Is working for free looked down upon?

Talked to my career advisor last week about cold calling boutique shops for some informal internships for the spring semester.

Brought up offering to work for free and was met with some stern advice about how that's never a good thing to do.

Does going to that level of desperation put me in a more negative light than positive? Or could she just be talking about the regulations companies have in place?

Happy late thanksgiving chimps. 

WSO Elite Modeling Package

  • 6 courses to mastery: Excel, Financial Statement, LBO, M&A, Valuation and DCF
  • Elite instructors from top BB investment banks and private equity megafunds
  • Includes Company DB + Video Library Access (1 year)

Comments (61)

Nov 28, 2020 - 4:01am

why exactly would you even want this? do you think they would take you on because you don't want a salary? Banks have money, the salary isn't the deterrent. the candidate is. It is true they are trying to save money, but the right talent is attracted by the right salary.

  • 1
  • Intern in IB - Gen
Nov 28, 2020 - 4:24am

If it's for a freshman or sophomore internship, I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing. If the shop is legit and you're getting some good experience, it will help you with recruiting. And no one will ask in interviews whether you were paid or not. Different story if it's for junior summer

Nov 28, 2020 - 6:00am

People always seem to have a very categorical take on one side or the other when it comes to this issue. Like most things, "it depends." Some people may think it shows desperation, others think it shows hustle. Just do what you think is best and it'll work out fine 

Nov 28, 2020 - 6:06am

I think if you are qualified, capable, and willing to do the job - you should be paid for it. Even it is for SA/internship, etc.

If enough people work for free (for whatever reason they might have) - employers might get used to it and they won't pay anyone going forward or they might reduce compensation for this group of employees.

Learn More

300+ video lessons across 6 modeling courses taught by elite practitioners at the top investment banks and private equity funds -- Excel Modeling -- Financial Statement Modeling -- M&A Modeling -- LBO Modeling -- DCF and Valuation Modeling -- ALL INCLUDED + 2 Huge Bonuses.

Learn more
Nov 28, 2020 - 11:32am

I encourage you to look at the background of your "career advisors". Very often they are liberal arts majors who have never even taken a business or finance course much less interned or worked in the industry. 

Array

  • 7
Nov 28, 2020 - 12:01pm

It's a bad idea and definitely looked down upon. 

It also can be a legal liability and it's definitely a time drain, which is why it doesn't happen at many reputable firms. 

Liability - the problem w/ working for 'free' is from the firm's view you can be a legal liability if something happened to you on their premises. It raises all kinds of legal red flags. Say you're working for 'free' informally for someone at a boutique and you for whatever reason get injured on their premises, what happens then?   Are you an employee? Or were you classified as a 'visitor' for the day as you're working for free? Not sure if a boutique's legal division / HR would want to put up w/ this, especially in the US where everyone sues everyone for any reason. Obviously, there are ways around this (credit programs w/ the school, and it differs geographically, etc..) but I'm not sure many decent US firms would want to deal w/ this in general, mainly because they don't have to.  

Time drain – the bigger problem is you'll be taking away time from ppl who have limited time. Training someone who is inexperienced takes time, often someone senior can do the job faster than take the time to explain it. In an industry where time is highly valued, this is a problem. No one wants a 'project' to take on for a few months that will waste everyone's time, especially for someone who is gone in a few months. With any job, even an internship, you need to prove you can bring something to the table to make someone senior's life easier. Working for free isn't that proof as the risk of the 'free' intern subtracting value is way too high.

Most Helpful
Nov 28, 2020 - 1:06pm

I did one a number of years ago and frankly was the reason I was able to get into finance. I ended junior year summer with zero finance experience having not gotten a single interview in on-campus interviews (except a wealth management first round interview at MS in like Purchase, NY...which I bombed).

I cold-emailed a bunch of small boutiques (I'm talking sub 5 bankers) and one agreed to take me on, unpaid, for two days a week. It was just one MD and one Associate in a very regional town/city but got me valuable investment banking experience. Come FT recruiting I was getting interviews at reputable banks and consulting firms and eventually landed a nice starter role in finance. I think overall I spent maybe $1,000 in car/mileage over the course of the semester but some years later now as a VP at an EB this was the best investment I ever made in myself.

Nov 28, 2020 - 2:06pm

Did you have to interview for that position? And this type of thing is exactly what I am talking about: few days outta the week or limited hours daily where I can get some good exposure and a resume boost. very curious as to why more people that I would have expected view this as desperation.

Nov 28, 2020 - 3:58pm

KEKWooBackWednesday

Did you have to interview for that position? And this type of thing is exactly what I am talking about: few days outta the week or limited hours daily where I can get some good exposure and a resume boost. very curious as to why more people that I would have expected view this as desperation.

