Free Riding Needs to End

Yesterday a good friend of mine had a very public explosion ranting about the sheer number of people who think they can get his professional advice or services without paying for them. Over a one day period he received over three hundred new requests to do something for free, with no one offering to pay for his time, his skill, his knowledge or his abilities.

I’m someone who resonates to this.

Then, this morning, I was talking with another friend of mine, who makes his living as a speaker and instructor. A major global corporation, top in its home market, had just been the latest to say “we love you, people here want you, we’ll oh, so graciously pay your economy travel to us, but we won’t pay a fee for your work”. Apparently, in their corporate mindset, the “visibility” would be sufficient compensation — visibility in an organization where people are already aware of my friend, want him, are demanding him.

He, too, is tired of working three or more times as hard to make half as much as before, and of being whittled away by people making agreements and backing out, wanting him but being unwilling to pay him his fees, or simply being unwilling to pay anyone for anything.

New graduates, of course, are facing this world in spades this way. Internships to gain experience used to be paid and lead to better-paid jobs. Now they’re unpaid labour and lead nowhere.

I get this. There are organizations out there who love my writing — rave about it — and don’t want to have the conversation about making me a paid contributor. They don’t want to say “no”, even: they hope to get more free stuff by pretending, saying nothing, not returning calls, not keeping commitments made.

Increasingly, if you submit a proposal, or look at a request for one, there are ludicrous legal restrictions placed upon the practitioner, ones that could bankrupt him or her in a heartbeat. The language of non-compete agreements is coming to procurement for consultants: simply by bidding you can lock yourself out of any situation that organization receiving (not accepting, just receiving) the bid thinks “competes” with them. (When it’s a public sector agency, the ludicrousness of “competition” really comes to the fore.) Or clauses to allow them the unilateral right to break the agreement and saddle you with their costs of changing to someone else throughout the extent of that other person’s work … who in their right mind would agree to such a thing?

All this and more am I hearing about, seeing myself, experiencing.

All of this is an example of something that settled into our social fabric back in the 1980s and, like a cancer, has grown ever since. Free riding.

There was a cartoon that appeared in the recession of the 1990s, when companies were closing plants left, right and centre and shipping the work to “cheaper places”. It showed the skyscrapers with the same bit of speech coming from each tower’s top floor corner office: “We’re not going to make things, we’re just going to sell stuff.”

Pray tell how does your customer buy from you, if you fire them? (Well, we know how they did: easy credit, run the bills up, hope first the dot-com stock and second the house keeps going up in value forever to cover the line of credit, the equity withdrawals and the credit cards that are bridging the gap…)

Of course, since then, ever more has gone offshore.

But I’m reminded of another cartoon I saw recently. It showed a poor sod in a hole, with a shovel, trying to dig it deeper. His supervisor wants “more hole … faster hole … bigger hole”. But the hole is surrounded by people in suits. The legal beagle, the marketing flack, the diversity consultant, the equity administrator, the controller who has removed all the ability to act from every manager in the place, and so on. Seven of them in the picture. Getting another hole digger is apparently not an option — and the guy with the shovel has forms being passed to him, policies to uphold, etc.

There’s another form of free riding: the pseudo-jobs we’ve filled organizations with nowadays. They’re pseudo-jobs because while each of the items may have value to the organizations at some point in time, the collected assemblage of placeholders is mostly engaged in make-work to fill the day.

Funny, isn’t it, how almost every organization has become like the civil service (and never forget that in Canada we consciously packed our civil service in the late 1960s and 1970s for no other reason than to “absorb” the baby boomers as they graduated: we didn’t need most of them, but we created roles anyway).

Our society can’t afford any of this any longer.

It can’t afford to condemn people to begging that someone, somewhere, stop demanding work for free and maybe pay for something, sometime.

It can’t afford to tie up so much in make work jobs that it can’t offer real jobs doing real things.

I don’t know what to do about it, beyond the Howard Beale solution (if you remember the 1976 Chayefsky/Lumet film Network): go to the window and yell “I’m am mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!” Satisfying for the nonce, perhaps, but nothing changes because you yell.

But I do know it can’t go on — and, as with anything else that can’t go on, soon enough it won’t.

