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Friends Don’t Let Friends Work For Free

Here’s a question for you: Has a friend or family member asked for your free professional expertise at any time in the last two years?

No? The rest of us want to know how you got so lucky. In the Great Recession, everyone wants a bargain, and this includes free labor and pro bono professional advice. Why pay an accountant when your old friend from college with the accounting degree can give you the tax advice you need for free? Why shell out for a graphic artist when you can hit up one of your Facebook friends to create your start-up’s logo for the cost of a wink and a smile?

Welcome to the age of the “profriendship,” where people are looking to save a buck and aren’t shy about asking their professional friends to provide free product, free advice, free labor, free time. In a poor economy where everyone is only a tweet away, no one is safe from being asked, either. Consider a survey of attorneys last year that found attorneys are offering $5,000 in free legal advice to friends and relatives every year. Maybe it’s not surprising lawyers are now cutting way back on their unpaid advice.

Poking around the Internet turns up more than a few annoyed people who are tired of friends and acquaintances trying to squeeze free work out of them. Being told “we can’t afford to pay you anything, but you’ll get good exposure on our website” has become the last thing many professionals ever want to hear again in this lifetime. Exposure doesn’t pay the electric bill.

The profriendship trend will be a lasting legacy of the Great Recession. It's quietly leaving damaged friendships in its wake that could take months, or even years, to repair. The person who asks is offended to be turned down. The person asked is offended by the request. That's usually how it goes.

Bottom line: Profriendships are full of potential pitfalls. Friends don't let friends work for free.

Before going any further, let me say there are most certainly exceptions to this rule. Maybe an old friend and fellow professional seeks your professional expertise to aid a worthy volunteer or charity cause, for example. Maybe a young person seeks your professional advice when trying to settle on a career, or your professional training would ease the road of a friend or family member in crisis. For example, using your accounting expertise to advise a bereaved and daunted widow on keeping the books after a loved one's passing. In such cases, money doesn’t even enter the picture. The payoff is the wonderful feeling of being able to use your professional training to make life better for someone who is having a hard time, which can feel just as good as getting a paycheck.

But providing some of your expertise to aid a friend’s toaster company with its accounting books, legal papers, logo design, office layout –- the list goes on? Or having a relative expect hours' worth of free advice on his golf swing when you're a golf pro who gets paid to dispense such advice for a living? Hmm. This is where things get a little sketchy, and relationally dangerous. The professional being asked to take on the work feels like they’ve suddenly stepped into a social minefield, and they’re rightfully worried. What if my old friend –- er, potential “client” -- doesn’t like or respect my professional advice? What if he or she hates the end product and sees me through new, disappointed eyes? What if the client turns out to be a huge pain in the ass? What if the friendship is damaged over a professional disagreement? As the old saying goes, the argument is never really about the toaster. Could I be exposed to any legal liability in taking on the project? Who will take the blame if things go wrong? Will my friend get mad if I say no? Do we need to write up a contract, even though there may be no payment involved? Why do I feel suddenly so damn awkward?

The state of the economy adds only more stress to the decision. People have had less work on their plates during the Great Recession, which makes every paying project a first priority. Whereas five years ago many professionals might have been willing to take on a higher percentage of pro bono work, they simply can’t afford to work for free in this economy. Budgets are tight, and the overhead costs are high. Every waking moment is spent chasing down the paying clients.

Given this picture, people looking for free labor or professional advice should be ready for their friends to say no. Also, they should try to offer the friend something, anything, in exchange for their professional services, and I’m not talking about free exposure on a website. It might be a bartering arrangement (you create my logo, and I’ll give you a month’s worth of free coffee courtesy of my coffee shop) or some such agreement. These arrangements can work well, as long as you set the terms up front and track everything for tax purposes. My point is that there’s a quid pro quo. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. The transaction feels balanced.

So how should you handle an awkward proposal of protracted and unprofitable profriendship? Here’s my list of “dos” and “don’ts”:

DO respond promptly. It can be tempting to think on it for days, but get back to your friend within 48 hours. Your stress level will keep rising the longer you wait, and your friend needs an answer. Treat them like you would any other potential client.

DO think it through. This matter always requires a delicate response since a friendship is involved. Keep it professional when offering your regrets. You might offer to put your friend in touch with a few professionals in your field who are negotiable on price (hint, hint) and would do a great job for them.

