Spec Work: Taking Advantage of Freelancers

Posted: March 15th, 2009

Sooner or later creative freelancers, or those who are writers, designers, photographers, and those in marketing, will face a dilemma of doing spec work for their services. In a nutshell, spec work (also known as pro-bono work) requires that you submit sample work, often a completed project, to a potential employer in order to compete with work submissions from other freelancers. The “winner” gets compensated and the rest are out of a paycheck for their efforts.

Here’s the real puncher. Sometimes the work of  non-winners gets used, regardless.

This type of work arrangement raises several issues that hurt the freelancing industry:

  • Legal fraud. Some employers ask multiple freelancers to submit a project or design and utilize non-winning submissions without compensation. If an unsuspecting freelancer happens to sign away the rights to their work, then an employer can use it for free. It is, unfortunately, common practice by some companies to not even compensate for ANY work submissions.
  • It creates the illusion that freelancers have a good opportunity to get their foot in the door. Meanwhile, employers quietly benefit by receiving and using high-quality work for free or low cost.
  • It creates intense competition for projects, placing freelancers in a position where they have to win some of these projects in order to survive in their careers. It doesn’t help that promises of future employment and recognition (often unfulfilled) adds to the competition.

It is extremely important that freelance designers are aware of this type of practice. Keep in mind that not all employers are fraudulent in nature and do compensate project winners. This is, however, seen as a cost-cutting move while receiving high-quality work in the process. Basically, it is a practice not surprising given these hard economic times.

On that note, here is a way spec work offers should be handled, by Lindsay Berger of Freelance Switch:

Alternatively, “I’ll decide which freelancer to use after I review several projects.”

Let’s address spec work first. If a client wants you to submit a completed project to compete with other freelancers, I would walk away in most cases. A potential client is only going to pay you if they choose your project (in other words, you’re gambling with your paycheck). When declining, be polite: “Thank you for the opportunity, but my schedule does not allow for spec work at this time. My current contracted clients demand most my attention.”

Here’s evidence that  politely declining can even get your foot in the door. Bottom line: you are gambling your paycheck for recognition or promises that may never be fulfilled anyway.

Do your part to bring down this practice by not participating if you are a freelance designer. There are plenty of willing employers who will pay a premium for your services. Your portfolio will look just as good and your bank account will be a lot healthier. Not just for you, but industry wide, too.

More on the author, Johnny Spence
Johnny is the founder of The Freelance Rant and a freelance web programmer with 8 years in the business. Have a visit at his company Oscarrr!web or see what he's up to on Twitter.

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