I applied for a job, they rejected me, then asked me to work for free

A reader writes:

I recently applied to a company who was looking for someone with my exact background. The position is a perfect match, no exaggeration, so I applied. They wrote me back the next day saying they had interviewed good candidates already and were not taking any new applications. OK, no harm, no foul. The following day another person from their senior staff wrote me and referenced some points I made in my initial email to them on work I had performed. They wanted to know if I would be willing to share how I had implemented a big technological innovation. I wrote back sharing some information and saying yes to a call, but made clear I was disappointed they would not want to interview me. They wrote back to confirm the call time, and restated that I was just too late in applying.

This innovation would be key to their business. I want to help to an extent, but my time is money. Have you ever heard of anything like this? How should I manage this call? I have a job and I do not want contract work. I have some ideas on how I plan to take the call, but I keep meandering toward being a little rude. Any insights would be great.

Whoa. You are being taken advantage of, and they’re being so blatant about it that they’re not even bothering to disguise it as an interview (not that that would make it better, but their brazenness here is pretty surprising).

What they are asking you for is consulting work. Consulting work is not free; they should pay you for what they’re asking for.  So if you were open to a side project, you should say something like, “I’d be glad to consult with you on this project.  I charge $__.” (You’d probably still do an initial free call — a short one — because that’s typical to make sure that proceeding together makes sense, but it would be clear to both parties that actual work would come with a price.)

But you don’t want to take on side work, so I’d recommend simply saying (before the call), “After thinking this over a little more, it sounds like you’re looking for a consultant to assist with this work, and I’m not currently taking on consulting work. ”  If you know someone to refer them to who could help, you could do that too, since connecting people is not only polite but also often a useful thing to do in building your own network.

Just to present all sides, there’s also an argument to be made that you should take the call — limiting it to some reasonable amount of time, like half an hour — and be impressive, because impressing people can often pay off in the future, such as if you might apply for another job there at some point.  But I’m so displeased with how these people have handled this situation that I’m not too enthusiastic about that option.

What I wouldn’t do is take the call and be rude, tempting as that might be. You never know when you might run into these people again, or who they might know, and your reputation is too important to risk it simply for the satisfaction of making a point here.

Besides, you can make the point in a completely polite, professional way by using the wording above, and that tends to ultimately be more satisfying anyway.

P.S. Writing this felt good, because I am really irked by the number of requests that I get from for-profit companies (which is quite different from a charity asking it) to do things for them for free. (I’m looking at you, AOL. Most recently, anyway.)

{ 54 comments… read them below }

  1. Kimberlee

    Wow! Hmm… I would, if possible, agree to some kind of very short-term paid engagement. I really like the idea of your helping them out so that you’re next on their list when there’s an opening, but this seems like way too valuable info to give away for free. Maybe if you refuse to do this for free, they’ll agree to interview you? I mean, if they are still in the interview stages and haven’t hired, I don’t see why they couldn’t do that. Good luck! Don’t give away the good stuff for free!

  2. Doug

    ..wow. If it was me, I would tell them that they can go “do” something to themselves, burning bridges be damned. That is downright insulting.

  3. Teresa

    Alison is correct in what your response should be. As a corporate recruiter I see this happening more and more. Usually by the time of the 2nd interview with the actual Department Manager. Budgets are tight and “some” not all Department Managers might be tempted to pick brains…and try the DIY route instead of actual hiring. They see at as a lower cost alternative ($1500 for an ad on Monster and the ability to consult with 500+ experts on the subject vs. hiring.)

  4. Eric

    Ever notice how applicable things to your life pop up when you need them. I had somebody from my old job call about a consult. I told them to have somebody contact me about making arrangements. I got the feeling he wasn’t authorized to ask me for help on the side.

  5. Josh S

    Yeah, this is an attempt to get free consulting.

    If you’re not willing to do *any* consulting (even a short, one time thing), then do as AAM said and give them the “Thanks but no thanks” speech (but in her words).

    If you are willing to do a one-time sit down meeting with them to discuss the steps for implementing this service or the pitfalls you encountered along the way (and how you overcame them), this is a great opportunity to make some BIG extra $$$.

    You would treat the initial call as an initial consultation (typically free) where they tell you the spec and you quote an hourly rate. (Your hourly rate for this consulting gig should be *at least* 2x the hourly rate at your current job, and you should have a minimum time.) This call is NOT about you giving them a SINGLE piece of information or a SLIVER of your expertise–it should be about you finding out what they’re looking for and selling the fact that you have the expertise they need.

