About two years ago I started work for a small web development firm as the second employee. Since we've grown a bit with a few hirings and a few firings to 5 employees.

This is my first real job in the industry that counts, and the experience is invaluable; however, I've grown to dislike my boss. I'm not unhappy with my wage, but I don't appreciate being lied to (he frequently tells me I am at the median for the field, which is blatantly false, and I'm not an idiot, or that I make more than he does, which doesn't even make any sense). He barely is in the office 20 hours a week, but when I pull an all-nighter or two to make sure the product is delivered on time to an extremely valuable client, he complains about paying me overtime and instructs me not to let it happen again or he'll put me on salary for the equivalent of my hourly pay.

A year and a half ago, by some strange chance of a few good relationships, we landed a large corporation as a client that is building an e-learning platform from the ground up. This is a completely new experience and is much more in the software development realm than web development. This corporation has generously paid our company to learn how to do something none of us have ever done, and 3 members of our team (myself foremost) have had the opportunity to learn JavaScript application development on a massive scale, working with a large, international development team.

Despite being the source of over 60% of my employer's revenue, he seems to hate this company. He masks his dislike with arguments like "they take 15 days to pay an invoice and I have to float payroll" (which, if this is really happening, I'm a bit scared to work in a company whose accountant can't finance payroll for 15 days without going into debt), or "they have too many meetings" (all of which are billable). Honestly though, it seems like he just has contempt for large corporations.

He's disrespectful to his clients and to his employees, his finances are questionable, he drinks (too much) on the job, and he has zero interest in the work I love to do for a client I've learned to cherish.

I've spent the last 16 or so months learning the ins and outs of this e-learning product and often I am answering the questions poised by their employees because I know it so thoroughly. In addition, I've headed the development of the frontend side of the application, dictating requirements in the data structures, providing documentation, and delegating tasks to other developers. I think I'd be a great asset to this company if I didn't have the distraction of an employer that is constantly putting me on other trivial tasks for small, unreliable clients and accusing me when I make up for it by working a couple extra hours every week. I'm passionate about the product itself; I love to discuss the user experience with the project management team. I just really, really want to work directly for this client.

That said, I'm not sure how to go about doing such a thing. How bad would I look to this client, telling them I want to quit their contractor and work for them? Does that portray me as disloyal? In addition, I can't just leave without my employer knowing that I'm going to work for this client, since the other two team members at my company would end up on WebEx's with me on the other end. Even worse, I signed a Confidentiality and Nonsolicitation Agreement upon employment. A friend of mine who is a lawyer said that the stipulations in the document wouldn't hold up in court, but that said, it'd no doubt be a bitter end for my current employer and I certainly want to avoid any legal troubles. Should I just give up pursuing this, since it'd violate the terms I agreed to in the first place?

closed as off-topic by Jim G., gnat, Garrison Neely, NotMe, Michael Grubey Nov 7 '14 at 2:22

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  • 3
    What does your contract say? You may not be allowed to work for a client for quite a while after parting ways. Also consider that the client may be prohibited to hire you according to their contract. Perhaps you could get an arrangement where you work physically at the client full time as a contractor? – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Nov 1 '14 at 23:24
  • Clients are sometimes able and willing to buy their way out of such clauses (but I have seen that happening with larger, more professional consulting operations, if your current boss makes it personal it might not be possible). – Relaxed Nov 2 '14 at 13:58
  • According to the agreement I signed with my employer, I'm forbidden to do knowingly do work for any of our clients for 2 years after termination (followed by a clause saying that if 2 years doesn't hold up in court, then 1; if 1 doesn't, then 6 months). There's also a subsection saying that if I violate the terms of the agreement, I owe my employer $25,000 or whatever greater number he determines to be the damages incurred. That's roughly half what they pay my employer every month for the amount of hours we contract out. – M Miller Nov 2 '14 at 21:20
  • 1
    In that case I think you should consider your next steps carefully. This might get very unpleasant and expensive. Do the client know you want to work for them? – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Nov 3 '14 at 12:16
  • Also there is most likely a vast difference between working as a contractor for the client (which most likely is what your current employer wants to avoid), and being hired by the client. The latter might be a good idea, if the client asks your current employer about that. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Nov 3 '14 at 12:18

