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How to (gracefully) rebuke someone who asks you to work for free

"Exposure" and "experience" are rarely worth uncompensated labor.

Photo credit: Alessandro De Bellis on Unsplash

On only the rarest occasions should you offer your professional expertise at a pro bono rate. I consider these situations to be when close friends or family want me to edit their work or résumé. A graphic designer might decide to design flyers for a homeless shelter or some other charitable enterprise. A chef might work in a soup kitchen on the weekends. These are acts of giving and charity. Gifting your services bears little difference from offering cash or a physical item.


But when an acquaintance or local business seeks you out hoping to mine some of your knowledge and skills without compensation, you have to draw a line. Here's how Lily Zhang, writing over at The Muse, explains the feeling:

It's a bizarre experience when someone asks you to work for free. It's flattering at first to be recognized for your expertise, but it doesn't take long to grasp that they don't appreciate it enough to actually want to pay you what it's worth. In the end, it feels pretty awful.

There are plenty of buzzwords that signal a request for free labor. You're doing them "a favor" or "just taking a look." Perhaps they can't pay you in cash, but you're set to be compensated plenty in priceless "exposure" and "experience." It's a crock. Exposure and experience are rarely worth uncompensated work. Asserting yourself and maintaining your dignity are vital if you wish to be respected in the professional marketplace. As Zhang writes, there are several strong strategies at your disposal for a graceful rebuke of someone who asks you to work for free. Here are her four points:

1. Assume the Best Intentions

2. Say No

3. Offer Alternatives

4. Throw in a Bonus

You have to assume the best in people, especially if you're trying to convince them to pay you anyway. You can practice ways to say "no" that include a choice for the other person to begin a more appropriate negotiation. You can recommend other professionals if you want to, as Zhang says, "ease the blow." Finally, you can point folks in the direction of some sort of resource that can potentially give them an option outside your services. An example would be if you're the kind of person who evaluates documents and résumés to send them a link to an online resource. You can imply that it's not as good as getting a professional opinion, but note that this is the best one can get for free.

Zhang further explores the topic of refusing these requests in her piece, which you can read by clicking here.

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