What's Wrong with Working For Free? Everything

Last Updated Jun 16, 2011 12:47 PM EDT

I was disappointed to read BNET's Jeffrey Pfeffer extolling the virtues of free labor and sharing 'tricks' for securing it. Pffeffer's work historically has exuded respect for employees. But encouraging executives to maneuver their way out of paying for good work articulates nothing but contempt.

Interns Shouldn't Have to Work for Free
This isn't a small problem. In 2008, fully 50 percent of US graduates were working, as interns, for no pay. The interns' hope always is that, if they do well, they'll get a 'real' job - or at least an enhanced resume. The reality is much sadder. They're often given work at such a low level that they learn nothing and they're thrown out as soon as someone better (or the boss's son) comes along. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, a large number of these positions are illegal but, according to Ross Perlin's timely book, Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, this mass exploitation saves firms more than $600 million each year. Interns enjoy no workplace protections and no standing in courts of law-and of course they can forget about healthcare. Yet these are the lucky ones: the ones with parents prepared to continue support.

I've often considered engaging an intern, and imagined teaching them a lot. But I've never done it because I just couldn't square not paying them with my conscience. I expect to be paid for my work - why shouldn't they?

Execs Use Tricks to Get Skilled People for Free

But it isn't just newcomers to the labor market who are assailed by the expectation that they will donate their labor. Using all the tactics Pfeffer cites, the business world is now rife with executives hoping to build their business on the backs of experienced, qualified labor.

A few months ago, one of the largest media organizations in the U.K. asked me if I would work with some of their leading producers to make them more creative. It sounded - and would have been - a fun gig. But they offered no pay.

Apparently I was supposed to do the work for the honor of working with such great people. But let's be clear: those great people were supposed to use my teaching to generate product that would produce revenue and, of course, guarantee their continued, paid employment. Quite what I got out of this, no one could define. I turned down their invitation, not least because I have the privilege of working with great, creative people most of the time. They're the ones who pay me.

Don't Undervalue Yourself
It's incredibly insulting to be asked to work for nothing - by executives who are themselves, of course, well paid. If you agree to work for free, you just collude in the offense.

Of course, the companies who don't want to pay always (as Pfeffer recommends) cite budget constraints. But in my experience, these are often multi-million or multi-billion dollar businesses that seem to have no difficulty whatsoever paying their rent or their limo bills.

More telling is the CEO's car: for all that these companies can't pay interns or highly experienced consultants, they do appear to have the cash for new luxury cars each year. The budget isn't that constrained; it's just a choice to spend money on some things and not on you.

I used to think that women were more often asked to work for free because, of course, we're supposed to work for love while our husbands pay the bills. In fact, what I've discovered is that men get asked to work for nothing almost as often - they're just don't take it personally and decline at once.

We all, of course, do a lot of pro bono work - I set aside a certain amount each year.

But when you are asked to work for nothing by rich, powerful institutions, the only respectable answer is 'no'.

If you don't value your own work, no one else will either.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.