Had a brief interview with an excel 'test' and a 45min conversation each with the MD and associate. More of a meet and greet to make sure I wasn't fully starting from scratch and was going to be committed to learning.

  • Analyst 1 in IB-M&A
Nov 28, 2020 - 1:41pm

It depends. I had no IB experience and did not get a single interview so I took an unpaid internship, but I only worked 15 hours a week. However, that internship opened so many doors in terms of interviews later on. I would recommend it, but don't do it for longer than a few months. Once you start adding value, you should be paid. But as someone said above, it is a good investment into yourself. 

Nov 28, 2020 - 2:08pm

i do agree that it is a good investment. After reading this thread though it seems people would really label you as desperate if they found out that you did anything for free. And that is something that concerns me.

  • Analyst 1 in IB-M&A
Nov 29, 2020 - 8:15am

When it comes to interviews, just don't mention that you worked for free. I never got asked in my interviews, but also never brought it up myself.

  • Analyst 1 in IB - Ind
Nov 28, 2020 - 4:03pm

Lmfao working for free is absolutely fine if you have no experience trying to get exposure. All these morons saying it makes you look desperate. So? Who gives a flying fuck what people think. You're trying to get experience. This is assuming you're trying to get your foot in the door. If a kid told me this I would respect the hustle not look down on him. Fucking insecure faggots, how can you say working for free is a bad thing. I assume OP has no experience and is trying to be productive with his time. Working for free a couple days in the week would be a great way to get experience on your resume and learn more about the industry. To OP: fuck what these morons say, if you have the opportunity to work for free and have no other options. Fucking take it.

Nov 28, 2020 - 4:08pm

Employers perspective. Liability plus hard to get great commitment out of people if they aren't being compensated.

Personally I think it's wrong not to pay someone for work. It creates an unfair environment for those who can't afford to work for $0. Obviously that's not a you problem but it's why I personally have always paid interns. 

  • 1
Nov 28, 2020 - 7:44pm

I completely understand people's perspectives about rightfully being paid for your work, but many times, experience trumps the pay, especially when you don't have any direct experience. I did an unpaid sophomore IB internship at a boutique and got to be on two deals that I could talk about during both SA and FT recruiting. The point is that if you had two options: unpaid IB internship or paid non-IB work, wouldn't it make more sense to take any IB work so you can say you actually did that work and were in that environment? This is assuming you don't need the extra money. In that case, I totally get it. For someone like me who didn't have any impressive finance background in college (no competitive clubs or special networks), this was the only way I could compete with the best IB candidates from my college.

  • Intern in IB - Ind
Nov 28, 2020 - 9:02pm

I think working for free does have its benefits. Usually, since they are not paying you, you can get away with putting in jack-shit effort and still listing them on your resume. This is especially useful for school year internships. I listed a WM and IB internship in my resume that were both unpaid. I didn't do jack shit, but I got to say I interned in WM and IB. I ended up landing BB IB for jr SA

However, I did still have a great GPA and grinded technicals though.

Nov 28, 2020 - 10:26pm

My question then is if offering to work for free when cold calling boutiques can show commitment and desire to do work and therefore be seen as a "plus" during the process, rather than desperation. Thoughts? Context - freshman trying to find effective ways to get an internship at a boutique bank or small PE firm in my hometown, which sometimes have only 2-10 employees.

  • Intern in IB - Ind
Nov 29, 2020 - 9:04pm

If you have no relevant IB experience, I would take it. I was in a similar situation last year for an unpaid PE internship, but it actually helped a lot in securing a SA offer since it looked good on my resume to having PE experience and was able to learn a lot and talk abt it in interviews. With that said, I think someone else also said this, but for unpaid internships - you can get around with doing the absolute minimum and just fucking around all day. 

Nov 30, 2020 - 1:20am

fuck your career advisor. everybody starts somewhere - get that internship on the resume then you can chase the bag later. besides future employers won't even know it was unpaid anyway so its really a matter of can you can stomach the costs and expenses of working for free for a couple of months (commute, meals, accommodation etc)

and dont worry about the liability stuff, the company will make you sign a waiver or some kind of contract anyways

also fuck optics and fuck "lowballing" - far too premature to worry about those...

"They say money can't buy happiness? Look at the fuckin' smile on my face. Ear to ear, baby!" - Boiler Room

Nov 30, 2020 - 2:16am

fuck em and their lip service. keep pushing or die trying

"They say money can't buy happiness? Look at the fuckin' smile on my face. Ear to ear, baby!" - Boiler Room

  • 1
Nov 30, 2020 - 2:39am

We had a guy come into the office with his resume and asking for an unpaid internship. We don't have unpaid interns, but the guy ended up with an interview. I think any reputable firm will pay their interns regardless if they offer to work for free. For most banks, the salary is not the large cost, it's the alternative cost of having senior employees work with interns rather than deals.  

