Used enjoyment or enjoyed usement?
October 5, 2011 2:36 PM   Subscribe

How do I resolve this dilemma where I will feel used if I do a project I'd otherwise enjoy?

I have a dilemma I’m at a loss to resolve, so I'm just going to give a quick timeline, then go into detail.

July 2010: Wife is hired by company. A narrow technical position I was the lead candidate for was filled by an internal transfer (priority over external hire).

August 2010: I interview with company for another position and am told by interviewer that company will hire me. Paperwork to issue the formal offer is submitted to HR by interviewer.

September 2010: Company cannot actually hire me or anyone else due to budgetary hiring freeze, even for in-progress hires. I am told that unofficially they still want to hire me as soon as they are allowed to again.

Now: Company has expendable resource that is going bad and will be thrown away if not used soon. My wife thinks of how I enjoy using this technology but haven’t had access to recently and offers me the chance to put together a design to help use up the resource. Several groups within the company are still unofficially interested in hiring me, but are not currently allowed to due to budget.


I'm torn as to what to do here. The project would be really interesting to me, a great thing for my portfolio, and I would personally enjoy the process. If this was a personal project or my wife's old company that never had any position available to hire me, I would take this opportunity in a heartbeat, and have a blast doing it.

However, doing this work is something that would take most of my waking hours for the next week or so. It is also something that is very technical and requires a high degree of skill in a very narrow job field. I am not bragging when I say that I am incredible at this sort of thing.

If this was a one-time paid contract, a mid-quality contractor could easily expect to make a couple thousand (US) dollars for the week(s) of work. I personally would be very justified in charging substantially more since the quality of my work is known to be very high. Also, this particular job calls for an artist's touch, will be used to show off the group's industrial capability, and will potentially help generate a fair amount of work for the group.

Though I am currently unemployed, we are doing fine financially. I spent a good portion of the last few years doing unpaid work for a cause that I felt was important and was good experience, so I have no problem doing more of the same. What I do have a problem with is the feeling that the company is inadvertently using me. As my wife so aptly put it, it strikes me as a "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?" situation.

On the other hand, the movers and shakers will see the end result on facility tours and such, so it would increase my visibility to the people with the power to make exceptions to the hiring freeze and/or make hiring decisions later. Doing this project would also be a great addition to my portfolio for the future.

I have a great reputation with the staff of the group and am close friends with several of them. My background impressed the middle management hiring managers and HR. My wife also has a great reputation with both. This company is one that I would like to work for full time, and this type of work is exactly what I want to do as a career. The group still wants to hire me when it can, but it’s somewhat out of their control. This is a very odd, uncomfortable situation because it is so close to my dream job, but isn't, due to not being paid. Its sort of the uncanny valley of careers.

While I’m trying to reframe it as “The first [glass] is free”, I’m having trouble reconciling myself to this given the shenanigans with trying to get hired on, even though the project would result in something all-around pretty cool.

This is the hardest moral/ethical dilemma I’ve had in a long time. Should I do the project? What should I do to become okay with it and not feel used?

Anonymous email: firstglassfree at gmail
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
So, someone at the company (other than your wife) has asked you to do this really cool, but super time-consuming and technical, project, for no compensation? That sounds like crazy-talk to me. They can't even pay you as a contractor?
posted by leahwrenn at 2:42 PM on October 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

This isn't an ethical dilemma. This is a practical question. Do you want to do this project unpaid? Do you think it will help you to get where you want to go (presumably, into a paid, full-time job)? Are you going to be happier if you do it and get the experience, or happier if you stand firm and refuse? These aren't moral questions, they're questions about what you want and whether you think doing this project will help to get you there.

Personally, I wouldn't do it. I'm sure that folks at this company have good intentions, but it sounds as though they're trying to get you to work for free so that they don't have to hire you. That doesn't sound like a good idea to me. I wouldn't do it. But you may calculate higher odds of this being helpful to you and lower odds of feeling badly about it than I do, which would result in a different decision.

You also may want to look into whether it's even legal for them to make you this offer. Generally, working for a for-profit company for $0, which is substantially less than minimum wage, is frowned upon by various government agencies. There may be some exception that applies to you and makes this legal (I have no idea, I'm not a lawyer), but you and they should find out whether or not that's the case before going forward with this plan.
posted by decathecting at 2:53 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's no moral or ethical dilemma here. You're not an intern. They're not a charity case. You don't work for free, and you don't work for an insultingly low fee, either.
posted by adamrice at 3:19 PM on October 5, 2011 [11 favorites]

If you really will actively enjoy it, and it won't take time away from other things you want to do (or that you're getting paid to do) -- and assuming there's ZERO chance that they will get permission to hire you as a contractor to do this task, now or in the future -- then why not do it?

The fact that you'll enjoy it is the deciding factor for me -- it's nice that it's good for your portfolio, etc, but since those are only potential future benefits, they probably wouldn't be enough to justify working for free. But if you've got time on your hands, why not spend it doing something you like to do?
posted by cider at 3:47 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Despite the hiring freeze, I assume the folks at the top of this company are still taking home their salaries, right?

