A lot of people get riled up about free work.
They claim it’s exploitation and it should be avoided at all costs. Or worse yet, banned altogether.
I think that’s a really irresponsible point of view.
Because not everyone comes to the table with experience.
Recently, I was jamming with my old boss about his experience hiring hundreds and interviewing thousands.
He dropped the phrase, “Everybody’s got to ante up.”
He was talking about the bare minimum you have to do to have a reasonable chance of being considered for a given opportunity.
And it got me thinking.
Getting hired is already a form of free work.
Before you ever get paid, companies usually demand a lot of effort.
From cover letters, resumes, applications, to skills or personality tests, phone screens, and interviews. Let alone employee onboarding once you get an offer….
There’s a lot of effort required to be considered for most jobs. Not to mention the sheer amount of work cumulatively, when you factor the average job-seeker applies to over 150 jobs to get one offer.
But I don’t hear people say this is “free work.” Quite the contrary. I hear people advocate to apply to more jobs. To work on resumes more. To proofread cover letters one more time. To pay a career coach or consultant to help game Applicant Tracking System keyword filters.
But to what end?
Applicants don’t get paid to do those things. Plus, in many cases, they shill out cash to other people for assistance.
So how come the job hunt gets off the “free work” stigma hook?
You hold the power
I think it’s because traditionally companies have maintained most of the leverage in the hiring process. So the job hunt process became the cost of admission for most opportunities worth taking—regardless of how nonsensical some processes have become.
Similarly, I think many people (wrongly) believe companies—not individuals—hold a monopoly over the ability to earn an income.
And while I’m convinced these two beliefs lead to dangerous conclusions about free work, I’m also convinced they blind people to a more important truth.
The truth is that individuals—not companies—hold all the real power.
Individuals get to choose where to work. Not companies.
Sure, companies choose who they hire. But only after individuals choose which companies to apply to.
Individuals create wealth. Not companies.
Sure, companies aggregate the wealth a multitude of individuals create. But only after an individual chooses to start a company and convinces other individuals to choose to buy their stuff.
I could go on and on, but I don’t want to stray from the point: individuals choosing to work for free is not exploitation.
In the same way, applying to a job is not exploitation.
You get to choose what type of work to do. You get to choose which companies to apply to.
And you get to choose how to apply to those opportunities.
Offering to work for free can be a tremendous advantage getting your foot in the door (especially if you don’t have experience).
You don’t have to offer to work for free if you don’t want.
But don’t pretend it doesn’t take work to get hired. What else do you consider the hours of time and effort spent applying to jobs?
And if you’re already going to put the time and effort in to get hired, wouldn’t you rather it be spent doing something valuable—something you will actually enjoy?
I know what I choose. But what about you?
This post was originally sent to our newsletter subscribers. Sign up below to get weekly career content, advice, stories, and more!