While I appreciate you may be fed up with your current company, this seems full of issues:

  • the customer hasn't actually approached you about a job, they may be happy dealing with your company
  • you have a non-compete, are you able to pay for legal services to get a court to decide the contract is worthless?
  • what is the customers contract like, would they have a legal fight with your company?
  • does the contract with the customer give them code and the right to do with it what they want? You may find they have no right to let you develop it further
  • You'll risk looking bad to the customer by being disloyal and trying to steal business away from your company
  • do you know what the road map is, maybe the customer will wind up development in the next few months, what would happen then?

So, much risk, with nothing concrete to gain by taking this chance, I could see it ending in tears/court/bankruptcy.

  • Good points. The client has not directly approached me regarding a job, because they don't have a problem contracting with my employer. That said, they do have full ownership of the code and product and lead the developing process (we're simply inheriting and extending a large ongoing project). In terms of the roadmap, this is one of many products and they've made it clear the road map extends at least 6 years from now, with increasing development labor force. They have a large in-house development team as well. You're right though, I'm questioning whether the risk is really worth it. – M Miller Nov 2 '14 at 21:15
  • I suppose I could do work of a similar nature for a different company. Honestly, I'm worried I'm being a little sentimental and grown a bit attached to the end product and the people of the client's development team. It's a large company with a lot of opportunities, I'm emotionally invested in the product's success, the company made the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For.... It's a lot to give up, just because I can't stand my immediate boss. Is there a way to test the waters with less risk? – M Miller Nov 2 '14 at 21:24
  • @JohnAnderson: The ONLY way this could work out in your favor is if the client is willing to negotiate with your current employer to free you of the contract terms. That is only going to happen if they are pursuing you for some reason and will likely cost them quite a bit. Other than that you could certainly go work for some other company, then after your 2 year period expires contact this one to see if they are hiring. But that is a huge bet. – NotMe Nov 4 '14 at 22:45

It is generally a good idea to AVOID leaving your employer to go work for a client of the employer.

That said, it DOES HAPPEN even when there is a non-compete agreement in place. I've seen it happen in a variety of ways ranging from legal action to a lump sum payment to the original employer from the new employer, to no big deal at all.

What I am trying to say is that it is not necessarily hopeless to consider such a move if you're willing to take some risk. It won't hurt to discuss the possibility with the potential employer. If you're a good fit there, they WILL NOT see your intent as "stealing business from your current employer".

Another possibility which you should consider is to find a job doing something similar to what you're doing but not with THAT client, instead ask the client to be a reference for you. They may even be able to refer you to good job leads where you would be a good fit. It all begins with a carefully-worded discussion.

  • That's a good idea -- to ask the client for a reference. Especially considering my employee handbook for my current employer explicitly says, "We do not provide letters of recommendation or endorsements of qualifications." (Ouch.) Also, you aid it wouldn't hurt to discuss the possibility with the client -- but it could, right? Especially if they didn't take that conversation in confidence, and brought it up with my boss -- I'd be out of a job and the client. – M Miller Nov 2 '14 at 21:26
  • I guess one plan of action would be to line up a next and possibly temporary employer, quit my current job, and after giving notice, approach the client and notify them that I'm leaving. I have a feeling that I am a valuable asset and that, if I talk to the right person, they may suggest hiring me, which would bring up the discussion about the non-compete agreement I have. – M Miller Nov 2 '14 at 21:28
  • @JohnAnderson, If you have a good working relationship with your contact in the client company, it is worth considering a discussion. If you were in their place would you "slash and burn" the career of a contractor simply because he expressed a desire to work at your company? It is a matter of trust and confidentiality, if you have these things, then you can have that discussion safely. – teego1967 Nov 2 '14 at 22:04
  • I'm a little worried because the best contact who knows my work quality is the one who recommended us as a contractor and who has known my boss since before I was employed. I imagine the first response would be the question, "Why?" I need to be able to answer that without insulting or complaining about my work environment. – M Miller Nov 3 '14 at 1:37

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