This is a company, not a charitable institution. Do not enhance their company for free.
posted by jbenben at 4:06 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Is there a way to make a counter-offer? Something like: "This is a great project but would take up a lot of my time. Here's normally what I would charge for a project like this, but for you, I'll charge half".

That way it makes clear that your time is valuable, and that you are offering them a favor.
posted by lillygog at 4:07 PM on October 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

I read it as a suggestion from the wife, not a formal request for free work from someone with the authourity to hire you. That informs my choice: write up the spec but retain rights over it. You were kinda vague so maybe that wouldn't work in your situation (I can't think what the realize could be).
posted by saucysault at 4:27 PM on October 5, 2011

*resource, I swear autocorrect didn't change it 'till after I hit post.
posted by saucysault at 4:29 PM on October 5, 2011

When I was younger and working in my field, I had a pretty good portfolio together from good international companies and a respectable CV but back in my home town, there wasn't much work so I struggled a bit while attempting to freelance. I had so many tiny companies try and take advantage of me by asking me to work for free while telling me this would be great for my folio or trying to lowball me on price. I actually fell for it a few times, and cut my rate drastically, thinking that they'd value what they got even more because they had top quality work at bargain basement prices. Wrong.

What I learnt is that no one values what they get for free or cheap, there is a weird psychological glitch where they seem to automatically assume that the work is substandard because they are paying less for it. They respected my opinions and advice less and attempted to make ridiculous unpaid changes. So guess what I did? I literally quadrupled my rates. I made them even higher than what I initially thought I was worth. Companies then automatically assumed if I was asking such high prices (and they could see by my previous work I was capable of delivering) that I was worth it. They took my advice seriously and didn't mess me about and waste all of our time with stupid unnecessary changes - because they were being charged a premium rate for it and they now respected my time, especially when it cost them to take up more of it.

The added danger for you is that you want a job out of this but by working for free you've already shown you don't value your own time, so they won't either. You'd like to think they'll appreciate free work, but they won't, they'll just think they can lowball you again when it comes to salary.

TL:DR If you don't value your own time, they won't either. I would say thank you for the opportunity, these are my rates (and make them at a premium! You're an expert, it should be reflected!) I think this will actually help you turn this into a well paid job, even if they pass on giving you this project now, they'll remember you as someone who produces high quality work, and they can have access to this expertise if they're prepared to pay.
posted by Jubey at 4:42 PM on October 5, 2011 [9 favorites]

I agree with the general consensus here, in general. But the whole, X is going bad, needs to be used thing, and the fact that you don't often get to use this mysterious resource X makes me think.

Yes, they won't value your work if they don't pay for it, and they might think they can get you free when needed, sure. But if you would enjoy it, then part of me thinks, just go for it. I mean, if you would feel used, or if the company is a jerk about it in any way, making any changes or being anything but gracious and grateful, don't do it. But if it's just about fun for you, networking, showing off your stuff, and you don't have anything better or more fun to do, then I say go for it.
posted by Garm at 5:09 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

My experience has been that once you start permitting yourself to be underpaid, you'll stay underpaid. There are exceptions but it's something about the psychology of it. People don't value free services and will balk at paying their provider in the future.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:49 PM on October 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

What do you need from them to do it? If the answer is "little or nothing" then do it and just keep the rights to it. If all of the high-ups want to ogle at it and say how cool it would be if they had it then they can.

You do exactly what they need but on your own. They see what you are capable of, and potentially have the opportunity to either buy what you produced or buy the cow in the form of a job offer.

-You do something you enjoy
-No one "uses" you
-You have something to put in your portfolio
-You have bait for a job offer
-You have something that might generate income regardless of an offer

This seems like the win-win.

If there _are_ things you need from them, assess how much you need them, if there is a way you can spoof that and still show the prototype in a convincing way, or if there is a way you can get a hold of them outside of a contract.
posted by milqman at 5:49 PM on October 5, 2011

If at all possible: turn things around. Have them donate the perishable raw materials and the time on their equipment to you. You then do your thing, go create and so on, and most importantly, you retain the rights to the final product(s). They end up with their showcase (always marked with "with gracious permission from l'artiste"), you end up with the entry in your portfolio, together with the feeling of not having been exploited. No difference in activities, but you would be performing the activities as an independent rather than an unpaid employee. You might, however, want to lawyer-up to make sure you actually do retain the rights.
posted by labberdasher at 1:14 AM on October 6, 2011

Assume you will gain absolutely nothing from this except the satisfaction of a job well done and whatever pleasure you take in using this resource. No future job offer or leads to other paid work, no increased exposure or name recognition, no acknowledgment of the value you provide for zero cost. Would you happily do the work under those circumstances, with no future bitterness?

Me, there's no way I'd do what amounts to undervalued charity work for a for-profit company that is unable to hire me (and has been so unable for at least a year) and has not given me a contract in writing (vetted by my lawyer) stating what job and salary will be provided the minute the hiring freeze is lifted. Seriously, if the shoe was on the other foot would they pay you to do nothing? I bet they'd say that sounds ridiculous. Well so is this.
posted by 6550 at 2:27 AM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I was going to suggest what labberdasher did: if you can own the results, sure, go for it.

If Company owns the results, though, it doesn't sound like a good deal for you.
posted by kristi at 10:56 AM on October 7, 2011

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