when should I insist on a consulting fee for my former employer’s questions?

A reader writes:

Shortly before I retired a few months ago, the company I worked for declined my offer to come back and work for them on contract, as needed. Now a coworker is calling me, from time to time, for professional advice.

This is not “where’s the X file” or “what’s the password” kind of advice. It’s “we’ve tried X, X, X, and X, and it still isn’t in spec. What would you do?” It took me 7 years of college in a math and science field, and over 30 years of highly specialized training and experience become an expert, and be able to answer such questions.

The days of corporate paternalism toward loyal, hard-working employees are long past, and after experiencing the change in corporate culture the last ten or so years, I do not feel especially generous to my old employer. I do value the friendship of the coworker making the call, however. The company downsized recently and there is too much work for too few workers. Getting him in hot water is the last thing I want to do.

Perhaps time to again offer the company my contract services, without telling them they’ve already been getting them?

Since they already turned down the idea, I don’t think you’ll have more luck offering the company consulting this services this time, particularly if you don’t tell them that you’ve already been advising your former coworker. But I wouldn’t approach them and explain that you have been doing that, either, because you risk making the former coworker look a little bad in the process — the subtext being, “Joe can’t do his job without my help.” And if he’s just been asking you informally because he finds your perspective helpful, without thinking of it as consulting per se — which is likely — then you risk causing weirdness for him and tension in your relationship.

Instead, I’d say something directly to him. For instance: “You know, I’d be glad to set up a consulting arrangement to answer some of this stuff. Is that worth talking about?”

If your coworker has any ability to pick up on cues, he’s going to understand that this means that without such an arrangement, he can’t keep coming to you for help. And if he doesn’t pick up on cues and he continues to ask, then you say directly, “I’d love to help, but at this point I think we probably need to set up a consulting contract.”

He’ll then either (a) stop bringing his questions to you or (b) make the case for a consulting contract to whoever would have to approve it. But prepared for the company not to go for that unless your former coworker really goes to bat for it and lays out a strong case for why it’s necessary. That’s because, while I’m sure you are making his job easier, businesses generally feel able to go on after someone leaves — while still being quite happy to accept their help for free if they’re offering it. In other words, be prepared for the fact that however helpful your former coworker finds talking to you, it still might not reach the level that would justify a consulting gig. Or it might — who knows.

But either way, you’ll have set up some boundaries and have made it clear that you aren’t going to be providing advice for free.

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. some1

    I don’t have any advice on this specific issue, but if the LW really would like to do some contract work, there’s no reason it has to be at the former employer. It might be worth reaching out to contacts and seeing if another company would like you to contract for them.

  2. EngineerGirl

    I’m seeing a lot of this these days – companies that confuse information and processes with tacit knowledge. They delude thrmselves into thinking that with the “right processes” in place a younger and cheaper worker can do the same job. What they fail to realize is that many older workers have gained deep knowledge and battle scars through the years. It isn’t the process or information per se, but how to use it .

    Your example shows that they are having problems with problem solving – something where tacit knowledge shines. I’d say follow Alison’s advice. These companies need to understand that a maestro may cost money, but the product that is produced is worth it.

    1. Sydney Bristow

      I agree. There is definitely a level of institutional knowledge that is built up over time and much of it can be difficult to pass on.

    2. Dana

      Agreed.
      This point also illustrates how important it is NOT to keep sharing information without receiving compensation, or even worse, recognition becaue it devalues the skills and knowledge that you have, not to mention the other senior employees that are still employed there. Next time they want to reduce costs they’re not going to think twice about letting a more tenured employee go when the track record has been good with the less experienced taking on their responsiblities for less pay.

  3. PEBCAK

    I do want to point out that a key word here is “retired”, i.e. this person probably doesn’t need anything from the company ever again. It would be a little dicier if he might need a job later, or references, etc. That’s certainly not a license for a company to take advantage of him, but I think it would make the advice less absolute.

    Also, many large companies have specific policies against hiring employees back as consultants within a certain timeframe. I worked for one that started our consulting arrangement on day 366.

    1. A Bug!

      I agree with the general tone of this comment – that the LW probably doesn’t need to worry about burning bridges. But it’s also a coworker asking for the information, not the employer itself. So even if this were a person who was still working in the field, unless the coworker is telling his employer that he’s getting input from the writer, then cutting him off is less likely to affect the writer’s references later.

      As the letter itself implies, I’d bet that the coworker stands to be in the most trouble if his “resource” disappears.

      (Also agree with EngineerGirl.)

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      Even if the OP weren’t retired and wanted a reference from this company, though, it’s still completely okay to set boundaries. You might not bluntly say, “I will not help you for free,” but you’d refer to other commitments, etc.

      1. perrik

        But if we return to our old favorite, the dating analogy, isn’t that like telling someone that “I can’t go out with you because I’m too busy” or “I can’t go out with you because I already have a boyfriend”? That still leaves the door open – “So maybe later on you won’t have those commitments and would be willing to date me/advise me?”

        I’d rather tell the former co-worker – tactfully, of course – that I can no longer provide a free consulting service.

        OP, it’s not your responsibility to fill in for your *former* co-worker’s knowledge gaps. She needs to learn this stuff for herself rather than using you as a crutch (even if only occasionally). Point her toward some resources like books, websites, classes, organizations, etc. that you found helpful for gaining that deeper knowledge or developing strategies.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          I think this is one where it’s different from dating.

          Usually the employer moves on and finds some other way to get the work done. I’ve never seen a situation where they say, “Oh, okay, we won’t bother you for six months” and then come back later and try again. It’s a matter of training them out of the habit; once they’re out of it, the problem is usually solved.

    3. EngineerGirl

      Retirement hire backs are also constrained by IRS guidelines if the person retired. I kind of get the impression that the OP was forced into retirement. Laid off but old enough to get retirement benefits and therefore “retired”.

