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I worked for two years at a themed entertainment company as a designer/developer. I worked on a lot of complicated projects using custom electronics and/or microcontroller firmware. I did my best to document all this before my departure from the company, but there was a lot of disfunction in terms of documentation standards and organization so some of this information inevitably slipped through the cracks.

I left this company last year because it seemed like some major layoffs were on the horizon and I had other opportunities (my prediction of layoffs came true, over half the employees got canned once Covid hit).

They are now working on an install where a lot of these projects are getting set up on-site, and I'm getting a bunch of texts from different people asking me for details about the various projects I worked on, or even for me to hunt down bits of code or files I might have on my computer and send it their way.

On one hand, I like all my coworkers (the people who are directly asking for help) and consider them friends of mine, they're good people just trying to get their job done despite chaotic upper management. On the other hand, I don't like or trust the upper management (super dysfunctional, laid a bunch of people off, and some of them I know personally to be really awful people) and I don't feel good about doing free work that ultimately benefits them. In addition, some other people have gotten rehired on a contract basis to work on this install, and they are getting paid, but due to organizational issues I think the chance of a budget getting approved to pay me for my work is pretty minimal (those who got contracts are full-time on-site, I'd be remote, part time as needed).

Basically I'm stuck in a situation where by helping my friends I'm letting this company take advantage of me, and where by not letting them take advantage of me I'd probably just make things harder for my friends without really accomplishing much.

What should I do here? What would be a good solution in terms of maintaining professional standards and setting clear boundaries, but also not making my friend's lives unnecessarily harder. I'm still on good terms with my former direct manager, so I'm planning to reach out to him and get his take, but I also wanted to see what a broad survey of opinion would say.

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some other people have gotten rehired on a contract basis to work on this install, and they are getting paid

As it should be, and as it should be for you too. Explain to your friends that it's not personal, but if it's becoming a regular occurrence then you're going to have to ask them for some kind of payment. Ask them to ask their boss for a budget to hire you part-time.

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    Yep. Maybe they won't have the budget to hire you full or part time, but maybe they have the budget for 2-4 hours a week of 'consulting'. – Kaz Jan 21 at 9:31
  • You can make this a bit more solid by asking if all questions can be run through BossPerson and making sure BossPerson knows that, after 2 years, the free consults arent feasible anymore and you will have to charge $x per started 15mins – Martijn Jan 21 at 11:47
  • I think most genuine friends would be sympathetic to this kind of answer. You'd expect contact from former colleagues on work matters to be limited to no more than a few occasions overall, and after a month or so to be confined really to offhand verbal advice or recollections, and for them to accept gracefully any limit you set where the employer will have to pay for further consultancy. – Steve Jan 21 at 15:25
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If you were a car mechanic how would you feel about your ex colleagues asking you to fix their cars for free?

You can either acquiesce, or you can tell them you're not available, or you can arrange to be paid for your time and effort.

You could reach out to management and offer your services as an independent consultant. Set your hourly rate at twice your previous hourly rate and see if they're interested.

Personally, I don't mind occasionally helping ex colleagues with issues, but if it became a regular occurrence I would either stop doing it or I'd work out an arrangement to be paid for my work. You're under no obligation to provide your labor and know-how free of charge just because you're friends with these people.

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or even for me to hunt down bits of code or files I might have on my computer and send it their way

This is a bit iffy. If you don't work there anymore, you shouldn't be keeping company files.

What you could do is carefully scour your computer for any leftover files, make a nice bundle, and hand it over to someone at the old company that you think is sufficiently technical to know what to do with them. And make it clear that you've erased these files from your computer now. After that, if they want your expertise working with them, they can either:

  • Buy you lunch and talk it over with you
  • Hire you, if they need more than that

(In the event that the files were sensitive and you think you could be in trouble for still having them - talk to a legal expert. Find out what the correct way is to get rid of this toxic waste.)

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I have had previous mangers ask me for stuff like this also.

I always reply with something like the below:

Hey previous manager, good to hear from you.

I would love to be able to help out. I can only work Saturdays at the moment though as I busy Monday to Friday.

My rate would be £x per hour; with a minimum of 16 hours across 2 Saturdays to make this worth my time and effort.

I will need to be paid up front for this, and will include an option to extend the offer if required.

Let me know how you want to go forward.

Speak soon

You could amend this to say something like, have HR/Your friends manager arrange payment etc.

Needless to say none of them have ever taken me up on the offer after this point.

It might not be the friendliest way, but as pointed out in other answers you wouldn't go and ask a mechanic to do your car for free.

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Update here is I haven't worked there in almost a year

At this point you should have absolutely no response to them when they have requests for unpaid work.

I like my coworkers .. I don't like or trust the upper management

Those two issues are absolutely irrelevant to professional behavior unfortunately.

What would be a good solution in terms of maintaining professional standards

By answering and indeed not just blocking such requests for unpaid work, you are unfortunately making a poor choice as a professional.

Certainly for a week or so you might respond to quick project questions from a previous employer.

After a month it is unfortunately very unprofessional for you to respond in any way to requests for unpaid work.

Going forward...

I would encourage you to "never tell" anyone this happened, so to speak.

Never allow any requests for unpaid work after, let's say, one week with a former company.

You mention you "have friends" there - note that when you "have friends" somewhere, then unfortunately it especially falls on you to act in a totally professional manner. If someone hears you act unprofessionally in situations where you "have friends", unfortunately that is a death knell for a career.

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    There is nothing unprofessional about continuing correspondence with former employers/colleagues. It is called maintaining your network. Cutting off all ties and burning bridges like this is what would be a death knell for your career. OP's concern re: professionalism here is about unpaid work, not about correspondence. – TylerH Jan 21 at 14:24
  • Obviously I meant "in relation to this QA". ie, when they ask you to work on the project or have questions about it. – Fattie Jan 21 at 14:43
  • (It's remarkable I had to explain that explicitly, but sure, thanks for suggesting the edit.) – Fattie Jan 21 at 14:44
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It is important to manage how much you help past co-workers. If you are currently employed, helping them is taking time from your current employer. (If you are contract, then it is taking money out of your own pocket.) They are being paid to figure this stuff out. You are not.

Simply, stop taking their phone calls and responding to their emails. For example, accept only one phone call or email from anyone per day (or per week). Simply not responding will send the message that you are no longer their rescuer.

It is important on a human level not to rescue dysfunctional people from the natural consequences of their own actions. You sending files from your computer to your former co-workers is keeping your previous employer from paying for their own consequences. Stop it.

The proper thing to do with former co-workers is to meet for drinks once a month or so.

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    I guess my quandary here is that my coworkers are not the dysfunctional people. The upper management is dysfunctional, but all the problems this creates get pawned off on the people actually doing the work while the office of the CEO gets rich. I doubt in this scenario that the upper management will even notice if I don't help my former coworkers out. All it will mean is that my former coworkers have to work harder. – Emmett Palaima Jan 21 at 1:25
  • Yes, they will have to work harder, but that means that they get paid more. Unless they are on a fixed price contract, they will be paid for the more time they put in. That means that the office of the CEO will have to pay out more and less money for the CEO. – David R Jan 21 at 21:53

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