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I left a very small startup a few months ago. Since I was the only person working as a backend developer and didn't have time to on-board a replacement, I offered to stay on part-time for contractor pay to help ease the transition.

My offer was refused.

Since then, my replacement at the company emails me roughly once per week asking me how I did blank or where blank config file is located or if there is a script to do blank. I've spent around thirty hours at this point helping him out and the help requests show no sign of slowing down.

My question is this: how do I get my ex-employer to stop emailing me for help without completely burning that bridge?

I should clarify a little since I've gotten a lot of flack in the comments for not documenting anything:

  • I left ten pages of documentation with the CEO before leaving (my replacement had not yet been hired) and we had a single-page angular application serving API documentation.
  • Most of the questions I've answered are just me referring them to that ten-page document.
  • None of these requests for help have been regarding my official title of "BackEnd Developer". However, during my stint at the company, my job description ballooned considerably and I ended up doing some tasks (e.g devops, dba, ...) that fell well outside my initial expectations. There was no documentation whatsoever when I inherited these additional tasks and time constraints didn't allow me to start any (I was working around 80 hour weeks at the time).
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The company may not even be aware of the emails. The new employee may be doing it on his own. –  mhoran_psprep Apr 28 at 18:48
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Did you not document anything? –  Jack Marchetti Apr 29 at 17:20
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Please note: Several of these comments offer the beginnings of answers. Comments aren't for answers; they're temporary notes for the purpose of clarifying a post or seeking additional information. These comments will be deleted soon; please incorporate them into answers if you want to preserve the content. Thank you. –  Monica Cellio Apr 29 at 20:43

13 Answers 13

up vote 80 down vote accepted

As long as you are a doormat to this person, you will continue to be.

You have two options. Keep the bridge open, or risk burning it down.

If you keep it open, you will continue to work free of charge for them. I don't think this is really fair of them or to you.

However, you may reply the next time your replacement asks, that you have fulfilled the obligations you felt you had to the company, but if they would like to engage your services, they may do so for a fee. You will risk burning your bridge here, but I think they are being unreasonable.

You should be very polite and professional in your wording and include your fee. Be sure it is a fair amount to you. If they take you up on it, the arrangement could go on for quite some time.

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At this point, I don't want to work for them any more at any cost. I'm not even willing to work for the contractor rate I initially offered when leaving the company. –  astex Apr 28 at 18:29
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In that case you just need to politely reply to them that you have helped all you can and you don't have time to help them any further. It will likely hurt you should you want to return, but it sounds like they are the ones that burned that bridge with you. –  Bill Leeper Apr 28 at 18:32
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I totally agree with @BillLeeper, as long as you remain professional and polite I could not imagine that there will be any repercussions. In addition, burning that bridge is no problem as you do not have any interest in working with them again. –  Paul Hiemstra Apr 28 at 18:51
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@astex - considering you previously offered, why have you decided you "don't want to work for them any more..."? Is it because you feel they have taken advantage of you since you left? Two things come to my mind: 1) As others have mentioned, the "new employee" may be requesting your help on his own, and the management there may not be aware it is happening. 2) In the long term, you may not want to continue to work for them and you may know you never want to return to work for them, but you never know when you will need a reference from them and I wouldn't recommend "burning bridges" with them. –  Kevin Fegan Apr 29 at 6:11
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@astex Then you add a "don't wanna do this" surcharge to your quoted fee. (Put another way, you quote them the amount that you would be willing to do the work at, which can be significantly more than your normal going rate.) Best case, they get the hint and look elsewhere. Worst case, you get paid a massive premium. :) –  Allen Gould Apr 30 at 16:40

My question is this: how do I get my ex-employer to stop emailing me for help without completely burning that bridge?

This is actually quite easy - just stop helping!

You offered a great solution that would help them and not give away your valuable time for free - they rejected that offer. And you have helped them on your own dime. Now is the time to stop the free help.

The first time or two you get an email asking for help, beg off by indicating how busy you are. Something like "Sorry. I'm really swamped with work and won't have time to help out." Nothing more, just leave it at that.

Then just simply stop responding.

In our commendable desire to help others and to avoid "burning bridges", we sometimes enable the kinds of activities that we wish to stop. Once you stop enabling, the requests will dry up quickly.

