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'Exposure' doesn't pay the bills. Here's how to get paid what you're worth

Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Getty Images

The American workforce has been in a state of flux since the coronavirus pandemic began. As of late, we've shifted from the Great Resignation to the Great Renegotiation, with the common throughline suggesting that the balance of power has largely tilted into the hands of the worker.
But of course, it's not universally so. If you're just starting out, work in a creative field or are a freelancer — or perhaps all three — you might feel like the wind is blowing in the other direction and are probably already familiar with the idea of "exposure." As in: "We can't pay you for your work, but this opportunity will be great  exposure for you." Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, a media expert and the founder and CEO of  LWC Studios, has heard this idea thrown around in a lot of different ways over the two decades she has worked in journalism and media. And she's tired of it. "Exposure is not an accepted form of currency at the bank," she says. "I mean, principally it's a mathematical problem. You can't pay your rent; you can't pay your phone bill; you can't get on the subway for exposure." There's also the problem of the " brown discount," a term coined by actor America Ferrera in a recent interview on the  Latina to Latina podcast. The phrase refers to the common workplace issue of people of color being asked — often in very flattering ways — to provide the "vastness and value" of their experiences, but without fair compensation or resources. It's an extension of the  persistent gender and race pay disparity that exists across different industries. Both of these ideas devalue the employee, placing the onus on workers to be appreciative of the opportunity to work, rather than on the employer to compensate people fairly for their time and labor. Whether you're just starting out or are a veteran in your field, it can be deeply uncomfortable to maintain and assert your worth in a workplace culture often defined by prioritizing profit over people. But there are ways to rework your understanding of fair compensation and get paid what you're worth.

Start from the viewpoint that you will get paid for your work — and have your prices ready!

The process of getting paid what you're worth begins with being deliberate with your workplace language. As a public speaker, Lantigua-Williams is no stranger to frequent requests in her inbox for her time and labor. She says it's important to approach every request with gratitude and as worthy of consideration, but to also make sure to level-set right at the beginning. There's a difference between being polite and being a pushover.

Here are some phrases she uses in her email replies:

  • What do you usually pay people for this?
  • My usual rate for this is [insert fee].
  • When I did something similar at [insert event], I was paid [insert fee].

An important pairing to this type of exchange, of course, is to know exactly what your rates are! Lantigua-Williams suggests — regardless of industry — creating a menu of pricing options for different services. "You cannot have a flat rate for all of the things you do," she says. If a job requires a wide range of skills and experiences, the rates should reflect that. Do you have an hourly rate for freelance work? A day rate? A la carte and bundled options? Prices by skill and prices by project? Lantigua-Williams says having these numbers ready to go is a great idea at any point in your career, because you want to make your hiring process as easy and transparent as possible. If you're just starting out and feel uncomfortable asking questions, remember: A rising tide lifts all boats. "We have to apply a more rigorous standard to how we bring people into a space where we say, 'You are tremendously valuable without being compensated for it,' " says Lantigua-Williams. By asserting your value, you also reinforce the worth of the work you do across the board.

Trades and barters are OK, but do your research first.

There are times when it may make sense for you to exchange your time or labor for something other than cold hard cash, but Lantigua-Williams says to make sure you've really crunched the numbers first. "This is not a thing where you just do a bunch of events and then you hope that somehow later on, those things will materialize into meaningful connections, because the odds are very small that that's going to be the case," she says. "You always have to be thinking two or three or four steps ahead in terms of, how does this position me very concretely and very specifically for a bigger opportunity down the line?" The fine details, of course, will depend on your needs and your industry. Could you exchange some volunteer hours for a free club or association membership? Does that upcoming function offer an opportunity for an introduction to someone you'd like to get your product in front of? Could you barter some work for that specific training you'd like to add to your résumé? All this to say: When it comes to the job hunt or the career ladder, it's important to stay creative and keep an entrepreneurial mindset.

Every offer is not an opportunity.

No matter where you are in your career, it can be hard to say no when an exciting ask lands in your inbox. But Lantigua-Williams says that you have to protect your time and space and approach every offer with a skeptical eye before accepting. "If your gut is telling you, if your previous experience is telling you, if other people are telling you this is really not an opportunity, then please pass on it," she says. Also consider your current bandwidth, the pay rate, the people you'd be working with, the other projects or co-workers this offer would take you away from. The answer to those considerations is the difference between an offer and an opportunity. If you decide to pass on an offer, Lantigua-Williams says to make sure to always keep it cordial and keep the door open if you want to be considered for the future. Here are a few options she uses:

  • Thanks for letting me know. I'll have to pass this time. Have a wonderful event.
  • Thank you for thinking of me! If you have a budget next time, I'd love to be considered.
  • I really appreciate you reaching out, and I really appreciate your enthusiasm for having me join. But something like this usually requires X number of hours of my time, and I simply cannot participate without being compensated.

Build your own advisory board, and keep your eyes on the horizon.

Working too much, working for less, feeling discounted — it all takes a mental and emotional toll, especially if you're already marginalized in other ways. As a Latina, Lantigua-Williams says having a network of friends and mentors who can commiserate with her experience in the media industry has been a source of strength throughout her career. "I continue to have people who understand my struggles but also reflect back my triumphs, in quiet ways, not in public ways," she says. "And people who I can count on when I am feeling kind of like I'm stuck, I keep hitting obstacles or I don't feel valued." Finding work friends and mentors for your "advisory board," as Lantigua-Williams calls it, doesn't always come naturally, but it can pay off big in the long run. Whether it's joining interest-based professional communities, seeking out an employee resource group or applying for a mentorship program at the office, you can be  proactive about making long-term career connections. From that foundation, be steadfast in your vision for the future and clear on the effort you're willing to make to get there. When you're constantly devalued in the workplace, it can be scary to commit to new opportunities or to strike out on your own, says Lantigua-Williams. You might feel like you have to wait a certain number of years or for a certain number of degrees or accolades before doing what you really want to do. "You don't need any of that. The only thing you need is to decide to start," she says. First, find the conviction; then carve out a path to get yourself there. It's a plan that worked well for Lantigua-Williams. "I was willing to bet on myself. ... That was the biggest risk I ever took, and it's paying off."

The podcast portion of this story was produced by Clare Marie Schneider, with engineering support from Daniel Shukhin. We'd love to hear from you. If you have a good life hack, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode. If you love Life Kit and want more,  subscribe to our newsletter .