a lot less than it used to. When the work piles up and I can't get it done during the work day, I find myself calculating the dwindling dollars and cents of my hourly wage and figuring out how much I'm willing to take home to do for free (or, really, at my family's expense).

To be honest, I was a little reluctant to write that last sentence there. It just smacks of having a bad attitude, doesn't it? I don't mean it that way -- I'm not trying to "stick it to the man" or anything. No... my point is that I've noticed that the more I'm willing to do for less, the more I'm expected to do for less. It's a vicious cycle, and my readers at The 36-Hour Day seem to agree.

My work-for-free dilemma also plays into a topic that Mir tackled at The Cornered Office a couple of years ago (on the post that first brought me to Work It, Mom!, as a matter of fact): "You deserve a decent wage for your work, and settling for less makes it harder for every working writer out there to get it."

So, is it ever OK to work for free? In spite of my griping, and in spite of Mir's great point, I have to say... yes. Sometimes, it is.

I recently took on a project that turned out to be a major time commitment -- much more of one than I thought it would be. It was voluntary, and I wasn't getting paid, and it got complicated, but you know what? It was worth it, because it allowed me to give back to a community that I've wished I could do more for over the years. So... working for free is fine when it's your way of donating something to a community or company you value.

Getting paid for your time and effort doesn’t always have to involve money. Flex time, comp time, or experience that bolsters a weak part of your resume are all forms of compensation worth considering. I also think the few minutes spent readying your workstation for the next employee, tying up the loose end of a project, filling in a colleague by memo, or even prepping yourself for the next day are all examples of extra, unpaid time well spent.

But what about when your unpaid work eats into the time you normally spend with your kids? Where do you draw the line?

I'm a journalist, and I know that writing and editing are strange beasts in the working world. And I’m on salary -- I think it would be different if I had to punch a time card every day. So I'm curious... in your profession, whatever it is, do you ever work for free? Why or why not?


Amber Hunnicutt said...


My name is Amber and I am writing to you on behalf of the Hot Mommas Project, the world's largest database of teachable role models for women and girls. We're an award-winning venture housed at the George Washington University in DC. I thought your readers would be excellent candidates for our 2010 case study competition. What does that mean, exactly? Below I have a short blurb on the project, and a request to post information about our case study competition wherein we gather women's stories (18 and over) to help one another and the next generation. As an established female business blogger, I thought this would be right up your alley. (P.S. I particularly liked this post. I'm currently a student at the GW School of Business majoring in Marketing. I constantly hear about how demanding careers in Marketing and PR are and how you have to be willing to work long hours. I really enjoyed this post because it provided interesting insight into working from home in order to get projects done.)

Here’s more about the project and a blurb that you can post for your blog...we have a partners info page separate from our site here from which the below is taken.

The Hot Mommas Project is an award-winning women’s leadership program housed at the George Washington University School of Business. The research initiative started in 2002 to fill a gap in the education system: scalable access to role models, particularly female ones. Thus, our mission is to increase self-efficacy of women and girls across the globe through exposure to role models. To accomplish our mission, we are building the world’s largest women’s case study library to produce not just vignettes, but credible academic tools that can be utilized in a classroom environment. We want you to be a role model and tell your story. Go to to get started.

Other links:
Main site:
Main blog:
Why you should get involved: Write your story
Washington Post coverage: Article on WashPo website

I am open to any and all questions. I can provide you with logos, ideas of articles and content, or whatever you need. I'll follow up in a week if I haven't heard back...I know it's a busy crunch time before the holidays so I appreciate your taking the time to read this.


Amber Hunnicutt, Hot Mommas Project intern

AlizaEss said...

Interesting post! I have a full time office job but have created essentially my own part time job working for free on various personal urban sustainability projects.

I'm definitely padding my resume for free for the future- thanks for mentioning that this is also a form of payment!