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Should you work for free?


We may love what we do for a living but most, if not all, of us do it for money. There's nothing wrong with that, so is it right to be asked to work for free?

Like many trainers/facilitators, I have two main income streams.  In addition to the work I do for myself, I work as an associate for a number of other training companies.  For those of you unfamiliar with the associate model, we represent a training company and deliver their material but the clients and the material are the training company’s, not ours.  As far as it appears to the delegates, we’re employees of the training company.

It’s how I started in training and I’ve been fortunate to be associated with some great companies and some great material - sometimes, on rare and blessed occasions, those two things overlap and you get great material from a great company.  The amount of money you earn from being an associate is less than the normal daily rate but what you give up in pay, you gain from convenience in not having to source clients, design material and so on.

I’ve followed this model for over five years now and it’s worked well.  However, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend over the last couple of years.  Some companies - and one in particular - has increasingly been asking me to be “flexible” with my rates.  And by flexible, they mean “work for nothing.”  Sometimes, they’re more sensitive about this than others; some of the salespeople I work with will only ask me to do this occasionally, and ask with great reluctance and embarrassment.  And rightly so, I think: no one else in the whole equation is being asked to work for nothing, so why should I?  I want people to feel awkward about asking because it’s not a small request and I’d like to think that people would think twice before asking me to do it.  Recently, however, and with some salespeople, it seems to have become an expectation.

The nominal quid pro quo is that, should any work arise from these freebies, I’ll be first in line for it. However, I have to say that’s never once happened - I can’t think of any situations where a freebie has resulted in paid work for me, although I can think of one occasion where my free work led to paid work for someone else. So that means that I’ve done a whole bunch of work for no return at all. 

I used to think that giving work away was part of the deal - a bit of speculation that would, eventually, lead to some accumulation.  I still think that’s the case where it’s a client asking me directly to give them a taster or a sample.  But when it’s another training company asking me to do it, when I’m the only one working for free, recently I’ve begun to reconsider.  I’m not sure now, so I’m asking for your advice: should I work for nothing?

4 Responses

  1. The simple answer is no!

    Before I got into L&D I worked in sales myself. The "last role" in this career for me was web advertising sales for a rapidly growing website in a niche market. We had all usual stuff you could throw at a potential client – stats, ROI, case studies etc.

    Easy sell huh? Well, not exactly. When you made contact with a new company for the first time, you could almost certainly guarantee that they would ask for anywhere between one month and six months of free advertising "to test the water". And if it was ‘successful’ (and how this would be measured would never really be defined) they would DEFINITELY take out more, with the enticing offer of spending gazillions of pounds a month if we let them.

    You could offer any other incentive you liked, such as three months for the price of two, discounts with the promise of further discounts for any renewals etc., but in no case would they bite. No free advertising period, no deal.

    On the odd occasion my MD acquiesced because the client might actually be worth it, every single time they got to the end of the freebie period and said "thanks but no thanks".

    I don’t think this is any different, as you highlight. "Do this and we’ll almost certainly we’ll scratch your back at a later date".

    I also can’t help but think that if trainers do give in to this sort of pressure they make it more difficult for everyone else. Surely as a profession we don’t want the perception that we’ll give our time for free?

  2. I’d say no…

    I’m an in-house trainer for a company that also outsources training to a pool of associate consultants. From the situations you’re describing, it sounds to me like these training companies are running events that aren’t attracting the expected levels of business, meaning they won’t make any money (or could lose money) if they pay you. Well, that’s their problem, not yours. On the odd occasion that one of our events doesn’t attract enough participants, we take the hit and cancel it if we can’t afford to cover costs. We would never ask one of our associate consultants to work for free.

    On a related note, we sometimes get clients asking us for bespoke training who aren’t willing to pay for development time. That would mean one of us essentially working for free, for anything up to three days at a time depending on the subject. We turn these offers down because it would set a dangerous precedent and other clients would expect the same ‘freebies’. So unless we’re willingly volunteering for something, e.g. supporting a charity by offering your services, I’d say trainers should never work for free.

  3. Give your time for free – Maybe

    As an old fashioned ‘Trainer’ I have often given my time for free or at least pro bono for a good cause and I have usually been rewarded if not in a pecuniary manner.  Sometimes I have done it to gain experience, make new contacts, or widen my horizons but there is a big difference between that and delivering services for free to an outfit that would otherwise pay someone else for doing it.  At the very least you should expect and get realistic expenses, some leads to paid work, a few introductions/referrals, free photocopying for a month, a link on their webpage, a free pseudo-advert/editorial in their staff magazine, a free sample of their product, etc.  Not quite the same as being paid but it has far more potential than saying no.  But that is the point – knowing when to say no without jeopardising future business.  I think the bottom line is "if they can pay – they should".  My view is that if one thinks one is being ripped off – you probably are  – so make your excusses and leave.  Alternatively negotiate.

  4. Working for Free

    I would never do any work for any organisation for free, even with the ‘hook’ of promised (and never realised) further work. If they want my knowledge and expertise they pay for it, except where I have approached a charitable organisation in an area that I wish to support, and have worked on  a no-cost basis, but I retain copyright on all materials and ensure that all of my legitimate expenses are covered.  I give my time for free as an alternative to putting money into a collecting tin which then gets lost in ‘administration’.


    — Terry George MCIPD Training Consultant

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