By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
While businesses are generally wary of the risks of using unpaid labor, companies that have used free workers say it can pay off when done right.
With nearly 14 million unemployed workers in America, many have gotten so desperate that they’re willing to work for free. While some businesses are wary of the legal risks and supervision such an arrangement might require, companies that have used free workers say it can pay off when done right.
“People who work for free are far hungrier than anybody who has a salary, so they’re going to outperform, they’re going to try to please, they’re going to be creative,” says Kelly Fallis, chief executive of Remote Stylist, a Toronto and New York-based startup that provides Web-based interior design services. “From a cost savings perspective, to get something off the ground, it’s huge. Especially if you’re a small business.”
In the last three years, Fallis has used about 50 unpaid interns for duties in marketing, editorial, advertising, sales, account management and public relations. She’s convinced it’s the wave of the future in human resources. “Ten years from now, this is going to be the norm,” she says.
Why do people work for free?
The benefit unpaid labor offers to a business is pretty clear, but it can also give employees needed experience, a reference letter or even a self-esteem boost in a depressing economy.
The challenges of hiring and managing modern day serfs
Like others who have used unpaid labor, Remote Stylist’s Kelly Fallis recommends beginning with a very specific job description and conducting a thorough hiring process to screen out people who aren’t going to give their all for nothing.
Candidates who respond to Fallis’ postings on Craigslist and Facebook must fill out a detailed email questionnaire and undergo two rounds of phone interviews and three in-person interviews.
Those who join Remote Stylist, whether they are students or out-of-work 20- or 30-somethings, must agree to a four-month run and sign a hiring contract. She asks interns to commit 30 hours a week; she has been burned in the past by people who were trying to juggle a paid job with their commitment to Remote Stylist.
Believe it or not, the competition for some unpaid gigs can grow intense. John Lovejoy, managing director of multimedia fundraising company Nomadic Nation, received 300 responses for an editor position and 700 cameraman applications after only one week of advertising a project to drive from Germany to Cambodia in plastic cars. Not only were the positions unpaid, but successful candidates had to pay their own expenses.
One editor and two cameramen ended up quitting before the end of the trek due to rough conditions and 16-hour workdays. In retrospect, Lovejoy says, “I would screen a little bit better and make sure they understood that this wasn’t a vacation.”
Crystal Green, owner of Tallahassee-based event planning firm Your Social Butterfly, has had mixed results with unpaid staffers who didn’t take their responsibilities seriously. She’s even had to retrace the missteps of unpaid staffers and apologize to alienated business partners.
“It’s really hard as a single entrepreneur to babysit these people who need to learn. They’re not making any money, so you have to be very patient,” Green says.
None of these employers said they were concerned that they were violating the law — whether or not they actually are — but most get what they pay for, raising the question of whether they’d be better off just going with the time-honored tradition of paying employees.