How much is your work worth? Is it ever OK to work for free?

Hard work always pays off, as the saying goes, but sometimes it seems to pay a lot less than it used to. And the more you're willing to do for less, the more you're expected to do for less -- and, in some industries, that can affect everyone else who works in that field.

So, the question is: Is it ever OK to work for free?

The answer: As usual, it depends. Ask yourself these questions:

How long will you be expected to work without compensation? If your industry is facing an economic crisis and everyone has been asked to do more for less in order to keep the company afloat, then yes, it may be important to consider continuing to work, for a while, without pay. But there comes a point where the work you're doing for free impacts your ability to do other work for pay, and -- especially if you're the breadwinner and your mortgage is on the line -- that's when you have to readjust the scale. Beware of setting a bad precedent -- for yourself, and for others.

What else can you get out of it?
Last year, I took on a freelance project that turned out to be a major time suck. It was voluntary, and I wasn't getting paid, and it got complicated, but you know what? It was worth it, because it allowed me to give back to a community that I've wished I could do more for over the years. So, working for free may be worthwhile when it's your way of donating something to a community or company you value.

Will someone else do it if you don't?
In this age of the disposable workforce, sometimes your compensation for extra work is better job security. If doing more than just what's in your job description makes you more valuable as an employee, the extra effort may be worthwhile.

Will the unpaid responsibilities help you land a better job (or more paid gigs) in the future? If you have little experience in a subject or field of work, working for free may bolster your resume and make you a more viable candidate for other jobs down the line. Many of us were interns once, and it was a great learning opportunity. But that doesn't mean you have to be an intern again, especially if you already have plenty of that particular kind of experience under your belt.

Can you be compensated in some other way?
Maybe you can get paid in additional time off. Maybe you'd be able to expense your research materials or use company resources. Maybe, in exchange for juggling the additional responsibilities, the company would be willing to pay for you to take career-related coursework or attend a professional conference. Maybe flex time would make the additional work worthwhile. Explore your options -- there may be more to be gained than money. And don't forget: Life experience does count in the working world.

In your profession, whatever it is, do you think it's OK to work for free? Why or why not?

Lylah M. Alphonse blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. She's the managing editor of Work It, Mom!, where she writes about juggling career and family at The 36-Hour Day, and she writes about parenting issues for The Boston Globe. Follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat.