I work pro-bono on a product that is in a beta phase. I'm doing that alongside my regular job and it's fair to say I'm stretching myself thin as it is. As such, there are naturally going to be some problems but I try to fix them as soon as possible. Recently, after figuring out one of the problems was due to a (pretty rookie) oversight by me, one of the more senior people who use the product sent me an email which I will translate here (names and unimportant details are changed, but I tried to capture the tone of the message to the best of my abilities)

From: Peter Smith

P.S. My older son Robert Smith who will be 28 on May 17, 2017, and is getting married on June 6, 2017 is an economist and a product manager since he studied at [College A] and [College B], and is now a product manager at [link to some foreign company's site/about/team subpage] would never make such a trivial mistake.

I sent this mail only to you. Regards, Pete

For context: I'm in my thirties, graduated last year with the same degree as his son (it took me longer) and am single - all the details he knows. He doesn't know where I work now, but assumes it's not as good as his son's employer. I had problems starting my career for a long time due to health problems and only got my first serious job last year, which is also how we met - he sometimes collaborates with that organization. I have since started working at another company, mostly on recommendations from my former boss who didn't have it in his budget to keep me full-time. Even during those first meetings he couldn't stop talking about his son, but I figured that was just how he was trying to connect.

I don't know what to do about this. While he is not my boss he is important for the organization and I am working on this project as a token of gratitude to the person leading the project. I want to stand up for myself and I am quite capable of that in my private life, but since I'm relatively new to the job market I'm not sure where and how to draw the line.

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    So someone sent you a mail like that when you are working for free? I'd forward it to the person leading the project and ask them what to about that. There is a difference between showing concern with a major bug and that. That's offensive.
    – Snowlockk
    Mar 29, 2017 at 16:03
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    agree with the idea of forwarding to the product owner, manager with a note saying your work was for free on the side and you don't need that kind of attitude and good luck to them. Maybe their son would be willing to do the work...
    – NKCampbell
    Mar 29, 2017 at 16:14
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    Most answers are telling you not to reply. If it was me, I would reply and tell him to get lost (in a not so subtle way). If that means me not working on that pro-bono project any more then that's cool, I'll just get another one.
    – camden_kid
    Mar 30, 2017 at 8:28
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    As an aside; people are often tempted to do pro-bono work because they think it might lead to something paid in the future. It very rarely does. And that's why I'd have no compunction about taking camden_kid's course of action and would suggest politely but firmly to Pete Smith that he should take his head and store it within himself. Mar 30, 2017 at 8:58
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    Perhaps his son has time to spare too on this project, especially when it is important to his dad? Mar 30, 2017 at 14:29

4 Answers 4


First, open a local copy of Notepad and write the following email or something very like it:

I am sure that your son Robert would never make such a trivial mistake, largely because he would never stoop to work on so trivial a product -- especially for mere charitable reasons. People like your Robert work only on huge, complex, and vitally important products so they can make only huge, complex, and vitally important mistakes.

Of course you are unlikely to realize that Robert ever makes any mistakes at all because, unlike me, when he screws up he either hides his errors or blames them on someone else. As you know, this is the best path to advancement for someone with little charity and no courage.

In any case, when Robert makes a mistake he never admits it to you, because it would destroy your inordinately inflated opinion of him, which is evidently vital to your emotional survival.

As an example of the grandiose nature of Robert's usual disasters, I call your attention to the mistake he is about to make on June 6, 2017. I know this woman and I can tell you that the best thing about their upcoming nuptual is that it will prevent the potential misery of two other people that would obtain if they had each decided to marry someone else.

Then don't send it. Don't even save it. Just edit it to your satisfaction, then delete it. Peter Smith has been courteous in insuring that his irritating email is known to only two people, and you should return the courtesy and go a step further by insuring that your email is known only to one.

Peter Smith doesn't give a plugged fig whether you make silly mistakes; he just wants to brag about his son. Writing (and destroying) the above email will help you ignore the insult in Peter's message.

It's impossible to tell whether Peter Smith intended to insult you or is just unaware of the effects of his public fatherly devotion. So, the next time you see Peter, ask about his son Robert. Appear genuinely interested and press for details. If the insult was deliberate, he will be left wondering what you are up to; if the insult was accidental, he will be gratified and enthralled by your attention.

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    This is so beautifully written, I'd have a hard time resisting the temptation not to send it. Mar 29, 2017 at 23:08
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    Someone give this person a green tick. Brilliant advice.
    – user66194
    Mar 30, 2017 at 20:59

Do not reply. The mistake is done and made and apologized for. You've admitted both to making a mistake and to it being a silly one. He's not calling you out in front of others, so his email changes nothing: it doesn't give you new information nor impose a new obligation on you. File it or delete it.

Generally when someone tells me that their child or younger sibling or whatever wouldn't do such a thing as I did, I know they are very unhappy with me. I can't correct that by words, only by actions. "Standing up for yourself" won't change a thing. Let it go. Try to make less mistakes in the future.


Fact 1: You are doing this work pro bono. Fact 2: Mr. Peter Smith's email is absolutely ridiculous. If this is an accurate translation of his email, then I'd assume that he is a first rate idiot, and most people would. It's something that can only be explained by generous use of alcohol, or by some stronger stuff.

I'd reply: "Dear Peter Smith, if you believe that your son would be able to donate more time and talent to this project than I can, I will be more than happy to put forward his name to take over this important and rewarding work from me. "


Serious Talk from a person who worked in HR for Govt. entities: This could be a trap to pull you off a project and showing this email (even if this is "private") to your project lead will only help you just in case the same person (or anyone other) decides to provoke you. By all means, DO NOT REPLY, but save it, print it, keep it as a physical document and start building that paper-trail.

What he sent you (presumably over company email address, no?) is unprofessional, and hostile. Because you are doing this job as a favor and have favor with the project lead, your leader values you and showing this can only help your situation and shield you from any future problems that may arise from this person.

You may be new, but as a project associate you deserve as much, if not more, respect for being within a team environment. Workplace hostility, especially by superiors should not be tolerated.

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