Isn’t Free a Four Letter Word?

Four letter words are generally thought to be unfit for public consumption. We counsel our kids to refrain from using them, and we do our best to abide by our own wisdom. It’s odd, therefore, that so many of us seem determined to rely on a four letter word when we search for a job and manage our careers. What is this seemingly inoffensive term? It’s the word “free.” Well meaning institutions and counselors often avoid programs and tools that require job seekers to pay a fee for their use. They argue that the cost imposes an inappropriate burden on those who are in transition and potentially experiencing financial hardship. They also contend that many if not all of the fee-based services can be obtained for free—there’s that four letter word—on the Internet.

Certainly, no one can argue with the notion of trying, wherever possible, to avoid asking job seekers to sacrifice any more than they already are. To say that every product and service they might need should be free, however, takes that view to an illogical conclusion. Why? Because their good intentions have at least two unintended consequences that are bad.

Sending the Wrong Signal
First, advising job seekers (and others) that they shouldn’t pay a fee for a product or service that can help them find a job or advance their career is the equivalent of saying they shouldn’t invest in their future. We pay for our college education, our insurance policies, even our membership in a professional or trade association because we believe that doing so will benefit us and we know it’s up to us to do it. The same is true with our careers. There is no entitlement to workplace success, so it’s up to us to make it happen. If we ignore that responsibility, we undermine our future.

Sometimes, the tools we need will be free—searching the employment opportunities on a job board, for example—and at other times, there will be a cost to acquire them. Paying that fee is not inappropriate; it’s a commitment we make to and in ourselves. We have to be smart about it, of course—as with other kinds of investment, it is possible to buy useless or even harmful career products and service—but the payment itself is a profoundly empowering act, one that reinforces our self-respect and our capability at the same time.

Ignoring Qualitative Differences
The Internet is the richest source of human knowledge ever devised. It’s also a garbage heap of mediocre advice, bad information, stale ideas, and occasionally, outright dangerous opinions. Most of us have learned, therefore, to evaluate what we find online very carefully. We select what we determine to be true and useful and we ignore the rest. Subscriptions to the online version of The Wall Street Journal, for example, have actually risen during the recession, and those subscriptions aren’t free. Hundreds of thousands of people pay to access that information because they believe that it’s helpful to them and better than what they can get in other places. The same is true with job search and career resources. There’s a lot of free stuff out there on the Web, but it’s not necessarily state-of-the-art or very helpful. For example, you’ll find countless primers and checklists of job search techniques that worked in the 1990’s, but will waste your time and get you nowhere today. Paying a fee for a career tool or resource doesn’t necessarily mean it will be qualitatively better, but it certainly holds it to a higher standard. So, what should you do? Be as smart a consumer of career tools as you are of cell phones and television sets. Assess the credibility and track record of the individual or organization behind the product or service before you invest your time or money in using it. Now I grant you that fr** is not your run of the mill four letter word. It’s neither impolite nor off-putting. It is, however, potentially misleading and even harmful, at least when it’s used to guide the way people acquire job search and career management resources. What’s a better way to judge such tools? Focus on how helpful they will be to you. You deserve access to the tools that will serve you best, and having to pay a fair price for them isn’t doing you a disservice; it is making a down payment on your hopes and dreams.

Thanks for reading,


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Peter Weddle is the author of over two dozen employment-related books, including Recognizing Richard Rabbit, a fable of self-discovery for working adults, and Work Strong, Your Personal Career Fitness System.

© Copyright 2009 WEDDLE’s LLC. All Rights Reserved.

2 Responses to Isn’t Free a Four Letter Word?

  1. chemist says:

    Philosophically speaking, Mr Weedle has a point. But in terms of realpolitik, his comments are off balance. Off balance because he neglects the folks out there who try to make the unemployed pay for information that is freely available. For example, the “iChemist” jobsite simply recycles job adverts that are freely available on the internet.

    There are also those chemists out there, who I know personally, and have advertised “finder fees” to be paid when they sign the employment contract. This apparently didn’t work out for them, as there were no offers forthcoming.

  2. Summer Tour says:

    You’re right… I got so much information from your site. So much thank you for sharing…

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