When I started my freelance writing career, I was utterly clueless. Like so many others, I fell into the trap of not knowing my worth and doing work for free. I was convinced that writing an article–without compensation–would lead to exposure and higher-paying gigs. And there were dozens of editors and website managers who encouraged that mindset.
When I proudly told my mentor I had completed yet another free guest column, it was clear she used all her self-restraint not to smack me upside the head.
“Stop working for free,” she yelled. “Exposure doesn’t pay your bills.”
It was a much-needed wake-up call. And for 20-somethings in every industry, there are plenty of people looking to take advantage of young and green workers. Below are some things to be aware of to protect yourself (and your bank account).
Internships are a rite of passage to enter the workforce. And while unpaid internships are common in certain industries like public relations, marketing, and non-profits, internships can cross the line into exploitative gigs very easily.
An unpaid internship should give you real value. Yes, you will have to pay your dues and help with office tasks, but you should also walk away with a strong portfolio, work samples, and references. You should be doing real work with concrete outputs. While it’s good to experience elements of many different positions within a company, if you are, instead, doing the work of what would otherwise be a paid position, such as acting as the full-time receptionist or working the call center, that’s a problem. Many companies use unpaid interns for free labor, using interns in place of hiring a full-time person. While you will gain experience working in an office, a valuable internship allows you to grow your skills and employability.
Additionally, worthwhile internship programs are respectful of your schoolwork. While your internship should be treated with as much seriousness as a “real job,” the company should understand that you need to balance class with your work. That means not demanding you work overtime during finals week or asking you to skip class.
If you find yourself in that position, have a serious conversation with your boss about your internship goals and what is expected. If you’re in school, reach out to your career services department. Every internship will have grunt work, but unpaid internships in particular should have a focus on giving you a chance to develop your skills.
Whether you freelance full-time or just earn extra money on the side, freelancing can be lucrative. But it also can make you vulnerable. Many companies prey on fresh freelancers to get free or low-cost work. They may make promises about exposure or references, but at the end of the day, you’re working for free.
Before agreeing to a free or low-cost project, do research to see what other freelancers are charging. You can find freelancer groups on LinkedIn that can help give you advice, or an idea of what different projects cost. While you may feel like you need to charge less because you have less experience, resist that impulse. You’re doing a professional service and should charge accordingly.
Compensation is a major area of weakness for young workers. Often, we are so excited to get a job offer that we agree without talking money. That can mean we miss out on higher salaries or even benefit packages. Some companies take advantage of fresh workers by telling them it’s unprofessional to negotiate, or that they shouldn’t ask about benefits before starting work. But those are just tactics to discourage you from getting what you deserve. If a company tells you that you shouldn’t negotiate, run.
When you’re a new worker and low man on the totem pole, you will likely get the short straw. To pay your dues, you might get the worst shifts, work the longest hours, and get paid the least. That’s normal. But what isn’t okay is when companies try to avoid paying fresh workers overtime pay or encourage them to clock out but stay at work.
Not only is that behavior poor work practice, it’s also illegal. Know your rights and clock in whenever you are at work so your time is appropriately recorded.
If you are not getting paid for the hours you actually work, first raise the issue with your boss. It may be she does not realize you are putting in unpaid time. But if she glosses over it or even instructs you to clock out, talk to your company’s human resources department. Unpaid labor is a big issue, and companies want to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
But in some cases, particularly small companies without legal teams or human resource professionals, you may have to escalate the issue even further. If that’s the case, contact your state’s Department of Labor for advice on how to proceed.
Stand your ground
When you’re a new worker and are eager to impress, it’s easy to be taken advantage of. Know the norms in your industry–and your state’s employment laws–to protect yourself.
Originally published on January 17, 2017.