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I've been approached recently by a person that took over the project I worked on from my last job. They've asked me to help them out (unpaid) with an issue they are having that they believe I have encountered before when I was on the project. I've been at my new employer for almost 8 months now and I'm not sure if I should be still helping my previous employer out with answering questions like this.

I did help them out with some issues that I had encountered in the first few weeks after I left the company. I'm not sure if there is a proper protocol to follow on how long one should be offering to help a previous employer, though as my previous manager told the person on the project to contact me to see if I could help. Should they be doing this?

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    Are you being paid for your "help"? – jcmeloni Jun 6 '12 at 20:12
  • @jcmeloni Not getting paid for my "help" the question came in out of the blue about a day ago. – Patrick G Jun 6 '12 at 20:32
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    That's an important part of the question; I'll add it. This isn't long enough to warrant being an answer, but my "answer" is that unequivocally you have no obligation to work for free for anyone, regardless of whether or not you worked for them in the past. If you do, because you are super nice, they will continue to ask you to work for free for as long as you agree to work for free. – jcmeloni Jun 6 '12 at 20:38
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    @jcmeloni It would not really smart on their part to continue to ask Patrick to work for free. Eventually something will go terribly wrong and it will not be Patrick's problem. Even if it was b/c of Patrick's help being unhelpful, what are they going to do fire Patrick? But still you are right, maybe they aren't smart, and Patrick needs to protect Patrick. – emory Jun 7 '12 at 1:43
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    If the problem generally requires more than 15 minutes on the phone to sort out, then it is incredibly rude of them to expect you to help solve their problems for free with the looming threat of burning bridges if you are not cooperative. Please please please don't open that can of worms! It is not worth it and you will get taken advantage of. – maple_shaft Jun 7 '12 at 15:06
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As with all things, it depends.

In general, it is useful to have a network of colleagues and former colleagues that you can go to when you're encountering problems. There are a few colleagues that I'll hit up periodically (and that hit me up) when one of us is struggling with a problem that we suspect the other person might have some insight on. These are generally something very similar to a good StackOverflow question where the person doing the asking does all the legwork to ensure that the question is clear, concise, and answerable. If that's what's happening here, it's probably a good idea to reply if you can because building your professional network generally pays off over time.

On the other hand, if your former manager is telling someone you don't know to contact you and the request is more along the lines of "can you spend some unknowable period of time helping me debug exactly what's going on here" rather than a well-researched, specific question that is respectful of your time, it's entirely appropriate to decline to sign up to be free technical support. Commonly you can come back either feigning a lack of memory (i.e. "Sorry, it's been 8 months since I've thought about that system, I'm really not sure where to go to start debugging that") or, if you're amenable to it, approach your former manager to see about doing some consulting (i.e. "It sounds like the Foo is Barred in System X but it's hard to be sure from the description I have. I'd need to Baz the Frobbit to be sure. And un-Barring the Foo is likely to take Y hours. I'd be more than happy to help you work through the problem in in the evening and the weekend but I'd need to charge you $Y/hr with a Z hour minimum").

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I suppose it might depend on what sort of questions they have and how generous you feel. I'd say if the question can be answered in a minute or so, then maybe be nice and give them a freebie or two AND NO MORE! If they start asking more involved questions, or even worse, if they send you code for "fixing", then reply with an (optionally exorbitantly) high consulting rate because your time is worth something and you already have a full-time job and why spend your evenings and weekend for someone else if you don't need to? Why do work for someone who's not your current employer for free? The only reason I can think of is to maintain the relationship because the relationship is for some reason more important than the potential compensation for time spent (maybe it's an in-law you're trying to impress or something).

...I've also heard of people doing this for more creative compensation such as dinner and a couple of pints at a pub, though I suspect it was a meeting that was about 60% social and 40% business.

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Having dealt with this issue personally it boils down to a couple of points

  1. If the requests are not complex and it helps your street cred (you never know when you need a favor). And the work is not interfering with your other job and personal life (be fan of my personal time is my time and it better be critical issues if you are calling me on personal time).

  2. Be aware some companies have strict moon-lighting rules and even unpaid work for your former company may be considered unpaid work.

  3. If the issue is complex or the calls increase then I would politely tell them in your opinion you feel this is more than a quick unpaid favor and ask to be paid for your time (be aware this may alert your working for the old company to the new company see above because now there is a money trail).

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