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I think your choice does not necessarily fall into binary: help or don't help.

Instead, try replying to their e-mail with some delay. Then slowly increase it over a span of weeks.

The key point here is helping a fellow developer learn by giving him/her time to figure out the answer to their own question. Probably your replacement is in the middle of a sh*t storm and is working in firefighter mode: they know you'll answer, so they ask. Wouldn't you do the same? (I'm assuming the developer had nothing to do with your offer being refused)

By replying with longer and longer delays they'll learn that sometimes it's faster to figure it out by themselves than waiting for your reply.

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This is the best answer here. Both in the effective technique, and pointing out that the new guy or gal probably isn't doing it deliberately for free labor. I have done this before and as a result maintained a great relationship with my former workmates (still meeting for beer every now and then) - without remaining a renewable source of free support. –  sebf Apr 28 at 21:43

Saying "no" will always risk some displeasure, but the best results usually come from being clear, precise, and non-judgemental.

My approach would be:

  1. If you think the replacement is doing a good job, but just doesn't have what he needs to do the job without asking you lots of questions, give him a polite heads up that the ramp up support effort is getting out of control. On your next communication with him, mention that you've spent over 30 hours so far helping, that based on the questions to date, you see he'll need more help, and that you will need to ask for some compensation for your time. That way he's not surprised when the mail comes out in step #2.

  2. Mail to the decision making person - your old boss or whoever would have budget power. Probably this is the person that said "no" the last time you offered to be a part-time contractor. It's OK to CC the replacement who's been asking you for help.

  3. In the mail, sum up - how many questions (1 x week for N weeks), and how long it's taken (on average X hours, adding up to X * N which is greater than 30 hours). To be nice, you can say you understand the challenges of the transition but that it's coming to a point that has gone beyond the standards of professional courtesy and into an actual support role.

  4. If you're willing, repeat your offer to work as a part time contractor, bounded by some number of hours with an estimate for what you consider to be a likely case for what they need.

  5. In either case, if there is no contract, offer your regrets that you feel that answering further questions would open the door to being an unbounded resource when you are no longer an employee, which isn't ideal for either you or the company.

  6. Stick to it. If you get another request for help, reply once (ccing the boss) - with a question as to whether there's been any thoughts on forming a contract. Then ignore further requests.

In all honesty, my response as a manager to something like this would be fairly unpredictable. It would have a lot to do with what I thought our shared expectations were when you were my employee.

  • If I had always set the expectation with the team that handoff was important, and that work should be reasonably transferable, I might think poorly of your work if I found out it would take over 40 hours to transfer knowledge.

  • If I had been hearing from the new guy who replaced you that everything was great, and no help was needed, I'd be ticked off at him for not informing me of how much time he was taking of a previous employee.

  • It we just happened to have something very complex and unavoidably complicated, and I knew that both sides were doing their best here, I'd shrug and figure out what to do next, but I would at least make clear with the new guy to be more conservative in asking for your help.

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I would distinguish between two types of help:

  • something that takes you only seconds, and that nobody else can do in any amount of time. Eg what is the password to X and you happen to know that password.
  • something that would take you an hour or so, and would take somebody else the same amount of time or a small (less than 5) multiple. Eg please draw me a diagram of the different servers and how they talk to each other and where the backups are kept.

You might think it's really more of a spectrum, but I'm willing to bet that it isn't. My experience of contact with former employees or contacts from former clients is that the majority of the requests are the former, and once in a while someone feeling lazy tries the latter. Nobody generally has the nerve to ask for days of work at a time. Knowing that there are these two kinds of requests, I would not tell them there will be no more help, and nor would I ask to invoice them for helping (since at this point, that would basically just give them permission to ask for help, and you don't want that.)

Instead, I would continue to answer the first kind of question as fast as humanly possible. No artificial delays to try to wean them, no disclaimers about this being the last time, just fire right back with the top-of-mind answer the moment you can. For the second type of answer, simply reply "sorry, I don't have that top-of-mind, it would take me an hour or more to do that, and I don't have any extra time this week at all." If you're feeling super generous you can provide a hint like "I know there is an obsolete version in the sales package I did in 2012, you can use that as a starting point." Should they write back that "next week will be fine" you can reply "actually next week is no better for me. I think you should assume I won't be able to help you with that."

