I’m a freelance writer who does some editorial content for brands. My friend recently started working for an e-commerce beauty business and asked if I would do some projects for them. It’s a very small company, and she’s pretty high up (head of marketing), so she framed this as a favor to her rather than a business contract. When I quoted her my rates — which I think are very reasonable — she acted surprised and asked if I had a “friends and family discount.” I understand that the company is a start-up and money is tight, but I also don’t have a ton of wiggle room with my finances or time either, especially in this climate.
That said, she’s my friend, and I want to help her out. I have also profited from press discounts and freebies that she has given me in the past, so I’ll feel a little hypocritical if I turn her down. Should I just do a few small things for them for cheap and then wiggle out of it? Or should I put my foot down now? If I do say “no,” how should I do it? (I should also say that it’s possible that she thinks she’s doing me a favor by giving me work in general. And while it’s always nice to get a new client, I’m busy enough that I don’t need one, although she might not know that.) What should I do?
I worked at fashion and fashion-related publications for years, so I know a thing or two about favor-trading in lieu of financial compensation, especially among friends. At one magazine where I was an editor, a common line that my boss encouraged me to feed the freelancers who were paid next to nothing was that we had “more glamour than money” to offer them. It was the truth, at least according to the budgets I was given, but it also felt like a shitty thing to tell people who were trying to make a living — especially people I knew personally.
I know what it’s like to be on the other side of that equation, too. It stings to be pressured to shortchange yourself, particularly by a friend. To be clear: I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use your valuable skills to do favors from time to time — kindness and loyalty have their own non-monetary value. But, as you mentioned, the climate we’re currently in demands new rules and boundaries, and if something feels off, it’s off.
You need to figure out an arrangement that is fair, and then ask for it in a way that preserves your friendship — delicate stuff. Or, as Margaret Ann Neale, a negotiation expert and professor emerita at Stanford, put it, “You’re trying to find a way to say no without saying no.”
When I called Neale for her advice, she started off with an important reminder: “Not every negotiation ends in an agreement,” she says. “Sometimes you have to say, ‘I’d really like to help out, but I am just way too overextended right now.’”
But if you’re willing to pursue things further, Neale has another suggestion: Give your friend a specific amount of time at a discounted rate — or even for free — and stick to that limit. “In my own work, I have an hourly rate for helping people with negotiations, but if that rate is too expensive for someone and I want to help them, I’ll give them 30 minutes for free, one time,” she says. “It gives them something that they can go on, and for me, that’s not a big deal because it’s 30 minutes, and then it’s done.”
Listening to Neale talk about this, I realized I do something similar, although I’ve never codified it into a personal policy (and you and I both should). I’ll happily help a friend or a loved one with something that takes a few hours or less — a job cover letter, an important email, or a short piece of writing. But I’ve also had friends ask me to “help” with bigger, more open-ended projects that would infringe on my regular (paid) workday. I used to get a little bit insulted when this happened, like people weren’t respecting my time. But now I’ve realized that, in most cases, the friend simply isn’t aware of how much work they’re asking for. I think everyone has a gut feeling about how much is too much — the key is to pay attention to it and be upfront.
Here’s what can happen if you don’t: When I was 24, a close friend asked me to edit all of her essays for her graduate school applications. I was young and naïve and cared about her, so I quickly said yes, totally, sure. But the essays wound up needing a ton of revising, and I also had a demanding full-time job. It took me a week just to finish one, and then … I never did the rest. I’m not proud of this, and it wasn’t my intention to blow her off, but I truly didn’t have time and didn’t want to admit it and risk hurting her feelings. I finally told her so, but it was way too late — I’d put it off for weeks and wound up being a much crappier friend than if I’d just been honest (with her and myself) from the get-go. But I also resented her a little bit for how much she had expected of me — literally dozens of hours of work. I don’t know what would have changed if she’d offered to pay me (and it didn’t even occur to me at the time), but it would have made the whole arrangement less muddy and forced us to consider the scope of it before I said yes.
It probably doesn’t surprise you that getting bogged down with unwieldy favors is an especially common problem for women. Hannah Riley Bowles, a negotiation expert who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School, says that women are more likely to worry about reprisal from turning down requests. “Research shows that women, much more so than men, fear the implications of not helping — fear that someone’s going to not like them, or think that they’re not a good person,” she says. “Because women are expected to be helpers, their help is also a little less appreciated — and they can get dinged for not helping in ways that men don’t.”
But, she adds, that doesn’t mean you’re stuck saying yes to everything — you just have to be aware of the full context. “What I’ve drawn from my own research on gender and negotiation is that it always helps to reduce ambiguity. You want to create transparent norms and standards that serve as the basis for decision making,” says Bowles. “That includes demonstrating that you’re taking their interests into account.” She suggests offering a range of different options, each at different price points — one could be the free consulting call that Neale mentioned, another could be a limited component of work for a “discounted” price (say, 10 percent off), and a third could be a larger contract for your normal fee with one or two perks or freebies thrown in. You could also recommend other people (ideally more junior ones who would have lower rates) for parts of the project that don’t interest you.
Getting creative about what you can offer not only shows that you care, but it also gives your friend an opportunity to clarify what her business needs and how they can compensate you for it. Think about it from her end: She probably wants to impress her colleagues by showing that her connections (you) are valuable and can save the company money, but she also wants you to be happy, too. So if you’re open about what you can provide and why it’s a good deal, she’ll feel good about it, too.
Another interesting study shows that people tend to overestimate how likely someone is to say no to a favor — in other words, they have a certain expectation that their request may be denied, especially if it’s a hefty one. So keep in mind that your friend might be more understanding of your “no” than you think, especially if it’s kind, thoughtful, and clear.