woman looking up in thoughtful contemplation

Work for free? Think twice before you agree.

5 min read
Ashley Milne-Tyte

You’re probably asked to work for free from time to time – to contribute to a nonprofit, to “help out” a friend or acquaintance, all out of the goodness of your heart.

Chances are if you’re a woman, you’re likelier to say yes.

I interview female entrepreneurs regularly for my bi-monthly podcast on women and the workplace and I’ve heard this often, especially from sole proprietors. They get asked to do stuff, from talks to projects, for nothing. As one of my guests put it: “People expect women to do things for free.”

Now I’m not saying men aren’t asked to work gratis. They are. And some of them feel just as torn about whether to comply. But women – in general – have a harder time saying no.

We’re raised to be people pleasers, to be “nice,” accommodating and helpful. That not only makes it harder for us to refuse a request, it causes others to balk when we do, because we’re not living up to the stereotype. Most women are concerned with how other people perceive us. We also genuinely enjoy helping people. But giving too much help for nothing eats into work that pays the bills – or could pay the bills.

Brain-picking is billable

I began thinking about this a lot last year when more and more people began emailing to ask if they could “pick my brain.”

That’s an uncomfortable question when you work for yourself. Brain-picking inevitably means time spent over coffee or on the phone that must fit into an already crammed day. It’s fine, of course, if you relish the idea of helping the other person – if you’re excited about what you can give. But I went from doing this occasionally and gladly to feeling tired every time I saw one of those emails.

Creatives are the worst when it comes to saying yes to this stuff.

Also, you’ve probably noticed these requests seem prevalent in the services industries – consulting, graphic design, editorial services…podcast host. In fact, creatives are the worst when it comes to saying yes to this stuff. I don’t know that anyone ever asks a plumber to work for free. So why do they ask us? Time is money for us, too. And why do we often feel horrible at the thought of saying no, when a plumber would just laugh?

Know your value, set your boundaries

I decided to ask around among some business owners I know – all female. I wanted to find out how they dealt with both “pick your brain” and “work for free” requests in a tactful way. There was a common theme: know and believe in your value (something women tend to suck at) and be clear about the rules of giving away your time.

For example, New York consultant Anne Libby says when brain pickers get in touch, she specifies a time (always on a Friday) and place very near her home where they can meet. Her specificity weeds out all but the most dedicated.

Then again, maybe you read this Forbes post by Adrienne Graham after it exploded online almost four years ago. Graham is adamant about not giving away her expertise – ever. Several years ago she offered a lot of free advice, assuming it would help build her then fledgling consulting business. But it didn’t. Instead, she watched those non-paying clients flourish while her own business sputtered.

If you don’t believe in your value, who will?

Graham says if you don’t believe in your value, no one else will either. Once, after a potential client bargained her down in negotiations, the guy announced he didn’t want to work with her. When an incredulous Graham asked why, he said it was because she’d dropped her price every time he pushed. “He said in essence that because I came down on my price so much, I was telling him I wasn’t worth it,” she told me.

It was a tough lesson, but one she insists every entrepreneur should learn.

What comes around...

But what about karma? Won’t the universe rain good things if you help out? If you read the comments under articles about this topic, it’s clear lots of people believe being generous is its own reward. Call me cynical, but I’m not so sure.

I’m with leadership coach Kathy Caprino on this. She wants to be as generous as she can while allowing plenty of hours for earning an actual living. So when people hit her up with requests to look over their resumes – for free, of course – she no longer gets mad. Instead, she sends them a polite, boilerplate response explaining that accurately assessing their resume takes time, and that kind of time investment would require them becoming a client. She then points them to the free resources on her website, to which she’s always adding.

Finally, there’s the quid pro quo approach: if you’re strongly drawn to an organization, or person, who wants you to contribute your time, think about what they can do for you in return – and ask for it.