How do I handle my previous employer who is asking me for unpaid help?
February 26, 2013 12:53 PM   Subscribe

My previous employer is asking for unpaid help with web design issues. At first I gladly helped, but now it's turning into a regular thing. The cherry on top: I'm unemployed and using her as a reference so I don't want to burn any bridges. How do I professionally handle this?

Last year I had a four month temp position with an organization as a web designer. I worked closely every day with my supervisor, Claire, who is the same age as me (mid 20s), and we developed a friendship during my time there. We never saw each other outside of work, but we did get along very well and talked about our personal lives often. We keep in touch via Facebook and texts, but nothing too frequent or personal.

After my temp position ended in September, she hired someone to replace me to continue editing content and making graphics for the site. Because of lack of funding, they could only afford a federal Work-Study university student, otherwise I would have continued my work there.

In January, she texts me to casually mention she fired my replacement because she always goofed off at work.

Fast forward to today. I am looking for full-time work and am using Claire as a reference. She has gotten a couple reference calls already and will probably get 2-3 more in the following weeks and possibly months. Last week, she sent me an email to say that she needs to shuffle things around on one of the webpages - simple stuff: removing a div element, changing a list of links from one column to two, etc. This is pretty easy and I'm glad to help, so I quickly make the changes, draft up a document detailing all the steps and changes to the code, save as an HTML file, and send it back to Claire within a couple hours. I wipe my hands clean and consider my deed done.

Now, Claire is emailing me almost every day asking for help. First, she couldn't figure out how to open the HTML file and view the actual code. Then she couldn't figure out why things weren't showing up the way she wanted (turns out she deleted an entire line of code without realizing it). Plus more little things that are adding up.

Now, none of this work is particularly hard. But I don't want to set an expectation where I will fix her issues on a moment's notice, especially when she was supposed to hire someone to help her with this anyway. I don't want to be the unpaid wizard behind the curtain that does her job for free and saves the organization money from hiring a student worker. The catch is that I need her on my good side as a reference.

So what do I do? (My instinct would be to offer hourly or contract paid help, but I know from working there that they can't afford that, which is why they were hiring a part-time Work-Study to replace me.) I don't want to ruin a good reference but I also don't want to keep doing unpaid work. Or am I totally off-base and is this a normal thing for web design freelancers/contractors to expect?
posted by daisies to Work & Money (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I generally use the "phonecall rule" for stuff like this. If I can explain what you need to do over the phone, without having to send an e-mail, it's free. If I have to document anything, or god forbid, send you code, It's going to cost you my usual rate.
posted by Oktober at 12:57 PM on February 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

(My instinct would be to offer hourly or contract paid help, but I know from working there that they can't afford that, which is why they were hiring a part-time Work-Study to replace me.)

They have enough money to pay a work study student part-time. You have an hourly rate. You can work for them for as many hours as their funding will cover. To soften the blow, maybe pretend to her that you are beginning to freelance for other people and want to make sure you are tracking all the different projects you are working on correctly?
posted by jacalata at 12:58 PM on February 26, 2013 [7 favorites]

I would turn this back onto the organization. I'd also only offer to resolve this in person, and turn it into a teaching moment for her -- it will probably be faster, and she apparently needs to know this stuff anyway. (Only if you are able to do so conveniently.)

"Man, I really hate the terrible position that this org has put you in-- you clearly need more resources to handle this, and I won't be able to help the company for free. I'm also just not as available as the job needs, now that I'm focused on finding a new full-time gig to pay my bills. Plus resolving all of this over email will just send us to crazytown!

As a favor to you, maybe you and I can meet up for coffee after you get off work-- you can bring the laptop and we'll just resolve this one issue, once and for all. I really feel for you, because it's pretty clear you need a point-person who will be available on an ongoing basis now that I'm not able to support you."

And then DO NOT engage over email any further.
posted by samthemander at 1:02 PM on February 26, 2013 [27 favorites]

They have enough money to pay a work study student part-time.

Getting this out of the way: Work-study students are paid through federal funding. The work-study employee did not cost this employer anything.
posted by almostmanda at 1:03 PM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't work for free, not even for a reference. I do love samthemander's comment though!

"Claire, as you know I'm still looking for a full-time gig, so money is really tight for me. What I can do though, is come in as a temp and get this sorted out for you until you can hire someone to do it for you."

If it's important enough, she'll find the money.

After that, you're oh, so busy!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:05 PM on February 26, 2013 [12 favorites]

I'm a web developer, rather than a designer which is a little different. That said...

This is not normal, and it's not OK. You are absolutely right to not want to do it any more. If Claire has been reasonable in your interactions in the past (and it sounds like she has) I think you can refuse to do the work without burning any bridges. Be polite, but be firm. She probably knows that she's overstepping.

I think Oktober is right on in suggesting the phonecall rule. Another good rule of thumb, that I think leads to a similar division, is whether you're being consulted about work you did while you were an employee or being asked to do new work. After I leave a job, I'm happy to explain where something is, or why I made a certain decision. But doing new work (which includes making changes to existing work) is not ok.

Politely refuse to do more work. Sympathize with the difficulty of her situation. Offer to do paid temp work with no expectation of ongoing hours.

