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Don’t work for free on a “maybe someday”

If you ever find yourself amid a group of Midwest technology consultants and you want to get them talking, ask them: “Have you ever had someone ask you to work for free?” It’s an amazing thing.

You can ply your trade inside top companies for 15 or 20 years and have an outstanding resume and all you have to do is hang out a shingle. All of a sudden, people are coming out of the woodwork and asking you to perform your services for no money.

When I used to do HR consulting, I ran into this scenario all the time. “Joe Schmoe, one of our board members, speaks very highly of you,” they would say. “He thought you might be able to help us with (blah blah blah).”

“I’d be delighted to,” I would say while talking about the scope of the project. “Well, we really just want you to make a few phone calls,” they would say. “We just want you to help us with a little market intelligence” or “chat with a few senior executives at our competitors whom we’d love to recruit away.”

In the end, they’d say that they didn’t want to spend any money (I mean any money). So, I would ask: “Why am I here in your office?” They would say: “Well, um, we thought that, um...” I guess they thought I was so desperate that I would work for free in hopes of having them hire me for a real project some day.
This in-hopes-of-maybe-hiring-you-one-day scenario is one of what I’ve found to be the big three most common rationales (all of them logically weak but all deployed with vigor) that seem to drive otherwise business-like individuals and companies to ask for consulting work without pay.

While the “maybe one day” approach doesn’t work very well for people whose work is very concrete (such as graphic designers and programmers), there are other sneaky methods that companies (I won’t call them clients) use to try to get free work out of those people.

The “maybe one day” pitch is used all the time on PR and marketing people who are called to brainstorm possible strategies with a prospective client.

Here’s my advice on that: Have one brainstorming meeting for no pay with a new prospect that lasts no more than two hours. They deserve to hear your ideas and get the benefit of your thought process. If they call you and ask you to come back, tell them the time will be billable.

“But we’re still brainstorming,” they may say. “We don’t have a project outlined yet!” “That’s fine,” you say. “I charge $100 an hour (or whatever your rate is) for this sort of strategy session.”

The next most common way that companies try to get free work from consultants is what I call the “we need to know your work better” approach. This is the one that hits graphic designers, technology folks and people whose work product is tangible.

If people ask to see samples of your work, that’s perfectly reasonable. If you’re a graphic designer and the prospect wants something done that you’ve never worked on before (such as an annual report), it’s also reasonable for them to probe for more information about how you’d approach the project.

What are your design ideas? How well did you understand and integrate what they told you about their needs? These are reasonable inquiries.

If they have a number of apparently qualified consultants in mind for a project, I’d even condone a process where there are a number of concepts put forth by different consultants and one is chosen. You don’t have to enter into that bake off if you don’t want to.

Once a general approach is agreed upon, you have to be paid for all of your work.

The “we need to know your work better" routine can stretch out over multiple projects if you allow it to and can suck hours of your day that turn out to be unbillable. Don’t let this happen! Let the client know up front how you bill and what (if any) they can expect as a taste test of your work.

The third free-work scam I hear a lot about is the one where the prospective client says: “Doing us this little favor for free will get you introduced to a lot of influential people in our company.” They mean that the free work you do for this one person will expose you to lots of other people who might pay you for your work.

On that basis, you might attend a company off-site meeting to network (for free). For the same reason, you’ll go to a vendor day and hobnob with the client folks and other vendors (for free). That makes perfect sense. It’s a networking event.

What about an HR consultant being asked to run a company job fair (for free) as a way of meeting all the hiring managers? This happened to a Midwest HR consultant. It’s grotesque. It’s very low rent. For Pete’s sake: If you have enough openings to justify running your own job fair, you can pay a consultant for six or eight hours!

The trouble with signing up for these no-pay deals is that you set yourself up to be viewed as a person who will do work for little or nothing at the drop of a hat. While it’s hard to say no to what might be a good client one day, you have to do it because otherwise you affix a label to your brow that says “chump”.

While I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, the most successful consultants out there (no matter what the area of expertise is) all say the same thing: If you don’t value your services, neither will anyone else.

Got any horror stories (from either side of the desk) about consulting or consulting clients? Send them to for a future Nine2Five column. Now go bill some time!

Liz Ryan is the founder of ChicWIT (Chicago Women in Technology) and founder of WorldWIT (World Women in Technology). She can be e-mailed at Her column Nine2Five, which appears on ePrairie every Friday, is designed to keep you up to date with career trends and advice related to working and managing organizations in the post-bubble technology world. This article has been syndicated on the Wisconsin Technology Network courtesy of ePrairie, a user-driven business and technology news community distributed via the Web, the wireless Web and free daily e-mail newsletters.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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