I don't know... Yeah. Almost definitely yes.

Nov 30, 2020 - 7:24am

maybe for a startup that doesn't have money....in which case you should be working for equity...to be negotiated

just google it...you're welcome
Nov 30, 2020 - 7:51am

Working for free was hands down the best thing I did for my career. I didn't do much, wasn't full time or anything, but while I was in undergrad I helped a now-mentor in the early days of starting his own shop. Part time internship but put it on my resume, leveraged it for a great summer internship the following year. Am still very close to my mentor and he personally vouched for me/my work in order for me to get my FT job. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. 

  • VP in IB - Ind
Nov 30, 2020 - 8:27am

I did an unpaid internship (that I found through WSO). It was in NYC and not only was I not paid, I had to cover my expenses (room and board). Everyone I knew thought I was crazy. But it helped me. I had a STEM undergrad / work experience and was about to do an MBA

When I applied for jobs, one of the banks I interviewed at looked at my experience and flat out asked me if it was unpaid. I said yes. But I was honest: I was a hungry kid who wanted to learn more about the industry. I thought it was a rewarding career for someone who was intellectually curious about what makes a business successful and valuable.

I think this is what helped me stand out from all my peers who were job hunting (also had great profiles, good grades, excellent work experience, strong networking effort etc.). I got the job and so far things have been pretty good.

Nov 30, 2020 - 9:31am

There are very legit employers that unfortunately dabble in those kind of practices. 

Worst case - they result in classism within the organization. Poor, or even normal kids, can't afford unpaid internships in some wildly expensive city. So you end up with either rich kids sponsored by their parents, or kids that end up working 2-3 side jobs, or even living as homeless people because they can't afford the rent. IIRC, there was some controversy with UN handing out either unpaid, or extremely low-paying internships, which resulted in interns basically camping in tents to afford those gigs. 

And then there's the signaling...what does it say about some firm that can't even afford (or care) to pay even some symbolical sum?

Only times I'll approve unpaid internships are if: 

1. They're through school, and you get credits. 

2. They're through some unemployment/training program, and at least you get covered basic living expenses.  

Nov 30, 2020 - 2:22pm

Lots of good points on here. I'm currently doing an unpaid internship, it's actually proven to be valuable both in terms of getting experience and other people I network with seem more open to helping me out. I didn't offer to do it for free, the person I was talking to offered to bring me on a couple days a week and I accepted. I wouldn't say I was desperate, but being a current junior and not having any internships prior to this, it has definitely been very helpful to me. One thing to note, this internship is in my home city, I wouldn't be able to do it otherwise. It would be kinda fucked up if I had to go to another city and they wouldn't even pay minimum wage.

Also I don't listen to what my career advisors have to say, I've found they really don't know what they're talking about. I don't mean that disrespectfully but they haven't been very helpful to me. 

Nov 30, 2020 - 2:48pm

As a young person looking to build a resume, I don't think it's automatically a negative at all. The exposure you get and the resume bullet point can be worth far more than anything you would make that summer. 

As an employer though, if you're giving kids "unpaid internships," you should be fucking embarrassed. 

Commercial Real Estate Developer

  • 2
  • 1
Dec 2, 2020 - 5:00pm

Telling kids to take unpaid internships is fucking retarded. Fuck off with that terrible advice because it "boosts" their resume. The fact that kids are resorting to work for free should be a sign of how toxic banking has become as an industry.

Dec 2, 2020 - 5:07pm

How about you calm down and come back to me when you get ahold of yourself? 

Commercial Real Estate Developer

Dec 1, 2020 - 12:12pm

In short no.  However, it does if you're not able to negotiate / leverage it into a paid position later on.  I've seen too many people over the years who come in as free labor and either stay at the same firm for years making nothing, or have moved onto a different firm in the same unpaid position.  The goal in this industry is always to make money, never forget what you're worth.

"A man can convince anyone he's somebody else, but never himself."
  • 1
  • Intern in PE - Growth
Dec 2, 2020 - 10:15am

I'd say if you're someone looking to gain experience, there's nothing wrong with going for a short, unpaid internship. Of course, make sure you don't necessarily sacrifice up a better paid opportunity in a related finance field or your time in focusing on getting good grades, etc... but sometimes getting those bullets on your resume does pay off. Can say that I've seen people from all sorts of schools, non-target/target, doing this and having it work out in their favor when they land a solid BB role or consulting gig. 

Side note: I did take an unpaid role at a RE IB once and there was a terrible culture/huge expectations of me as a busy student, so just watch out. 

Dec 2, 2020 - 4:58pm

Never ever ever ever work for free. In this capitalistic society, if you're willing to work for free, it just shows that you don't value yourself and you have no back bone. Period.