    If they agree to have you consult, you put together a presentation and allow them to ask you questions for their purposes. Bill them for every minute you spent preparing, and for every minute they sit with you, and give them a “site visit” charge to cover your mileage/gas. (Yast.com is handy for tracking your time for consulting/contract gigs.)

    Be clear up front that it’s a one-time thing and that you are NOT available for any further follow-up calls/questions. If they try to ask your advice in the future, get them to agree to a new contract with new minimum, etc.

    Like I said, it’s a good way to make some BIG $$ quick. But remember that you’ll have to claim it as income on your taxes.

  6. Charles

    Being April First and all – I would call April Fools!

    But, this has happened to me too many times to know that it does happen. I do exactly what AAM suggests:

    “I usually charge $XXX for consultant work.” They then stammer something about budgets being tight, yada, yada, yada. (I am often tempted to respond that MY budget is even tighter!)

    Also, I have organizations (non-profit as well as for profit) that have pulled this stunt AFTER I interview. In this case, I have responded “I misunderstood, I thought I was interviewing for an employee position; But if you’re looking for consultant work then I charge $XXX.”

    Despite my trying to be polite and professional about it, in either case, I never hear from them again. While this has not happened all that much that it has happened at all is beyond “irksome” to me.

  7. Anonymous

    Sometimes companies make exceptions to the rules if they find a great candidate. I would have thought they would have done so here, but instead of bending their own rules, they are going to try to get something for nothing.

    Red flag this company and move on.

  8. Kit M.

    I have some issues with AAM’s response. Like that it involves way too little invective.

    Reading this made me feel gross. OP, please don’t reward them for this behavior.

    1. Kimberlee

      Unfortunately, most employers are guilty of some kind of bad behavior at one point or another, just as all employees are. Politely refusing to play their games is fine, but spewing venom at them doesn’t seem like it would help anyone, including OP, who presumably likes this company enough to one day work with them.

      1. Kit M.

        I meant not enough invective on AAM’s part, not that she should have advised the OP to use invective. It was a joke of sorts.

  9. Tred

    I do like your professional approach. Also, I think its important to be blunt and tactful at the same time. Say I charge this much up front, but also be realistic and make sure you will work together at the same time. I am also a fan of making sure you don’t burn bridges because you never know what’s going to happen in the future.

  10. Mike C.

    I admire the will power of many people here. My first response would be to say, “So you’re telling me that my work is good enough use for free, but I’m not good enough to hire? Are you planning on just giving me a call every time something comes up?” and hang up the phone.

    Look, whatever happens, you need to remember that you are a professional and that you deserve to be treated like one. If these require you to do free work to “maintain bridges” or whatever, it just isn’t worth it.

    1. Just Me

      I agree. They rejected the OP as an applicant but want some free advise. Umm no.

      Tell them no politely and professionaly or if you decide to help them , lay out your charges.

      I actually would be a little hesitant to work for them if they have already tried this type of tactic. It doesnt speak well for the company ethics.

    2. k

      Mike C. I totally agree. Who would want to maintain a bridge with a company of users?

      OP, you’ve already given them a little taste, but now they want more info for free. What if they use your ideas and make money based on your research? I highly doubt that they would pay you or give you the deserved recognition.

      Stand your ground and use AAMs advice.

    3. Charles

      OMG, yes, Mike C., it IS very tempting to “tell them off.” But, I try to keep my cool because I never know who they will tell. It could be that the “user” is a lone wolf in her company, or it could be that she was pressured by her higher ups to ask, or it could be the whole organziation is like that. The problem is I (and folks like the OP) just don’t know.

      No matter what, she might be someone who will remember me (if she remembers me at all) as the one who was professional about it. Which is better than being remembered for being the “one who went off on a simple request.”

      Yea, the difference in power between the employer and the job seeker often sucks and this is just another example of how job seekers have to “bite their tongue.”

  11. Andrea

    If after giving them your rate, they try to tell you how tight their budget is, my favorite line is: “I understand, but this is my job, and I need to get paid for it.” Then say nothing and let them talk. I like that move because most of the time, they realize that they were jerks.

    But honestly, you already gave them some information via email for free. You’re not obligated to give them yet another free taste on the call. And if you’re not interested in short-term or contract work, I’d open with that. You should be polite of course, but no more freebies. They already got some information from you, and now they think they can get more. If they were ever going to seriously consider you for the job, they would have contacted you after you sent them the email and asked you to interview. Now they just want free work.

    1. Natalie

      “Yes, I understand – my budget is tight, too. That’s why I charge $XXX for consulting.”

