Would you work for free? The next guy might

The lack of a paycheck isn't stopping some people from showing up for work. CNBC reports that some people have started working for free. In a trend that is both alarming and possibly illegal, some companies are relying on the free labor of their recently laid off employees or hard up recent graduates to carry on with business as usual. Experts question whether or not employees are being taken advantage of.

One of the examples is for an "employee" who works for free at a startup called JobNob, with the hopes of getting a job when the economy recovers. But the twist is that JobNob hosts happy hour events to connect other startups that can't pay for work with employees who don't mind working for free. For the startups, this is an incredible deal, not only do they avoid costly wages but there's no mention of company ownership for employees either. And despite all the assurances in the world, if it isn't in writing you can't take it to the bank.

The main reasons employees cite for working for free is the desire to keep dead spots off of their resumes or to gain an edge over other jobseekers when the economy recovers. It makes sense in the very short term, but what's to convince an employer to start paying you when things do get better? As my grandmother always said, "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?" On top of hurting yourself, you're also driving down the overall demand for actual employees in your community.

Instead of working for free and plowing through your savings, why not try to work for yourself? Sure the job market is crap but you'll have something to show for your time and you may even earn some money while you're at it. An employee that took initiative and tried something new when times get tough is a lot more appealing than one who hung around and worked for free in order to avoid rocking the boat. If you can't freelance to feed yourself, volunteer at your favorite charity -- most of them will appreciate the extra help especially since they won't likely be getting your donation this year.

If you still feel like working for free, make sure you're getting something for it on top of a placeholder on your resume; and "experience" doesn't count. If you don't demand stock options, specialized training or free use of the company's products, you're selling yourself short and all but assuring yourself of a low starting wage when (and if) the company does get enough cash to start printing paychecks.

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