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How to Tactfully Say No When You're Asked to Work for Free

How to Tactfully Say No When You're Asked to Work for Free
Credit: marvent/Shutterstock

If you're an expert or have a specific interest in something, you've likely been asked to help others in that particular area. For instance, if you're talented at graphic design, you might help a friend create images for their personal website; or if you're a hiring manager, you might edit your cousin's resume.

There's nothing wrong with lending a hand, especially if you find joy in doing so – but beware of those who take advantage of your expertise.

"Once you start working for free for your friends (or family), it can become a slippery downhill slope," said Vicki Salemi, career expert at Monster.com. "Your time and talents aren’t being rewarded and instead, the services you’re providing are being taken away from billable hours and projects that you could be charging external clients."

If you find yourself stressed with requests and bending over backward for people with no reward, then you need to learn how to say no. Here's how to tactfully turn down working for free.

Instead of offering your services for no price, lower your typical rates by a certain percentage (e.g. 20-percent off for family members.) This will show your loved one that they're special to you, but that work is work – and you can't afford to do it for free.

"Think about what you can charge them while still feeling like you and your work are being valued," said Caitlin Drago, ICF-credentialed life coach. "Look at the number and imagine you're in the middle of working on the project. Are you feeling resentful or happy to be doing the work for them? No one wants to resent their friends and family."

Additionally, factor in the intensity of labor required for the project, said Salemi. The less work and time involved, the higher the discount.

If you are going to offer discounts, however, make it clear that they aren't for everyone, and they shouldn't be openly discussed with others.

"If you aren't explicit about your family member sharing the 'deal' you gave them, word may get out," said Drago. "The last thing you want is for your work to be devalued."

Money isn't everything. There are plenty of other ways that you can be compensated for your work, like free advertisement or tasteful reviews. Maybe the person you're helping can help you, too. Do they have an area of expertise in which you're lacking?

Perhaps you're a writer, and they're a therapist; you can edit a blog post for their professional website, and they can act as a source for an article you're writing on mental health. There are many valuable arrangements you can make if you think outside the box and are willing to ask for it.

"There may be times that it is okay to work for 'free' where you aren't getting monetary compensation, but you are receiving something back in return," said Drago. "Make sure that it is exposure that will actually be helpful for you."

In article on Inc., Amy Morin writes that there are only four times you should work for free: when you earn exposure, when you expand on your real-life experience, when you gain a valuable addition to your resume, and when it's for a cause that you believe in. If your deal does not involve any of these reasons, don't agree to it.

If you feel uncomfortable or strained, tell your loved one. Don't do whatever it takes to please them, especially if it's at your expense. Be your own mentor, and think about what will best serve you in the end.

"When a friend asks you to work without compensation, you can politely let them know your paid clients are a priority and you don’t have time to assist," said Salemi. "Be careful with your language choice, as they may be asking without realizing how much of an inconvenience it would be for you."

Additionally, nonpaying clients should provide the tools and resources you need to do your job so you don't have to waste your own, such as art supplies or specific software. You should never put money into a job if you aren't earning any back.

"You … want to be sure that the scope is well-defined and you feel good about the exchange," said Drago. "It may feel formal – especially with a family member – but clear boundaries will ensure that no one is taken advantage of, whether on purpose or not, so that your relationship is not negatively impacted."

If you can swing "pro bono" work from time to time, that's great – but don't make it a habit, and don't let anyone abuse your kindness.

Sammi Caramela

Sammi Caramela has always loved words. When she isn't working as a Purch B2B staff writer, she's writing (and furiously editing) her first novel, reading a YA book with a third cup of coffee, or attending local pop-punk concerts. The only time Sammi doesn't play it safe is when she's writing. Reach her by email, or check out her blog at sammisays.org.