  12. anonymous

    OP, if you do decide to consult for them, make sure to get it in writing. Otherwise it’s too easy for the company to argue you were doing it pro bono, and refuse to pay.

    1. K.

      Agreed. I do consulting work, and I’ve had potential clients balk when I say “I have a contract that we’ll both need to sign before we get started.” If they staunchly refuse, I tell them I won’t work without one. I got stiffed once (thankfully it was for a small amount that I could afford to lose), and once was enough.

      1. Jamie

        I use consultants and it bothers me when they don’t have a contract.

        Contracts are a safeguard for both parties. It tells me you’re a professional and will treat this as a job. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but I’ve found often those without contracts are less buttoned up about deadlines than I need.

        I want to pay in full and on time, and I want the work done the same way (or at least communication if the deadline is moved.)

        If a consultant doesn’t have a contract I put the terms in my PO and require a written acceptance. Doing business with no contractual obligations would never happen with me.

    2. Charles

      Agreed; but rather than saying that they thought it was pro-bono work, they will more likely claim that the contractor didn’t meet the standards for the deliverables. Even a simple, yet detailed, email can avoid that nonsense.

      I, too, have done contract work and turned down jobs because they couldn’t agree to a “written” agreement. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that they are trying to be dishonest, it just means they really don’t know what they want and might be willing to change the goalposts without realizing how unfair that can be to a contractor (it is different to change the goals for a permanent employee though as they are still paid)

  13. Bob G

    OP PLEASE write back and update us on how this call goes!

    I know if this happen to me my initial response would have been that they were “too late” contacting me for any additional information, but I wouldn’t really do that. I would take the call (since you did agree to it) and then I would let them lay out in painstaking detail exactly what they need done. I’d explain exactly what I’ve done in the past that would show that you could easily complete this project for them. When they ask for specific details of “how” to do it then I’d hit them with your consulting fee…and if you really aren’t interested make it some HUGE amount that you’d actually be willing to do side work. You never know it may work out for you.

    It also sounds like their “good candidates” weren’t really good enough if they still need your assistance. It would also infuriate me that they kept the job posting up long enough for you to see it and apply but were not taking any new applications…then take down the post or put the date in the ad.

  14. Blue Dog

    A lot of companies are doing this, they are just a little more subtle about it.

    After asking something innocuous like, “How did you handle a stressful situation involving an employee?” They will say things like, “We had a situation recently and we are curious how you would have resolved it?” They will then give you encouragement to get you to continue, “Yes, excellent, that is exactly what we did…. I like the way you think. What else would you do?”

    It’s really shitty, but it happens.

    1. Kimberlee

      See, this just sounds like an interview question to me. There’s a fine line between appropriate interview questions that seek to show how you’d actually do the work, versus getting you to actually do the work. While OP’s case definitely sounds like the latter, this one above tends to sound like the former.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Yes, this isn’t the best example, but I think Blue Dog’s point in general is correct (just that the specific example isn’t). The OP really shouldn’t take an interview with this company at this point because they’ve made it clear they hope to get free consulting from her — and once she’s in an interview situation, it’s really hard to draw/enforce boundaries around discussion of this topic … because it COULD be an innocent interview question, but she has plenty of reason to believe it’s actually an attempt to pick her brain for free.

  15. LeeL

    During the interview for my current job, the owner of the company told the general manager that it up to him whether or not to hire me, then turned to me and said, if he doesn’t hire you give me a call and I’ll pay you to consult for me. It wasn’t what I was hoping for, but at least he was honest about it.

    In this case, tell them politely that you don’t work for free. Otherwise, they deserve 2 words and the second one is OFF.

  16. KayDay

    When my pediatrician’s child was elementary school age, my pediatrician often had problems with other parents asking her for free advice all the time. She had to balance the need to develop patients for the practice, being a good doctor, doing no harm, and not give away her services for free. Her general rule was that she would only give one piece of simple advice, and usually only along the lines of “see a doctor/specialist” or “go to the emergency room right away” or “Tylenol and bedrest.” (and apparently she could sometimes be rather rude in enforcing her personal rules, but that’s another story). The OP could try this strategy of hearing what the problem is and explaining that this would require a paid external consultant, then letting them know how much time and money this type of project would cost, where they can find a consultant, etc.

    1. Jamie

      Why do people do this?

      There are times I don’t want to tell people what I do because all too often their eyes light up and I end up spending 45 minutes where they are trying to hack my brain for answers to their computer problems.

