Punk Rock HR: Will Work For Free?

starbucks coffee cup
an intern’s life. flickr: Steve Webel

Laurie Ruettimann had some choice words about working for free, namely: don’t do it.

“A lot of career advisors disagree with me,” she says. “They think you should get your portfolio in front of people any way you can. But you never do free work. Maybe you barter in exchange for access to a senior executive or for a future job or visibility. But don’t just volunteer to do free work, because they’re going to keep asking. “The more you keep asking the more they’ll keep taking advantage of you. Think about the value of your time.”

Of course, internships are the exception, but you still have to get something, if it’s not cash. The “experience” means nothing, she says. In fact, internships don’t count for anything unless you work them to get a job at the company you’re interning for. “Experience” doesn’t count, she says, “because in those internships you sit there and shred documents. You get mail. If you’re not meeting with people who can help you in your career its truly a waste of your time.”

One intern told her tale of woe: she’d been working for free for six months. Had finally worked up the nerve to tell her direct supervisor that she needed to start getting paid, when that person was laid off “and I panicked,” she says. Laurie’s advice?
“Have an honest conversation with them.” Tell them, she says, that she really enjoys her work but needs to know where her paying job is coming from, whether that’s at the current company or elsewhere, “‘and if it’s not here, may I continue to intern for you while I look for a job?’ They will respect you for saying it,” she says.

What do you think? Do you have an intern tale of woe? Yours truly, a two-time intern was once laid off from her paying part-time job that she needed to afford rent to be able to afford to take the nonpaying internship. (Urgh!) Talked the nonpayers into one week of Metrocard fare (which at the time was like $10, so it’s not like they were shelling out for much) and that was it, but luckily we got a second part-time job soon after. But anyway, in our experience, if they can’t afford to pay an intern minimum wage, they probably can’t afford to hire you.