Am I Doing Free Labor? Here’s When "Going Above & Beyond” Goes Too Far

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As a woman and a freelancer — two groups notoriously expected to work for free — I’m extremely wary of anyone who seems to be asking for free labor from me. I make sure my (male) partner does at least half our chores, I charge to give out career advice, and if a client starts requesting more time from me, you bet I’ll start requesting more money from them. But I also pride myself on crushing every job I’m assigned — on going above and beyond at work. And sometimes, I really struggle to draw the line between going above and beyond and doing plain old free labor.

“If you are asked or forced to take on additional responsibility when others are not or with no additional incentive, then you are working for free,” career counselor and executive coach Roy Cohen tells Bustle. “It is an abusive environment. There are no exceptions. Even companies in distress will recognize hard work and find some way to reward an individual who may be critical to achieving success once the situation has been stabilized.”

If you’re not sure if you’re working for free or just being a star employee, here are some things to consider.

1Set Up Expectations You Can Exceed

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Going above and beyond can mean totally different things depending where the expectations are set. For example, one job used to expect me to work until 5:30. Since the initial agreement involved less time, I negotiated my end of day down to 4:30. After that, I looked like a star whenever I hung around until 5. Without setting that expectation, I could’ve left at the exact same time and looked lazy.

“When delivering above and beyond has become the expected norm, it’s extremely hard to draw the line between what constitutes self driven initiative versus free labor,” Aditi Tandon, co-founder of Maroon Oak, tells Bustle. “Simply put, exceeding expectations is akin to going above and beyond while repeatedly performing tasks out of your line of usual work may constitute free labor.”

If you want to get credit and compensation for your work, make sure you’ve established reasonable expectations. Staying in the office hours beyond the end of the day can start to look like a bare minimum if there’s no understanding that this is overtime.

2Make Sure Your Work Is Appreciated

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Sometimes, the difference between extra effort and free labor is just that one’s acknowledged and the other’s taken for granted. Your labor may not feel completely “free” if you’re getting gold stars in return. Tandon recommends asking yourself: “Am I occasionally rewarded- a good word, recommendation, shout-out or monetarily or is most of my extra effort taken for granted?”

3Tune In To Your Feelings

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Other times, the main difference is just how the work makes you feel. If it’s exhilarating to you, it may not feel like labor at all (though I’d be careful about that, because we deserve compensation for our work no matter how much we enjoy it). If you feel like you’re dragging your feet, you can start to feel exploited and get burnt out really fast. So, another good question to ask yourself is “Am I excited at the ask or does it make me uncomfortable or resentful?” says Tandon.

4Your Title & Pay Should Change As Your Work Does

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If you’re “going above and beyond” habitually to the point that it’s the new norm, your pay and title should reflect that. Alexis Chateau, managing director at Alexis Chateau PR, learned this the hard way. At a past job, she got no extra money or promotion after taking on a leadership role and eventually quit. “I had gone above and beyond for the company, but they treated my hard work as free labor,” she tells Bustle. “So to answer the question posed, going above and beyond becomes free labor when you are not sufficiently appreciated and compensated.”

5Your Extra Work Should Serve a Purpose

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Often, a shot at a promotion is the motivation for going above and beyond. Or sometimes, you’re just that passionate about what you do. Just make sure you know the goal, it’s realistic, and it’s something you truly want. “By setting a goal or two, and giving yourself a general timeframe for how long you're going to be doing this extra work, you're being strategic about how and why you spend your time and energy,” FlexJobs' Senior Career Specialist Brie Reynolds tells Bustle.

So, in short, your free labor isn’t really free if you’re getting some non-monetary reward from it. That could be a promotion, a raise, a chance to hone your skills, or just the advancement of a project you care deeply about. But be suspicious of anyone who expects you to work for nothing at all. If it doesn’t feel worth it to you, it probably isn’t.