      There is a limit on how much help should be given based on these circumstances. Unfortunately management can be all Dunning-Krueger and not recognize skill when they see it. There is a flawed assumption that things flowing smoothly must be “easy”.

      I feel sorry for the co-worker, but drawing the line does help raise the issue of value.

      1. -X-

        “Retirement hire backs are also constrained by IRS guidelines if the person retired.”

        What does this mean? Do you mean if the person started collecting Social Security benefits?

  4. Hannah

    On a similar note, how do you deal with a senior employee who has no college education, no formal training, nor any experience constantly asking for help from me to do her job? I have a degree and went thru extensive training to get the knowledge I have, not to mention put in years of work to get my experience. Your guess is as good as mine how she got promoted (cough*bj*cough), and suffice it to say, she’s not going to be demoted, while at the same time, it’s almost impossible for me to get a promotion. (I’m on this site daily for career guidance because I’m desperately trying to find another job.)

    1. Esra

      (cough*bj*cough)

      That’s pretty inappropriate. Whatever skills your senior employee may or may not have, that’s still not cool at all.

    2. EngineerGirl

      Let me give you some career guidance right now. Inferring that another woman got ahead by sex instead of merit pulls all women down, and undermines all the women that got ahead by hard work and merit. I wouldn’t hire you on that comment alone.
      If you don’t want to continuously help her then be too busy doing your own job. If you produce results then you’ll have proof you are too busy to help her.

    3. Cube Ninja

      Free advice #2: You’d do well to drop the feeling of entitlement and jaded outlook. It will color every other aspect of your professional life, and bleed over into your personal life, no matter how much you think it won’t.

      Read your comment as if it was written by a stranger and consider your reaction.

      1. Hannah

        I’m sorry for offending anyone with my words or attitude. You’d have to be here to understand the level of abuse and discouragement. I’m so frustrated that I’m nearly despondent. It’s affected my attitude and thinking.

    4. Sherene

      “(cough*bj*cough)” – extremely unprofessional. Stop blaming others and think about how your attitude is affecting your ability to get another job.

  5. Hannah

    Oh, it’s not inaccurate when she herself has made the comment about getting perks at work.

    1. A

      Even if it is accurate, it’s still unnecessary and inappropriate. It is possible that this attitude shows through in the workplace and may be a contributing factor to why you aren’t offered opportunities for promotion.

      I’ve found that more often than not it is apparent to others when a coworker has negative feelings towards another, especially if they believe that the other person does not ‘deserve’ their status or position.

      Not trying to be a jerk, just offering some food for thought.

      On a side note, I’m in a similar situation (higher level degree and training with older coworkers who often ask for assistance) and honestly it never occurred to me to have a problem with it. I find it flattering that someone with that much more life experience would seek me out for my professional opinion/help. I’ve been extremely successful in a short period of time at my company – two major promotions within one year from temp receptionist to senior level procurement – and one of the reasons given was that I was a great team player. I never looked at helping my coworkers as taking away from my opportunities.

      1. EM

        This. When I’ve had problems getting along with a coworker, I’ve always assumed that the problem was me, and when I worked on what I could do on my end to be as helpful and informative as possible, it’s always turned out well.

        People who are threatened by others aren’t the ones who get promoted. They are the ones who get pushed out. It’s absolutely no skin off my nose to help a project manager with 30+ years of experience with a particular nuance of a regulation she hasn’t worked with but I have. That’s what working together means. People’s skills should complement one another, and asking for help from a coworker doesn’t automatically make one incompetent.

  6. Chriama

    This is funny, because I just started getting involved with my faculty undergraduate society and one of the biggest issues I’m noticing is continuity. We’re actually working on implementing a knowledge management system and I’m in the middle of proposing a process auditing committee to support that. Obviously student government is expected to have high levels of turnover, but many organizations don’t realize that informal knowledge is an organizational asset, and fewer still make a coordinated effort to gather and centralise those assets.

    Just my 2 cents…

    1. EngineerGirl

      I think you’re talking about something slightly different. Institutional knowledge can be tacit, but it many times is explicit. With a set of procedures most of it can be formalized.

      Tacit knowledge is usually deeper – it is a skill set that shows a mastery of something.

      1. Chriama

        I was referring to informal processes that may not be part of the official procedures, but are just considered standard practice within the cultural environment. I’m also probably thinking of more high level “core competency” knowledge and not basic business processes

  7. Attagirl

    What wonderful, thoughtful advice.

    Recent major restructuring of the company retirement package made it financially foolish for me to continue there in my present capacity. There seems to be a lot of that currently going around.

    Despite record profits, the company has been in cost-cutting mode for years. The comments about the state of current corporate culture ring true. Over the last 10 years especially, I’ve noticed a systematic dilution of professional expertise in general. It’s sort of like they want to run a chain of five star restaurants , but they keep thinking they can get by with only one chef, a stack of recipes, and a bevy of line cooks. Kind of like a well-known fast-food chain place.

    And yes, the thought has occurred to me that my free expertise at some point devalues our entire profession, and ultimately is not doing my friend a favor.

    Again, thanks so much!

    1. Judy

      I’ve been noticing the same thing as far as corporate culture. Sweeten the retirement pot, toss out a few RIF cycles, hire a few new grads or people from other countries, and what do you get? A 10 person group that 5 years ago had an average experience level of nearly 12 years experience, fairly evenly distributed from the 2 with 25 years to the new hires, now has an average experience of 3 years. As someone with nearly 12 years in this industry, I’m the most experienced person in the group. I went from having about the average experience for the team to having nearly half the experience of the team. And I’ll be hitting the magic age next year, where suddenly your performance becomes below average.

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