If she's a basically reasonable person, she will understand.
posted by duien at 1:10 PM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you are afraid she is not a reasonable person, you can slow-walk the work so you still appear cooperative, just busy.
  • Receive email at 10am with question
  • At 7pm (or whenever you know she stops working) respond to email with some sort of basic question (example: "where you said this wasn't working, were you using IE 8?")
  • Receive answer next morning
  • Send another question after hours
  • etc.

posted by mikepop at 1:32 PM on February 26, 2013 [9 favorites]

Do not [ever] respond immediately to requests for free help in your profession. Wait at least four hours before responding, and ideally only respond the next day. Do it professionally, treat her as you'd treat any customer who needed a bit of handholding, but make her wait.

If she complains about having to wait, or asks why it is taking so long to get an answer, just say you've been really busy looking for paid work and you're doing your best.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:34 PM on February 26, 2013 [12 favorites]

Work-study students are paid through federal funding. The work-study employee did not cost this employer anything.

This is not true. The employer pays the wages up front and is reimbursed for 75% of them, and there are situations where the employer can voluntarily pay more, e.g. if they want or need more work-study employees than their grant would allow for. There are other situations where the employer can be on the hook for more than 25%, but it's complicated and certainly not clear that this is not one of those situations.
posted by pullayup at 1:42 PM on February 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

You're getting shafted here. That is totally a normal thing for web designers, but that doesn't make it acceptable. They laid you off, hired an inadequate employee to replace you, and now want you to do the work for free after it didn't work out. Basic "hey where did you put that file" or "do you know the password for the blog" types of questions are cool, but not reworking the layout of web pages. In short, the phonecall rule.

I'd explain that you know that money is tight for them, but it is tight for you too (because, you know, they aren't paying you for the work anymore) and you've been freelancing. If they value having their website maintained, they'll find some money (or try to find another sucker to do the work for free). See also Should I Work For Free?
posted by zachlipton at 1:47 PM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

So, here's your lesson--whenever someone asks for a "favor", you don't immediately leap to do it. You should have told her that this would take about X amount of time, at your usual hourly rate, discounted X% because you're pals. But since you started this for free, of course she thinks you're okay with it.

Tell Claire that you can fix this all up nicely for her, but you will need to charge her something. If she balks, so what? She needs you to fix this more than you need to kiss her butt for a reference, I think.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:51 PM on February 26, 2013

She thinks she's asking a friend for a favor. That's not what's happening. She's asking a professional to work for free. She gets paid by the agency for her services as should you.

I'd handle as such: "Claire, I'm looking for a paid job, but I don't want to leave you in a bind. I could freelance for you Xhours per week at $X per hour. That's X% less than I'd normally charge for freelance work. When you find a suitable work/study person she can take over."

I like my mechanic. He's a good guy and we've known each other for years. When I ask him to deliver professional services, I expect to pay him. You are not different.
posted by 26.2 at 2:15 PM on February 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

You're being used, but as noted, this is pretty common especially for web design work, which people have classified, with or without justification, as this thing that is too complicated for them but easy for a smart person.

As a customer service approach, the tack to take is probably somewhere in the vicinity of "I'd be delighted to keep doing this for you, but unfortunately I am going to need to bill you for my time. I hope you understand." The most likely outcome for you, alas, is that she quits using you instead of actually starting to pay you, but adults understand when adults draw clear boundary lines.
posted by dhartung at 2:22 PM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I totally agree with everyone above that you need to be paid for your time, and that what she is asking for is unreasonable, but I also would be worried about having to say no to her while you are using her as a reference. I bet that she knows that she can get free work out of you right now, because you need her goodwill. It is totally unfair, but it may be prudent to keep helping her until you have a job, or at least until you can find someone else to use as a reference. One would hope that she is your friend and wouldn't screw you over, but since she is already kind of abusing the power she has over you right now, you just can't be sure.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 4:30 PM on February 26, 2013

To soften the blow, perhaps offer an informal training session over lunch.

"Can you believe this is the eighth time your company has asked you to do something so far out of your skill set you're asking me for help? Really looks like you guys need a new Web guru stat. Have you guys put any money into that for a freelancer (like me)? No? So they just expect you to pick this up through osmosis? Have they even offered to send you to some training? Well I'll tell you what, job hunting is taking up most of my time these days, but how about we grab lunch this weekend. I'll give you a few tips to skate by, and tell you what resources I use when I don't know how to fix it."

It will be near impossible to actually do her work at some diner, and as you flex your impressive web skills, she'll be reminded of all your exceptional qualities to list off when she gets her new reference request.

And during that meal, I would lay into how unfair it is for the company to expect her to just know how to do your old job.

"Even at this lower bar they're setting, they really should have someone spend about 6 hours a month zipping through this at $XXX dollars. An expert will do it in three times the time as you, and you'll gain 20 hours that you can devote to work that better suits you. If you think the higher ups can find the cash, I could always use the work, and I'll give you a discount since I already know the job and can hit the ground running. Sure money is tight, but think of what a disaster it would be if their web presense was down for two days because you're not trained to do this. It would be like me trying to be an accountant."
posted by politikitty at 6:35 PM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

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