      Like an accountant, no one is interesting in hearing about my job outside how I can benefit them for free.

      It’s easy with most people, but with some extended family I can’t pony up my usual flippant “that usually happens when you’re surfing porn.” (It’s my answer for everything from heat-sink problems, bad power sources, whatever, when I can get away with it. If you blame everything on porn they stop bothering you.)

      But there are instances where you can’t be rude and spend time trying to diagnose problems that you can’t see and they can’t describe properly.

      People really need to stop doing this, or I’ll start telling everyone that I’m a plumber. Then offer to fix their pipes…once their toilets start flushing upwards and the faucets pour out of the ceiling fans maybe people will get the message.

      1. The Other Dawn

        I totally agree with this. I’m not a professional computer guru by trade, but I’m the computer person at work (I learned everything by trial and error). Family and friends, and their family and friends, are always asking me computer questions and it drives me nuts. I’m not in front of their PC and simply telling me that “it’s making a weird noise” or “there’s an error message” doesn’t help me. It’s so frustrating. They don’t understand why I can’t figure it out or why it’s taking so long. Helloooo?! I didn’t go to school for computers and don’t have any training in the field. You get what you pay (rather, DON’T pay) for.

        1. Jamie

          Careful…being the “computer person at work” is the gateway drug. If you continue unchecked it can lead to a career in IT…and that’s one monkey you can never get off your back.

          Seriously, I would give anything to have a “computer person at work” here, besides me. Someone who could route a printer or install some software on occasion. Vet the tech support calls…set up new users…

          If we had such a person here I would totally try to lure them into the dangerous world of IT.

          It’s how I started.

          1. The Other Dawn

            We are a company of 14 employees, so the big IT stuff (server installation, implementation of a new platform, etc.) is outsourced. But I am the one who does all the day-to-day stuff like adding users, installing software, etc. There’s no one else and hasn’t been since day one (11 years ago) so I’m the one it falls on. I’m a fast learner, not afraid to get my hands dirty, and comfortable knowing that I could possibly”blow up” the systems. Finally, though, I now have two people (the accountant and the admin assistant) to whom I can off-load some of this stuff. Until now, I haven’t had anyone who’s technically inclined and comfortable with computers.

          2. Megan

            +1. Totally agree. It’s how I ended up in my job too – not strictly speaking IT (I lack some of the cool toys), but systems librarian. Why yes, I’d love to try and fix that scanner/broken screen/computer that won’t log in for you…

            1. Liz in a Library

              I’m so jealous of your job! I’ve been slowly taking over systems functions here and hoping no one will notice. ;)

              1. Jamie

                Those of you selflessly helping out with tech issues when you aren’t mandated to do so are the angles of the workplace.

                I’m serious, if anyone here showed the slightest bit of interest I would welcome them into the wonderful world of IT without hesitation.

                Your co-workers may not appreciate you going the extra mile – but I bet your IT department does.

              2. Anonymous

                Those of you selflessly helping out with tech issues when you aren’t mandated to do so are the angles of the workplace

                Possibly obtuse angles, but angles nonetheless….

          3. Anonymous

            Careful…being the “computer person at work” is the gateway drug. If you continue unchecked it can lead to a career in IT…and that’s one monkey you can never get off your back

            Not always – my Mum became the “computer person at work” after being able to diagnose an equipment failure as a power-plug-not-inserted-into-outlet issue. But it didn’t lead to a career in IT (that being the one issue she could diagnose without calling me probably having something to do with it).

            1. Jamie

              It’s unfortunate how often this exact “tech support” is required.

              My favorite was when I asked the end user to make sure to check that all the cables were plugged in before I went in to fix her “broken printer.” I was assured that all was fine.

              Get there and the USB cable was loose – plugged it in and voila. The response? Well it was 90% plugged in so I didn’t think that was it.

              Yeah, try starting your car 90% of the way and see if you can drive home. Ugh.

              1. Anonymous

                If you suspect a cable issue, you never ask them to check the cables. You ask them to unplug and replug them.

        2. Anonymous

          Family and friends, and their family and friends, are always asking me computer questions and it drives me nuts

          When I started working at a certain software company in Redmond, I was issued with some cards containing a 1-800 number, good for one tech support issue…. for pretty much this reason.

      2. Bob G

        I hate the “friends and family” computer support more than anything I deal with at work. At work I can give an adequate excuse and set a time frame. Friends and family always think you can just “swing in” and fix the issue. They have no concept of how long it can take to troubleshoot and then repair the months & years of “stuff” (porn) they’ve polluted their computers with.

