Should I Offer to Work for Free?

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Dear J.T. & Dale: There’s a job opening at a local hospital for a health information tech, which is the job I am currently studying for. Is it OK to offer my volunteer services for a job? I’d do it to get the position and get some experience in the field. However, I spoke to someone who told me that volunteering does not count as “experience.” What do you say? — Shaista

Dale: While I agree that it would be extremely useful experience, I can’t imagine the hospital accepting your offer. Why not? First, the goal of most department managers is to hire the person who needs the least training/hand-holding. A volunteer would look like a lot of work and a distraction. Plus, a manager is going to think, “If you aren’t getting paid, what’s to keep you from taking off whenever you feel like it?” And, beyond all that, the manager would know that in organizational life and logic, if you don’t hire an employee to fill a position, there’s a good chance that the slot will get taken away. Take all those together, and the typical manager will not even give serious thought to taking you on as a volunteer. Besides, coming in with “I’ll work for free” will not make a compelling case for hiring you — it’ll just seem desperate.

J.T.: I would agree…IF you just offer to take the job opening at no pay. Instead, put the proposition in language that the manager can accept: Ask if you could come in as an intern. If you explain how it would complement your coursework, there’s a good chance they’d love to have you join the group, especially if you bring energy and enthusiasm.

Dale: That’s a good solution. And “intern” will be more impressive than “volunteer” when looking for a job. However, if the internship idea doesn’t work, do look for ways to volunteer at the hospital, just not as a “free employee.”

J.T.: It isn’t true that volunteering doesn’t count as experience. Even if you aren’t getting paid, you are learning while meeting people who eventually could serve as references or networking contacts.

Dale: Volunteering may not be the ideal resume item, but you’ll make yourself an insider, and that could make all the difference. One analysis of hiring in the current economy shows that “inside” hiring has dramatically increased — half of available jobs are filled by people already inside the company. And that doesn’t count employee referrals. In this, the Time of No Time, managers want to avoid doing an extensive search, and they don’t want to risk a bad hire — so why not turn to a bright volunteer or intern? Why not you?


Jeanine “J.T.” Tanner O’Donnell is a professional development specialist and the founder of the consulting firm,, and of the blog, Dale Dauten resolves employment and other business disputes as a mediator with

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