Urban Outfitters

Why There's Nothing Outrageous About Urban Outfitters' Request for 'Free Work'

Why There's Nothing Outrageous About Urban Outfitters' Request for 'Free Work'

You may have seen a story making the rounds about how Urban Outfitters sent an email asking corporate employees to volunteer at the company’s Pennsylvania fulfillment center for a weekend. While Gawker interpreted the communication as evidence of the chain’s cruelty in expecting employees to work for free, the reality is far less exploitative.

There are a few key aspects to consider. First, the email asked for volunteers. Nobody was cornered, and nobody was coerced or otherwise forced to perform free labor. “Assuming the worst case scenario, the company was asking for a favor,” says Heather Huhman, president of Come Recommended, a public relations firm that works with HR companies. “You don’t always have to say yes to favors.” Furthermore, since the email was sent to the company at large, it’s unlikely that anyone felt that this was a demand disguised as a request.

It’s also a completely legal request. While the idea of asking people in retail -- an industry known for low hourly wages -- to put in time sans compensation sounds off-putting and greedy, remember that the email was sent to salaried employees at the company’s headquarters. According to Jonathan Segal, a partner in the employment group at the law firm Duane Morris, salaried employees who take home at least $455 each week and meet other qualifications are exempt from earning overtime wages. “It’s part of the job,” he says. “It’s not uncommon in retail for salaried employees to be asked to do more, but most of the time it’s, ‘I need you in on Saturday because we have work to do. We need all hands on deck.’” 

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In this particular case, URBN, the parent company of Urban Outfitters, Free People and Anthropologie, was offering employees lunch and transportation -- and they were more than fair in doing so.

But the biggest miss of all is that there’s a real team-building value in events like these. Granted, filling orders isn’t as exciting as doing a Tough Mudder, but the truth is that any exercise that brings employees together -- particularly employees who don’t often meet face-to-face -- is an opportunity to build camaraderie. “It did sound like it was a bit of a spin on something that could maybe be boring, but any opportunity to get to know your co-workers, I think that’s a great thing,” says Huhman.

Huhman also points out that some companies offer people the opportunity to switch jobs with a colleague for a day, called role reversals. “It gives you a mutual understanding of what the other person does,” she explains.

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Indeed, URBN told Gawker that the request for volunteers was well-received by employees. “Unsurprisingly, we received a tremendous response, including many of our senior management. Many hourly employees also offered to pitch in – an offer which we appreciated, but declined in order to ensure full compliance with all applicable labor laws and regulations.”

Corporations can certainly partake in some shady practices (Foxconn, anyone?) but this story is far less scandalous than Gawker’s headline would suggest. As for the outrage of the masses after reading the story, Segal offers a simple explanation: “People rushed to judgment.”

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