The temptation to hand over your precious time, labor, ideas, and energy in exchange for $0.00 dollars per hour might sound ridiculous, especially to those who are currently working and earning a regular paycheck. But for those who have been out of work for a few months or longer, your perspectives may begin to shift.
After all, you might value work experience and new career opportunities over financial security–in the short-term. Big picture, though, you’re fully aware that you need to eventually feed your bank account. So what do you do? Take an unpaid job and eat ramen for a few weeks? Or say no thanks and keep searching for work?
In general, we’d recommend never accepting unpaid work. But of course, every rule has a few important exceptions. If any of the following four circumstances ring true for you, working for free may actually benefit your career.
- The organization is non-profit group with a positive impact on the community. Blood drives, community gardens, animal rescue operations, and historic preservation sometimes operate with no business model holding them up (rescued animals can’t pay for their own care). But steer clear of for-profit companies (banks, hedge funds, publishing firms, law firms, etc.) that could easily pay you and simply choose not to.
- You see a clear path—not a hypothetical path—from this opportunity to a paying gig. A company that promises to give you full-time work if you successfully complete one short-term project may be legitimate. A company that wants to publish your article in exchange for “valuable exposure” (instead of money) is not.
- The work you’ll be completing will take under 30 minutes to finish. Some companies want candidates to complete work samples as part of the application process. If you really want the job, you can probably afford the effort of jumping through this hoop. Just keep your time investment under a few hours or so.
- You really don’t need money. If you won’t graduate for another two years and your parents are still paying your bills, there’s nothing wrong with accepting an unpaid internship for the summer. Just keep an eye on your own interests and don’t allow yourself to be abused, manipulated, or exploited.
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