        They also always want the “free” or “cheapest” solution without any consideration for the time you are supposed to invest in the problem. Drives me crazy.

  17. Anonymouse

    You could parlay this into a good opportunity, if you want to dip your toes into consulting. But consulting takes a LOT of flexibility that you may not have in your current position.

    Maybe mention that you’d be happy to set-up a call to discuss a Professional Services Agreement. That’s where you first discuss rate, on the phone. Take notes on the call. What they said, what you told them. Then, if you are interested, send them a proposed PSA, one page, with rate, dates of performance, when you are available for calls and emails (as you have a job, this is important), turnaround-time (aka how fast you will get back to them), minimum hours (if applicable) and GOD HELP YOU terms of payment. Or, you could do a fixed-price one-time presentation early one morning or on a weekend, etc. And make sure someone with signature authority signs your contract. See? The admin part can get really thick.

    Alternatively (I would personally go with this approach), you could tell them that you just aren’t taking on any consulting right now, but that if the vacancy were to be re-advertised later, or a similar position were to open, you would love to talk with them again. Assuming this isn’t the government, if they think they need your knowledge, there’s nothing stopping them from re-advertising the position because they didn’t find the right candidate. Companies do it all the time.

  18. Suzanne

    This doesn’t really surprise me. Businesses say they are strapped, and they seem to increasingly want more and more from their employees for less and less. And now, it seems, for free. Pretty soon, we’ll be paying them for the privilege of doing their work!

  19. Chris

    Whoa. Just whoa. I can’t believe the brazenness. Jaw. Dropped. Open.
    I have had two clients just not pay my balance in the past year – both with “oh we mailed the check, it must have gotten lost, we’ll write a new one, oh business manager isn’t in the office this week etc.”
    But I have not heard of a company announcing they were going to steal from you up front. Totally unbelievable..

  20. Kathleen from AZ

    On the other hand, this could be a great opportunity for you inform them of your skills, how you could help them. And then you can tell them that although you are not taking consulting jobs right now, if a full-time permanent positions opens up you would be interested.

  21. Anonymous

    This company is a pack of users. Stay well away. I can’t believe their sheer nerve.

  22. Anonymous

    They can ask, and you can say no. I would definitely not consult with this organization as if they are already trying to get info for free, it is likely they will nickle & dime you death with time and billing.

    1. Another Emily

      I agree. Clients and consultants need to trust each other, and there’s no way you should trust these guys to pay you for jack diddly squat. They’ve already made their intentions perfectly clear: they do not want to hire you, they want free knowledge. Personally I wouldn’t trust them enough to enter a business relationship with them, their behaviour has just been too unprofessional.

  23. AD

    One thing I haven’t seen mentioned is that she also needs to be very careful not to run breach confidentiality of her current/previous employer. If she implemented a “big innovation” while employed somewhere, that knowledge is not entirely hers to give away. Discussing it in general terms is fine, but some of the implementation details may be considered property of the company.

  24. OP

    This is the OP posting an update. I had the call. I followed the advice of AAM and others who suggested I remain professional. I shared some more information with them. Nothing I said was too in-depth nor proprietary. I did mention that this was a little unorthodox since I was not even offered an interview. I did not get the impression they agreed. I did ask what the salary range was for the original posting, and it was way under anything I could take anyhow.

    The work we both do is altruistic in nature, so I kept that in mind and tried to focus on what my actions could do in terms of the “greater good”. Turns out they are one degree of separation from my organization, so I am glad I was level-headed. We are planning on meeting in person and exploring collaboration. I do not think they were being predatory, just a little naive.

    Thank you again to AAM for the great blog and for taking my question. Thanks to everyone for feedback. I read them all and contemplated each approach and played out the conversation under each recommendation. I am glad I took a professional stance. I think it will benefit me in the long-run.

    Best to everyone.

    1. Another Emily

      Good on you for staying professional. It does pay to take the high road. Thanks for updating us. :)

  25. anon-2

    I guess – one cannot discount the chance that they’re calling you back, and giving you a second chance — so the “I thought I was interviewing for a full-time salaried position, but if this is a consulting gig, let’s talk fees…” and play it out.

    So – general high-level advice is one thing – providing free services is something different altogether.

    Of course, if this is “can we call you tomorrow” — then put the guard up. I had that happen when I was laid off from a position, and they were calling me nearly every day — but backed off when I refused to help them any further.

    They then asked me if I would accept a recall, and I refused, unless they were willing to extend a two-year “no layoff” deal. They refused, having been burned on some of those in the past.

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