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Would You Be Willing to Work for Free?

by Ryan Guina

Would you be willing to work without receiving a paycheck? I’m not talking about volunteering a weekend with Habitat for Humanity, or helping out with your church. Most people are willing to volunteer for a good cause. Would you be willing to work at your normal day job without compensation?

In an effort to save money, British Airways recently offered workers the opportunity to take one to four weeks of unpaid leave, with the option to continue working during the period of unpaid leave. (Note: BA is not requiring workers to take leave or work without pay).

It is not unheard of for companies to offer or require employees to take unpaid leave (last winter my company required non-chargeable support staff to take vacation days between Christmas and New Year). But it is much less common for companies to solicit voluntary unpaid leave, and say “by the way, we know you won’t be receiving a paycheck for the next couple weeks, but would you like to come to work anyway?”

Would you work without pay?

The knee jerk reaction to this type of question is “hell no!” And that is an understandable reaction. But this question does not always have an easy answer. There have been many stories in recent months of workers taking voluntary pay cuts or volunteering to work off the clock for a short time period to help companies save funds and prevent layoffs.

There are many factors I would consider before I would work for free. I would be much more inclined to volunteer my hours without pay if I worked for a small business that was struggling due to a poor economy, and not due to mismanagement. I would be less inclined to work for free for a large corporation that was trying to appease shareholders because they were losing money.

Could you afford it? It’s a hard to ignore the fact that your paycheck would be lower or non-existent the next time it rolls around. Not many people can afford to go without their regular paycheck once, much less up to a month. How long could you go without a paycheck?

Corporate culture and peer pressure play a large role. It could be difficult to look my peers in the eye if each of them volunteered to work and I refused. Rightly or wrongly, these kind of things are remembered and could affect how you are treated in the future, or even affect your performance reviews (though that would never be stated as the reason for a poor review).

How far would you go for your company?

What about unpaid leave and no work? Thankfully, this question hasn’t come up where I work. But if it did, I would be more inclined to take voluntary unpaid leave and stay at home with my family. I don’t feel like there is ever enough time off as it is, so it would be worth trading a week’s pay for a week of family time. But unless it meant the possible fall of the company and everyone did it, I don’t think I could bring myself to take a week or more of unpaid leave and still go in to work (note: I work for a large corporation; my answer would probably differ if I worked for a smaller company).

What would you do?


Published or updated June 18, 2009.
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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kristen

I think I would be more inclined to work for free for a small business or a non-profit that was truly struggling because of circumstances beyond their control than I would a larger corporation or a company that was suffering because of boneheaded mistakes. The last place I worked, I would NEVER have worked a whole day or days for free. (I already gave them too many of my hours for free. They bled their employees dry, and that was before the recession.)

I agree that it would be hard to not work if everyone else was working for free. It would make me feel guilty, even though it shouldn’t.

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2 Ken

No working for free here…I did just take a salary cut for this coming year (like the rest of my coworkers..I’m in education)…..I have too many bills to pay. I would be more inclined to work 1 day free for a week…not so damaging to the budget.

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3 Four Pillars

I would consider it if I thought I could make a difference. So if I worked for a small company and I thought that a certain amount of sacrifice would save my job then I might go for it.

If you work for a big company then it’s safe to say that the actions of one person will make no difference at all so why bother?

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4 My Journey

Would I still get my health benefits? They aren’t taxed YET – but they are worth something

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5 Ryan

I’m assuming they would keep you on the payroll, just ask that you work for free for a few days. I don’t think anything else would change…

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6 Kristin

I work for a library and we’ve just been asked to participate in a voluntary furlough program. Unpaid leave for one day a month for the rest of the year. This program is a test case for a possible mandetory furlough program next year.

I’ve been struggling with this exact question as we are unable to hire replacement staff members and already work is starting to build up. I’m a children’s librarian and serving the kids is something I love and am seriously considering volunteering my time to work unpaid on these furlough days.

I have to say though. I’m not above making sure my boss knows. So if the question of layoffs comes up during budget cuts, I might get brownie points for working above and beyond and saving the city money. Is that wrong of me?

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7 Ryan

Kristin, it’s never wrong to work hard to protect your job. So long as you aren’t doing anything unethical or designed to undermine a coworker’s position, then I think you should have a clear conscience.

I would be careful though not to go too far or else they may not value you or your services as much. You want to be valuable, but not give the impression that you are willing to work for free.

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8 Curious Cat Investing Blog

I would definitely take leave without without pay. Many actually do work for free when they work extra hours, etc.. I agree with you that the more connected you feel to the company and the work the more likely to work without pay (in order to help out the company). Unfortunately so many companies fail to make the employees feel engaged. I write about this on my blog http://management.curiouscatblog.net/category/respect/ Companies can set up conditions that create a climate where people want to work more (they go beyond what is required to get earn their paycheck) for free – Google does this very well, so do many others.

Like you though, I most want time off, so I like the idea of helping by reducing the cash flowing out of the company while times are tough (if that will help).

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9 marci

I work for a small family owned company.
So, yes I would, as they have been very good to me.
And, the hours (paid or not) would go towards my 30 hrs/wk
I need to work to keep my health insurance in effect.

Now – if it was a week or more off, wouldn’t you be eligible for
unemployment benefits also? (after the waiting week we have
in our state)

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10 Ryan

Most states make workers wait through one week of unemployment before being eligible for benefits, so if you are going back to work a week later, you probably wouldn’t qualify.

As for health insurance, companies that ask people to take temporary unpaid leave aren’t removing people from the books or stopping benefits, they are just asking them not to come in to work so they can save money on labor costs.

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11 DDFD at DivorcedDadFrugalDad

I feel like I work for free all the time . . .

If I were independently wealthy– I would certainly find worthy causes and give my time.

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12 vh

Our unpaid furloughs are not voluntary: they amount to a 15% pay cut. Some employees asked it they could simply donate days, coming in to work for free, and were told they were not permitted to do so.

At one point we were given an opportunity to take a permanent pay cut in lieu of furlough days. This amounted to shooting yourself in the foot: when you’re furloughed, your hourly rate does not drop. State employees here can accrue unused sick leave and then, upon retirement, receive a percentage of their hourly rate for each our of sick leave. For those who survive a long time, this can amount to a substantial severance bonus; accepting a pay cut meant accepting a big cut in a key retirement benefit.

Furloughs and voluntary pay cuts have not protected anyone here from layoffs. They just mean you get a cut in pay before you get canned, making it harder for you to build up an emergency fund.

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13 Ryan

I agree – taking a voluntary pay cut is never a good option if it affects your benefits. It can have other ramifications down the line as well… Sorry to hear about it affecting you.

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14 NoDebtGuy

I can’t see me ever being asked to work for free as I work for the government. I do however take the equivelent of 32 unpaid days off and work on my business or relax. It is a nice option to have.

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15 Ryan

NDG, The government doesn’t ask people to take time off, which is a great thing. It’s nice that you have the option to take unpaid leave to relax or work on your business. My company allows employees to take unpaid leave, but only with approval.

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16 Robert B

I am 64 years old I have in Florida.
I worked for large corporation Ford Motor Company in a assembly plant. was up two 7000 employees.
I started out in production, and within nine months I was supervision.
I was a supervisor, Manpower reduction, quality control, job rebalancing, some standards and training supervisors.
I am looking for a job that does NOT pay. I am retired after 30 years and now live in Florida. Just need something to do.

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