Dec 4, 2020 - 5:12pm

I'd say it's the opposite. If you were emotionally intelligent you wouldn't sacrifice your own well being for a potential future career that you don't even know that you'll love. The WHOLE POINT of internships is so that you can test the waters and see if that career is for you in the first place. Being emotionally intelligent when it comes to swallowing pride is when you're leading a team or are a team member and have a differing opinion with your subordinate or your team member. Swallowing your pride means you accept that you don't know everything and that you're more than willing to hear other's thoughts and opinions and are willing to change your POV. Working for someone for free just shows you don't value yourself and are desperate to get something. Plus the whole concept of survival? Please, there are plenty of other jobs and lucrative careers over banking. This whole concept of survival is overblown and dramatized for those who wish to justify their time when they spent working for free. It's the whole "I worked for free and grinded my ass off why can't you" argument, bordering boomer logic. It's retarded and you were a retarded shmuck for working for free. Sorry but it's the truth. Unless you're the founder of your own business in which case you're working for yourself which you work for free 24/7, then you should never work for someone for free period.

  • Analyst 1 in IB - Ind
Dec 2, 2020 - 9:36pm

You're fucking retarded. Tell that to those that managed to get their foot in the door by leveraging unpaid internships.

Dec 2, 2020 - 6:14pm

In any hiring process, previous work experience will always stand out against candidates who don't have it....

banking is a closed off industry, once you initially get your foot in the door and some experience it becomes much more open. 
 

not everyone is graduating from an Ivy, going through the typical recruiting, and landing as an analyst at a BB bank...if this is not you (and even if it is and you have no other options), 100% worth it. 
 

Anyone saying you shouldn't be doing this was probably on the track I mentioned before. If you want to break in, and an opportunity presents itself, take it. 
 

In the real world people respect grit. Taking an unpaid internship just as a means to get your foot in the door and get some real experience is a good indicator of how you will be as a potential employee.  
 

your school career advisor does not actually have a vested interest in your success. You have to do what's best for you.  

Dec 2, 2020 - 7:02pm

a very respectable comment, and I agree that sometimes I have to make the big decisions for myself. my thing is with people who take working for free as a sign of disrespect towards oneself. I'm big on carrying myself in the right way, and honestly this worries me more than any sort of experience exposure or whatever

Dec 2, 2020 - 7:39pm

This goes back to the grit comment... doing whatever it took to get the job done. 
 

here's a painful fact: the reason you aren't getting paid internship opportunities is because there are other better qualified or better connected candidates.

 If you take the internship and someone asks you down the road why you took an unpaid internship and if you undervalued yourself, it's an easy answer, because you were interested in banking and willing to do what needed to be done to get the necessary experience.  
 

your self worth does not matter to anyone but you, so take the internship.  You may end up hating banking and realizing you don't want to go into it after all. You may like it, and this could be the opportunity that opened up a career in banking for you.  

  • Intern in IB-M&A
Dec 2, 2020 - 10:38pm

I ended up pursuing unpaid internships in finance after I struck out applying to basically every paid internship that could position one well for an IB SA application. As someone who has literally no connections to the finance industry, it was invaluable in terms of boosting my application and I would argue one of the sole factors behind my ability to get my junior internship, and now my full-time role. I ended up using a good chunk of my savings on housing for the summer, all of which I ended up remaking the following summer during my junior internship. 

The big thing to remember with paid internships that position someone well for an IB application is that there are really only so many of them. For example, I had a paid internship offer with a small, random government agency vs an unpaid internship offer from a small private equity firm. I went with the unpaid internship because it was a much better job to have on my resume for IB applications and because I knew they would never ask about pay during this process. Some of my closest friends were in similar positions, chose otherwise, and then didn't get into any well-known firms for their junior summer. Ultimately, the decision is yours and it's not like anyone will know after the fact. Not all paid internships are created equally, and you need to choose the best option that you have given the circumstances. That being said, I would not recommend it after sophomore summer. 

Dec 4, 2020 - 6:52am

It didn't work in my case. I tried to get some unpaid position but they didn't interested in me. I think, they prefer to pay an intern who add more value to the firm than a free intern with fewer resources.

Dec 4, 2020 - 12:28pm

Maybe of free internship consider joining a good student society that focuses on finance. You gain a good experience and it boosts your CV. Without doing really shitty jobs or actually losing money on it. 

If you do it right I can be leveraged more than an internship position at some random shop for free.

Start Discussion

Total Avg Compensation

April 2021 Investment Banking

  • Director/MD (9) $911
  • Vice President (33) $350
  • Associates (181) $232
  • 2nd Year Analyst (103) $151
  • Intern/Summer Associate (95) $145
  • 3rd+ Year Analyst (26) $145
  • 1st Year Analyst (387) $131
  • Intern/Summer Analyst (317) $82