Over time, your help on the instant stuff will keep your bridge unburned. This is the biggest value to them anyway. And your polite dignity about your own boundaries on giving them a lot of time will carry some weight, too. Most importantly, you will have regained control over the relationship by not being all binary about it -- help or no help is far too simplistic -- and therefore should end up happier about the whole thing.

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Since you no longer want to have any contact with them, the appropriate response is to give them a final deadline:

"I expected the transition to take less than 3 months, but it has already been 4 months and the questions haven't slowed. I want the transition to be successful, however I have to turn my attention towards my current endeavors. Please continue to ask me questions up until [today's date + 30 days]. After that I will not be able to devote more time and effort to the transition."

Giving them time between the notice and the deadline will avoid burning bridges, while definitively setting an end date.

When (not if!) they send you a new question after that date, wait a day, then respond, "I'm sorry, I don't recall the answer off the top of my head, and don't have the time to re-solve the issue. Consider asking on [online Q&A site]."

If they continue to ask questions, take longer and longer to get back to them, and give the same response as above. They should get the hint... eventually.

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The OP has written to offer a part-time support in transition time, but that was refused. So actually, there's no need to explain why you don't want to help. –  РСТȢѸФХѾЦЧШЩЪЫЬѢѤЮѦѪѨѬѠѺѮѰѲѴ Apr 29 at 10:22
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Correct, there's no need to, however we are all human, and going the extra mile is generally a good choice. –  Adam Davis Apr 29 at 11:32

You offered to stay part-time in the time of the transition, so practically something like paid support, but your offer was refused.

So it's quite clear that you have no obligations to help and simply refusing to answer won't be in any way rude, because it's actually not you who has said 'no'.

You've already done a lot for free, and actually your ex-company has nothing to do with it directly and officially, because it was your replacement who had contacted you privately.

You should make it very clear that you have no support agreement with your ex-company, but you are willing to help. Offer a fair fee, so that it won't be interpreted as abusing the situation. Just ask a typical fee for an external expert in your business. Of course you will be much better than a typical expert because you have the internal knowledge of the system, so both parties should be happy.

If your ex-company refuses to pay you for your help, just refuse to help them. It's in no way rude. It's professional. It's just like business work. Just take a petrol parallel: if you've used the same petrol station for a few years, would you expect to tell them you won't buy petrol from them any more, and then come from time to time and ask your acquaintanance working there to fill you up for free?

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Well, IMO your old company is being very unreasonable. Would an ex-employer pay you just for fun if you left the company on fair terms ? No. Then why should you still continue to work for free ? I am surprised that you even worked 30 hours for free. It would be even more surprising if you did not keep the old company's managers and bosses informed about this. Keep e-mail records.

If I were you, I would send them an e-mail like this:

I understand that migration must be quite a painful task, so I tried to help the new guy as much as I could. We have exchanged about 100 e-mails over the past 30 days. By this time, one would expect him to have understood the system and become self-sufficient. However, it seems that he still needs more help.

As much as I would like to assist you, I cannot continue to do so without being paid anymore. I can, however, still help you for free for about another week only if we can agree on a final, concrete list of knowledge items which can be transferred within that frame of time.

If you need far more than a week of my time, then I am gladly willing to work for you as a contractor.

I hope that you will understand my position and that we can come to an agreement soon.

Thank you.


PS: In an ideal world, you could tell these guys to piss off if they were doing all this deliberately.

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Start charging. Here's why:

It is good that you now starting taking this issue seriously because 30 hours of work is quite a lot of help. You have given away a lot of value for free. Your time is very valuable because you're experienced with the business.

It wouldn't be worth the effort to set up a contract for 2-3 hours of contract work so you'd just do it for free as a courtesy. For that reason I'd expect a former employee to cooperate in this way if it doesn't take a heavy toll on them.

But for more that very few hours of your time you can rightfully demand compensation. Two cases can happen:

  1. They agree.
  2. They don't agree. Apparently, your time is not worth a lot to them. So you shouldn't be investing it in the first place. They will stop bothering you.

Tell them now that you'd see that they still require your help and you'd like to help them further. But now you require compensation. It is certainly possible to communicate this in a kind and self-confident manner.

