Does working for free actually pay off?

A lot of us grew up with the belief that if we offered our services free or cheaply, we would win more and better employment as a reward.

In fact, as a child I vividly remember my dad telling me how a medical intern he was supervising had clocked off and left the hospital at exactly the end of his shift—even though my dad still had several things he wanted to teach this person. My dad told me that this behaviour indicated a bad attitude; this person should have been eager and willing to stay past finishing time to demonstrate his enthusiasm and dedication to the field.

Lately, as I recall this conversation, I find myself thinking of this self-respecting junior doctor and feeling like he or she must now have a very nice, balanced life.

Perhaps my dad’s perspective held some water at the time of our conversation, but these days, I see more and more evidence that giving one’s labor too freely only devalues your overall market worth.

My husband put it all too clearly a few days ago when I casually observed that my recent (in the last few years) penchant for doing whatever it takes to deliver (even if it means working extra, unpaid hours) has paid absolutely zero dividends in terms of real compensation or job growth.

Even more ominously, he pointed out that the year he spent working for a tech start-up (and frequently getting shorted large sums on his paychecks) also did little to help him ultimately make money—he eventually had to cut his losses and leave the company. He may never see the money he is owed.

The scary reality seems to be that by working too cheaply or for free you very clearly and definitely set your value low. In a way, it is perfectly fair and you have no grounds for complaint; you already stated this was your value—or that your time was not worth very much.

In the museum field, the compulsion to overwork is often caused by the oversupply issue that exists in the museum labor market. With so few jobs available, how do you distinguish yourself from the countless, qualified others?

Yet, if you act as though you have all the time in the world to check email and pick up other work while also hustling to work your other part-time jobs (hypothetically speaking), you undersell your worth.

So what do we think? What is the best long-term strategy for accurately establishing your worth in the arts and museum field?

Dignity & museum labor

Recently, I came across this frank and courageous blog post and I was riveted. I read it multiple times.

Then, this week, I had the good fortune of participating in my first AAM Annual Meeting and I was heartened by the number of conversations centering on museums and labor practices. But I find myself stuck on Miri’s blog post and wondering- … cultural competency, equitable hiring, empathetic practice … Don’t they all start with paying people what they’re worth and/or giving them enough time off to take care of themselves?

I’ve worked in a number of workplaces of varying quality covering a range of fields. A few were rife with bullying and aggression and were flagrantly emotionally unsafe. These issues aside, the most dignified workplaces were the ones that paid fairly for the time and effort put in—even if other conditions were not ideal.

Miri’s blog post points out that advocating self-care rather than addressing structural issues within a workplace is rather feeble. Opportunities like leaving early, attending staff lunches, and participating in staff wellness activities are also common employer strategies for allowing staff to engage in self-care and rest. But how meaningful are afternoons off or workday wellness initiatives if they actually add to staff stress by reducing the time available to complete assignments or by requiring work to be taken home? These strategies might be more proactive than simply telling your employees to engage in self-care on their own time, but they are still mere Band-Aids for unsustainable practice.

Museums pay full price for services such as accounting, IT, and construction; yet they frequently look for ways to cut costs (either by paying as little as possible or by extracting as much time as possible) with respect to artistic and cultural services—the very disciplines that they purport to value and celebrate. Why? Because these are the folks who have little choice but to accept less, or give more for the same amount.

More money (or less unpaid overtime) does in fact make a difficult situation more bearable. While museums are phenomenally important to society, they are not, for example, hospital emergency rooms; in other words, they need not exist in constant crisis. They (should) have the luxury of putting their staff before their collections, and even their audiences—but it requires honest reflection about value.

Scarcity of money or time within museum positions could have serious impacts on diversity as well. Many museum jobs are only viable for applicants with higher-earning significant others, economically privileged backgrounds, and minimal financial obligations or commitments outside work.

What would it be like if resources were allocated and projects were planned in a way that ensured sustainable and dignified workplaces? Audiences might lose in the short-term, but communities might gain so much more by being served by strong, stable museum staffs.

These changes would be difficult for sure—and I don’t pretend to know just how difficult—but I’d like to begin a conversation. If these ideas resonate with you, please reach out to chat further. I hope that the growing conversation around museums and racial and economic justice can explore some of these issues in more detail. The recent changes in overtime rules offer an interesting starting point for some of these conversations.