DON’T get sucked in. It’s always harder to say “no” when a friendship is involved. A good friend will understand and accept your refusal and won’t let it damage the friendship. Think of it this way: Your friend had no qualms in soliciting free work from you, so you should have no qualms in turning down work for which you won’t get paid. It’s a business decision.

DO follow your gut. As a professional, you know when someone is asking for something above and beyond what is reasonable. Trust your professional instincts when you ponder the light and dark tunnels where the project could lead. Is it worth the risks and rewards? Your instincts won’t fail you.

DO discuss terms. If you decide to take on your friend's project, what are his or her expectations regarding its scope, deadlines and so forth? Does your friend expect Rome to be built in a day? If so, you can reset lofty expectations and set some boundaries. At the very least, you'll see where the red flags might lie. Depending on the project, you may want to get the terms in writing even if it's via email.

DON’T buckle up for a guilt trip. You said “no” and now your friend is upset. Send a professional email or leave a nice voicemail offering your regrets. Extend an offer to meet for coffee or to talk about it, but let the person come around on his or her own time. Don’t feed the drama monster. Not being able to separate the personal from the professional is ultimately their problem, not yours.

DO write it down. Friends and relatives will be asking you for free work product for the rest of your working life, so it’s not a bad idea to write down how you will respond when asked. Create a one-page document or email response that’s a template for future situations. Think about the types of projects you're willing to take on, and set some boundaries around the types of expertise you're willing to offer pro bono. File it away and refer to it when the time comes. It’ll decrease your chances of fumbling for the right answer.

DO value your skills. It’s a sad fact of life that some people will try to take advantage of you every now and then, but remember that you’re a professional, first and always. Your time and skills are worth something. You have every right to say no. Ask yourself: Would the person who asked me to work for free do the same if I asked them? The answer could be very enlightening.

The next time you’re tempted to ask a professional friend for free labor or advice, meanwhile, think again. This profriendship might save you a bit of money, but your friendship could be the ultimate cost.


  1. I work as a life coach an am constantly asked to work for free. I know women - usually immature drama queens - who would phone me every few hours with questions if I let them. One of the reasons you must charge is that people do not help themselves to your time. In my line of business I could easily be working for the same person every day of the week forever otherwise. It is not like a hairdresser who does someones' hair and then will not be asked again for a month or so. I agree that people should offer something in return but it has to be something of equal value. I wont give someone £1000 worth of life coaching in return for a home baked chocolate cake. I also would never take on a "friend" as a client anyway because they woul resent having paid and then try to find fault
    and want to milk it for all it is worth. There would be calls and emails where it is
    I KNOW IVE PAID YOU AND HAD THE TIME I PAID FOR BUT IVE JUST GOT ONE QUICK QUESTION. IT WILL ONLY TAKE TEN MINUTES. and wanting that all for free, over an over. Then there woul be the HOW DO I KNOW I CAN TRUST YOU? HOW DO I KNOW YOU ARE RIGHT? or THINGYBOB DOWN THE ROAD (who is less qualified and less experienced) IS CHEAPER THAN YOU. WHY DO YOU CHARGE SO MUCH? simply because they resent having paid. I would never take on a friend as a client even if they say they are happy to pay for those reasons and more.

  2. True friends don't expect free work to begin with. I'm an Arborist and bicycle mechanic by trade. I've fixed more bikes and taken down more trees for free than I care to count. I'm talking 10k plus of free work. Then, when you start charging someone you traditionally helped out, the cheapskate feels they are doing you a favor.

    I actually had, let me repeat, had a friend I cut truckloads of firewood for, helped with general carpentry, and cut his grass while he was on vacation. Finally, I needed someone to help me hang drywall. He actually wanted $25 hourly, and did a terrible job and padded his hours. He then asked me to "help" him hold the ladder on some "easy" tree branch removals knowing I had all the gear. This is what finally ended our friendship. That and I found out he was telling his wife he was paying me for all the work I did for free.

    People who expect free, or highly discounted work also seem to be the most demanding, plus you then get the reputation as being cheap and ultimately attract more of these leeches, instead of attracting a better client base who don't mind paying a fair price for quality work. This can be applied to any profession.


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