Don't burn any bridges because you never know who you will meet again. Don't just not answer or delay answers. Man up and strike a deal.

One of the two cases that I mentioned will happen. Either way, problem solved.

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There are already a bunch of good answers on here, but I wanted to add one thing that I've found helpful that others haven't mentioned. When I was in the same position I never did any direct work for them; if they needed help with something I would get on phone call and walk them through it. This has two advantages:

  1. The person taking over for you is forced to learn something rather than just having you do stuff for them.
  2. Of course you have a new job now and are very busy so unfortunately you can only help out after 8pm on a weekday. The person taking over for you does not want to sit around on the phone being slowly walked through stuff when he could be at home eating dinner.

I found that this pretty quickly cut back on their requests while making me still look good for being so helpful despite my busy schedule.

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YMMV for sure. If it still doesn't slow down you can also start limiting the sessions, ie "I only have 15 minutes for this call, so see how far you can get on your own and we can discuss any blockers you find." Then they're either going to have to try themselves, or they're going to make pretty slow progress waiting for you. –  Hunter Gathers Apr 30 at 18:17

Just offer the new guy packs of 5 support tickets with doubling price increments.

Give him the first 5 pack for free and tell him that the next one will cost $100, the one after that $200, then $400 and so on. He'll keep emailing only as long as it is cost effective for him.

Don't forget to put expiry date on support ticket coupons -- you don't want him hanging on to the last one for a year or two.

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That what you propose are repressions, it's very rude in my opinion to even discuss something like that with your ex-company. –  РСТȢѸФХѾЦЧШЩЪЫЬѢѤЮѦѪѨѬѠѺѮѰѲѴ Apr 29 at 10:20
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It's not bad advise to have them pay for your time when you are no longer on their payroll, but the implementation you suggested isn't very professional. –  Philipp Apr 29 at 12:45
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@RualStorge He already offered his old company "I will contract for XX$ per hour maximum YY hours a week until ZZ/ZZ/ZZZZ Date to facilitate this transition" type of deal when he was leaving and they refused. He is now dealing with the new guy only and his ex-company does not know about it. This way he signals to the new guy that he had enough of providing him with free support but still gives him a chance to ask the last couple of questions for free, but pick his questions carefully. –  Galadrius Krunthar Apr 29 at 22:49
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Hi @GaladriusKrunthar - As you can see, shorter answers lead to extended discussion in comments, since it's not clear to others what it is you're saying. My suggestion is to edit your post with the information from the comments. This will help make it easier for folks to understand not just what you're suggesting but also why you're suggesting it. Hope this helps. –  jmort253 May 3 at 16:06

I think you can create a small Knowledge Transfer document mentioning the important things like passwords to the servers, important file locations or the things which you think are important to them, and send it to your old employer telling them that you have sent all the important information in that document as you may not be available to help them all the time because of your busy schedule in the new company. You can also tell them that you would really like to help them, but you may not be available all the time as you have a lot of work and it's going to increase in the future. I think they will get the hint from this and your relationship would not be spoiled with them. They will give positive feedback about you in the future.

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I actually left them with ten pages of server documentation. Most of the questions I've answered are just me directing them to that. –  astex Apr 29 at 16:31

What you need to do here is "be busy." Obviously 30 hours is enough that you really ought to be paid, but you are worried about it sounding bad if you mention money. Also you seem to be annoyed and that never comes over well.

Just ignore them, and if they insist just say "Oh yeah I was really busy this week." Then one of two things will happen. They will either stop asking, or they will come begging for help, in which case you can point out that you have done 30 hours work for them already, and now your life is so full you cannot continue doing unpaid work.

I have had a similar issue in my job. I'm still at the same company (based in Madrid) but we have another office in Chile which needed my expertise for a particular project (about 1 man-month of work.) After that, the Chilean office sent me questions on a frequent basis (and I had no problem to answer them, because I didn't have too much work.) Finally, my workload increased, and on one occasion I answered simply "I have no time to look at any documents right now, my technical opinion would normally be X, get your supplier and client to talk to each other." They never asked again, but I am positive that I haven't left a bad impression.

So, if you want them to "pay you or leave you alone" tell them you are busy (whether it is true or not.)

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