You see, what we’re looking at is the end of a money economy built on debt. Debt comes in many forms beyond the interest-bearing type: all these people asking for “free” are incurring debts, too.

Debts which, apparently, they won’t pay.

Which, in turn, makes me wonder if they have any intent of paying the other ones they’re running up.

Or will that, too, just be passed on to those who can’t afford it?

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4 Comments

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  1. Excellent piece.

  2. Every person who declares that s/he is self-employed as some sort of consultant seems to have a version of this rant.

    Nowadays people expect free stuff. And everyone who is trying to use some version of permission marketing is giving away something of their services. How else are people going to experience the special flavour of that person’s services?

    When I go to the supermarket, people are paid to prepare and serve me free samples of food. Is it free? Of course not. The program is part of a marketing plan.

    I was just applying a GPS track of mine on Google Earth – Google’s amazing free map of the globe. Is it really free? Of course not. Much of Google Earth, the parts that most people use are offered for free – and we discover how wonderful it is. If you want the high-end services there is the high-priced version. I cannot say if Google is making money with it.

    Want a blog? The best is WordPress and you can download it for free, or help yourself to a subdomain of wordpress.com. All available for free. WordPress.com has a high-end product with no ads available for a price. And if you are a big company that wants to implement a multi-user blog and website, you are likely to hire the company, http://automattic.com/, to help. Is WordPress making a profit? I don’t know.

    I think the issue is that the entrepreneur (us, the consultant) needs to have a marketing plan, and be clear about what s/he is willing to give away, and what can be had only for some consideration.

    Unless it is clearly a job for me, I don’t participate in RFPs. Too much creativity is simply given away, and the process takes a lot of unpaid time. I may, once in a while, simply because I want to work with the team that is responding to the RFP. Since it may not result in real business, I accept that doing that is an occupational hobby… not marketing. BTW, when will people learn that advertising is a lousy way of hiring anyone for anything? The best people won’t jump through those hoops. They are probably busy doing what they love to do and will never see that ad. (Sorry, that’s another rant.)

    People who are employees in a firm do not understand the world of the consultant. How often have I sat in a meeting where we are discussing a possible gig? Everyone but me has a meter running. When they hear my daily rate, they compare it to their ‘daily’ rate and gag. How can I explain that I spend many days unpaid… and that is part of the expense of doing business. Probably the best I can manage, in a good year, is about 80 paid days.

    I do think this attitude will change. The cost of people like us is high, but there are huge advantages to using us. We work only when we are providing real value. Most of us know that to survive, it is not enough to merely do the job… all of us are working to exceed their expectations — and with that daily rate, those expectations begin at a high level. We achieve most of our business with referrals, so we know the value of providing great and personal service.

    I think the solution (for us) is to be clear what we will do for free, and why, and what we will not do without charging. And remember two things other people have taught me:
    – if you accept small jobs, you get small jobs
    – always walk away from a bad deal.

    Since this is only a comment on a blog, and not a feature article, I will make one more point and stop. If you or I price ourselves reasonably for the service and the market, probably there is someone with lesser skills, or greater desperation, who will offer services at a lower fee. Ouch. As consultants we are operating alone, and therefore likely feel we are in a vulnerable position. I think this is one of the reasons that my old boss at the Royal Ontario Museum, Peter Swann, founded The Association of Cultural Executives (ACE). It has morphed since those days, but the point was to find a way for us to work together.

    In my case, I’m now working with a group of consultants in the UK, USA and Canada, to set up a consulting firm: working title: Governance Corporation and that will change shortly to The Xylem-Group.

    • Robert, nice to hear from you. It’s been far too long since our coffee on Dunbar St.!

      You make good points. I don’t argue with them.

      I have been seeing a growing number of organisations hold out for free — if they can’t get it now that way, they withdraw and come at it again in a few months. These are Global 2000s where money ought not to be an issue.

      Truly, I see this as a sign of a lack of common governance throughout organisations. We’re used to thinking of this as a top-end issue but it applies in management’s mid ranks, too.

      Finally, doesn’t Governance Corp describe you better than an invented word? Or have things changed?

      Bruce Stewart

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