Exposure Versus Exploitation: Should You Work for Free?


You’re starting your career or perhaps embarking on a new one and while you have the theoretical knowledge, you don’t have the experience (the first of many ‘e’ words that will dominate this article). So should you take on some unpaid work for the exposure (there’s another) or is this just yet another form of exploitation (and a third, for those of you playing the home game) of the employee (four) by the employer (okay, I’ll stop now)?

Unpaid work can take on many forms including volunteering, trials, internships, content creation and conference participation. In some countries there are laws that outline which can be undertaken unpaid and which can’t. In other countries the laws (and any associated protections) are glaringly absent.

And for some the question isn’t so much ‘could I?’ as it is ‘should I?’ We all know that horribly offensive analogy querying why anyone would buy the cow when they get the milk for free. Applying it to the workplace (perhaps more appropriately than where it is traditionally applied), we find ourselves in a circular debate. Why would anyone buy the cow without sampling the milk?

So is the trade-off worth it? If it’s legal and you freely choose to do it, then yes. But it’s a choice that every person has to make for themselves and highly dependent on their individual circumstances.


Volunteering can look great on a CV, particularly where it relates to health, sports, disaster relief and education, and is characterised by the following traits:

  • The work being performed is generally for the benefit of a community, charity or non-profit organisation.
  • The work is undertaken for selfless purposes.
  • The volunteer is under no obligation to perform the work.

If you have the time, volunteering is one of the best forms of unpaid work you can take on.


In some jobs and some industries, a short trial to prove a potential employee’s capabilities is a reasonable request. However, there are some good rules to abide by:

  • The trial should be no more than a demonstration of skills relevant to the vacant position.
  • The trial should be under the constant direct supervision of the appropriate decision-maker.
  • The trial shouldn’t last any longer than necessary to evaluate competency, somewhere between one hour and one shift.

According to Fair Work Australia and I think it’s a good rule of thumb no matter where you are in the world, ‘Any period beyond what is reasonably required to demonstrate the skills required for the job should be paid at the appropriate minimum rate of pay. If an employer wants to further assess a candidate’s suitability, they could employ the person as a casual employee and/or for a probationary period and pay them accordingly for all hours worked.’


Internships, especially the unpaid variety, are an almost uniquely American issue. In Australia, there are very strict laws surrounding unpaid work. Essentially, if the employer gets more out of it than the unpaid worker (such as work normally being performed by paid employees instead being done for free), then the unpaid worker is technically an employee and should be paid accordingly. Conversely, if the unpaid worker gets more out of it than the employer (that is it may be primarily observational and incidental to a learning experience and not primarily for the operational benefit of the business or organisation), then it is considered an acceptable unpaid work placement.

In the US, the laws seem less clear cut. In some industries, interns have successfully sued for back pay. But there are still plenty of legal unpaid internships, some incredibly sought after (such as the White House Internship Program). But they look great on a CV, right?

According to Rachel Burger writing for Forbes, ‘Unpaid internships are unlikely to help grads-to-be get a job.’ In fact, research has shown that upon graduation hiring rates for those who undertook unpaid internships are almost identical to those who undertook no internships at all. Rachel’s advice? ‘You are worth more than chronic volunteer work. Don’t fall for the unpaid internship trap.’

You can read more of Rachel Burger’s Forbes article ‘Why Your Unpaid Internship Makes You Less Employable’ here.

Content creation and conference participation

In 2013, Frank Swain declined to speak at a TEDx event. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a non-profit organisation devoted to ‘ideas worth spreading’ and as a policy does not pay its contributors. Many claim that they more than recoup the investment of their time donated to TED through the global exposure they receive. But as Frank, a science writer for eight years, explained in his blog, ‘I can’t pay my rent with exposure and goodwill.’

Slightly more disturbing was DN Lee’s experience. While running the Urban Scientist blog on the Scientific American network, she was invited to write an unpaid monthly blog for another website. She politely declined the offer and was unpolitely attacked via email by the editor, who called her a ‘whore’.

This is where another ‘e’ comes into focus. Regardless of whether you’re happy to do some unpaid work for the exposure or view it as exploitation (or are simply too busy with work that you are paid for), there should never be an expectation from anyone. If you choose to participate, good for you. If you choose not to participate, then equally good for you. If it degenerates into name calling, then the name caller should have a new expectation of being called out for it in a public space and consequently struggling to entice anyone at all to contribute ever again if that’s the kind of behaviour they default to when they don’t get their way.

My experience

As a direct result of writing these articles and posting them on LinkedIn, I was recently offered the opportunity to write product reviews of items that would appeal to the hip and stylish. I wouldn’t be paid for the work but I would be able to keep the items I was reviewing. As anyone who has ever met me in person would openly admit, I am about as far removed from the descriptors ‘hip’ and ‘stylish’ as a person can be. I sometimes go years without having a haircut (mostly only women with long hair can get away with this). The most expensive shoes I have ever bought is a pair of Doc Martens. And I tend to brag about how little my clothes cost, not how much.

Writing is a hard enough caper at times. The thought of writing about something I have little to no interest in without a monetary incentive felt like being drawn back to high school, a cruel and unusual punishment I escaped from twenty years ago, have no significant fond memories of and certainly no desire to return to. Ultimately, I just didn’t think the fit would be right so I offered a polite ‘thanks but no thanks’.

Writing for free, particularly for news-type websites dependent on the content of others, is still a hotly debated topic among writers. Some feel it degrades the skill and effort put into the creation of content and that all of us putting pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard as is more common these days) should unite in resisting against it. Others feel it is a rite of passage, something that every writer has done at some point in their career, usually when they are just getting started, and that the exposure it offers, particularly if it means by-lines in well-respected publications, is worth the trade-off of not getting paid.

Had the product reviews been something I was interested in writing about, I might have felt differently. The most important thing to remember is that it was my choice. I didn’t feel compelled by outside forces one way or the other. I’ve already demonstrated a willingness to write for free. But it has to be right for me. Personally I think it’s a case-by-case situation. But, I reiterate again, it has to be right. For you.

You can read more about the debate in Tim Kreider’s The New York Times opinion piece ‘Slaves of the Internet, Unite!’ here and Daniel D’Addario’s response containing the opinions of quite a few writers and editors at http://www.salon.com ‘When should a young writer write for free?’ here.

Further reading

If you’re in Australia, the Australian government has an excellent resource detailing the legalities of unpaid work, which you can find here.

If you’re not in Australia, your national government should be able to advise you further. And even if you’re not in Australia, take a look at the Australian government’s policies on unpaid work. I think these fair work practices are yet another reason why Australia is one of the best countries in the world to be an employee.


*First published on LinkedIn 22 September 2014


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