While a small percentage of the population (whether through luck or careful planning) has acquired a set of specialized skills that are in extremely high demand right now, and can more or less write their own ticket, this experience is far from the norm.  Most of us just didn’t have the foresight — or good fortune — to train for a career in nursing, petroleum engineering, or Ruby on Rails programming.

Instead, the majority of professionals are finding the waters out there to be highly competitive and are discovering that their skills and credentials, in and of themselves, aren’t always quite enough to stand out from the crowd.  As a result, the real go-getters among the unemployed are getting creative and trying unconventional, innovative strategies to distinguish themselves and persuade employers to give them a shot at various opportunities they come across.

For example, some folks are going so far as to try and overcome employer objections by offering their services completely for free, as part of a probationary or pre-employment trial period.  Recently, in fact I received the note below from a client of mine:

“Matt:  Good news!  I am going to work for Xeta Systems as their VP of Sales & Marketing.  Xeta is an aerospace technology company that develops and distributes advanced avionics components for Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers.  The most interesting part of my story is the tactic I used to overcome the objection of not having any previous experience in the avionics industry.  After my first interview, I sensed they liked my proven sales background, but couldn’t get past my lack of direct industry experience.  I called them and told them I had an idea that would provide them the solutions they seek at no risk to them, and that I wanted to meet face-to-face to speak about it.  At the end of the day, I told them I would pay for my learning curve by interning for 45 days, and then, at the end of the period, they could let me go if they were not satisfied with my accomplishments and what I was able to produce!”

I changed a few details above, of course, to keep this story anonymous — but it’s a true story, nonetheless.  But here’s the rub.  Another client recently came along who apparently had the exact same thought, but first asked me whether such an arrangement was even legal, given IRS regulations and various laws against indentured servitude.  Like my other client, she wanted to nudge a company past their reservations and convince them to give her a chance, by foregoing a paycheck, but said she’d heard many conflicting opinions in terms of the legality of such an arrangement.  Some people she’d asked told her that no, companies aren’t allowed to have individuals on staff who work for free (outside of carefully-constructed internship parameters)  whereas other people have said sure, donating your services for a while is fair game, as long as you do so voluntarily.

I honestly don’t know the exact answer to this question.  I suppose I could make a few inquiries and track one down, but instead, I thought it might be more interesting to throw the question out to all of you — and solicit your opinion both in terms of the “legality” of working for free, as well as your thoughts about the value and appropriateness of this kind of unorthodox negotiating tactic, in general.

Any opinions to share out there, on either matter?

P.S.  And in the event such an arrangement truly ISN’T legal, aren’t there some fairly famous (albeit rare) stories where corporate executives and public officials have offered to work for a single dollar, until their company’s revenues recover?  Are these just old wives tales or are they a clear violation of minimum wage law?