You’ve probably heard that you should never work for free. In fact, being paid a decent wage, even as an intern, has become such a hot topic that last year, the media jobs site Gorkana famously banned unpaid internship adverts on its site. But if you want to change careers and can’t get that first job because you have no relevant experience isn’t it better to suck things up and work for free to get a job… eventually? Not necessarily. Working for free can undermine your credibility as a useful employee. Read on to discover the only times it’s OK to work for free to move your career forward.  

It will help you meet and spend quality time with influential people in your new industry

It can often be near impossible to get close to the people with the power to really move your career forward. With this in mind, we think it’s OK to work for free when you’ll have an opportunity to spend time with the person/people you aspire to be like. In fact, doing so could end up becoming a career-defining moment.

Even if you don’t get to spend lots of alone time with your idol, you’ll still be able to learn a lot about how they work and how their methods have contributed to their success. Emulate the good things they do and you could take your career to new heights.

Tip: Make use of having an internal email address while you’re with the company.

Even if your day to day job doesn’t give you direct contact with your career idol, you can still email them. We promise you that they’ll be more likely to respond to a coffee invite from an internal email address than a random Gmail or Hotmail address.

You’ll gain the kind of exposure you’d happily pay for

In some career fields, getting your name out in the industry can spell the difference between a lukewarm and red-hot career.

A new journalist could easily launch a successful freelance career from having a prominent byline in a national publication, a business coach could get a lot of new clients from speaking at a big event and a musician could land a contract by playing a high-profile gig.

Working for free in such cases is a no-brainer as such scenarios provide the instant ‘leg-up’ that would otherwise take years to achieve.

Tip: Take care to do your due diligence. Many companies will exaggerate the type of exposure you will truly get from working for them. Always check the company has the audience, reach and influence they claim to have before agreeing to give your time for free.

when to work for free to get a job
Volunteering for a cause you truly believe in is one of the few moments in life that it’s OK to work for free.

It’s something you really believe in and are passionate about

Many companies will tell you that they really can’t afford to pay you because they’re new, small in size, or ‘struggling’. But the bottom line is that if you’re expected to work there on a regular basis and you are making a contribution that benefits them, you should be paid.

The only exception to this rule is when you’re giving to a cause you care about. Volunteering to help out a charity isn’t about furthering your career or making money, it’s about helping others. As long as you understand and accept that from the start, you’re likely to find the experience fulfiling rather than feel exploited.

It will help you to develop essential skills you current lack

Changing careers can be tough, especially when you lack practical experience AND the key skills needed to do the new job.

If you’re in this situation, working for free in a position that will allow you to learn new skills can be invaluable. Remember that if you were to do a course or degree to learn those skills, you’d pay thousands of pounds to do so.

However, never let a company take advantage of this. Working for free for a few weeks or for a day or two per week for a few months is acceptable. Working from nine to five, five days a week and never seeing a penny is completely unacceptable.

Tip: Always set clear boundaries about how long and how often you will work for free BEFORE you accept the role. Never accept a vague and ongoing arrangement.

when to work for free
It’s not legal for a position to be unpaid simply because it’s an internship.

A final note: If you’re reading this and kicking yourself because you worked for free and you now realise you shouldn’t have, did you know you can do something about it?

Interns across the UK have been claiming reimbursement for free internships that were unlawful and that’s because contrary to popular belief, most unpaid internships are illegal.

Companies can only ask you to work for free if you’re under 16, they are a charity or you’re a student on an industry placement.

Would you ever work for free? Let us know in the comments below.


Join our insider club

Serious about finding work you love? Sign up to get alerts about exciting new opportunities for career changers before anyone else.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.