How to Gently Tell Off Anyone Asking You to Work For Free

When you get that request to work for pittance, I mean “exposure,” here’s how to say no.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #404

I’m so popular! A few weeks ago, I got a call from a woman proudly representing a $6 billion company. She mentioned that twice. Let’s call her “Jaime Sommers.” They had a CEO conference and wanted me to come speak for the low, low price of … no money at all. I would get “exposure.” Yay, I just love exposure!!! No, I don’t. … In fact, I hate exposure. Well, not really. But the last time I checked, my bank doesn’t take “exposure” for my mortgage payment. Even so, this woman, working for a $6 billion dollar company, wants my work for nothing. 

Some would say Jaime is just an exploitative hack who doesn’t want to pay. Other people would want to scream and yell at her. They would want to call her an exploitative hack directly to her face. Fortunately, you and I are above all that. We wouldn’t even think it.

And yet we would want to respond. We would want to understand why what she’s doing is wrong, and help her understand it too. And we would want this young woman to stop and think about the ethics of what she’s doing. (Failing that, we at least want her to feel like crap every single time she looks in the mirror for the rest of her life. Like the Queen, we are not merciful, except in extraordinary circumstances.)

Why Her Request Is Unethical

Her request is unethical for a number of reasons. First, she’s valuing your professional work at $0 when it comes to payment, yet clearly she is getting value from it or she wouldn’t be asking for you to work for free. That’s just skeezy.

But even more so, chances are really, really good that she doesn’t work for free. So she’s being a hypocrite asking you to work for free. That’s also pretty skeezy.

Furthermore, she’s somehow claiming that her company is making $6 billion a year, and can’t afford to pay for one speech. What happened to the $6 billion? Apparently they made it by not paying anyone fair value for their labor. That’s really skeezy.

And by the way, we live in a capitalist society, not an exposurist society. Ryan Reynolds gets great exposure when he stars in “Deadpool,” especially if you use freeze-frame to watch it. Yet he still gets paid for his work. It was career-making exposure for Jennifer Lawrence to star in “Hunger Games,” yet she was still paid for her work. Why? Because it’s her freaking job. And in our economy, when people do a job, they get paid. Otherwise, it’s just skeezy. Skeezy, skeezy, skeezy.

Who’s Taking the Risk?

But when someone asks you to work for exposure, the most heinous thing is that it puts the guaranteed work on you and gives you only an uncertain and highly unreliable reward. They, meanwhile, have almost no risk and get all the upside if your work turns out to be high quality.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.