can I turn a request for free help into paid consulting?

A reader writes:

I work in a pretty specific niche area. I was recently at a conference describing my work, and a leader from another organization came up to me to ask me how he could find someone like me to work for him. I emailed him some information about the graduate school I attended, where there are many students who would dream to work for such an organization. I also pointed him in the direction of a popular job board for my field.

But the questions didn’t end there. We then talked for around half and hour about my responsibilities, his organization, recommendations I would make for him at this point, future directions he might look into, etc. Later that same day, he asked me what a fair salary range is for the position he’s hoping to hire.

I’m flattered by his interest, and would genuinely be happy to help him find the right person. But it isn’t feasible for me to join his organization at this time.

My fear, however, is that I’ve put myself in the position of giving unlimited free advice and recruiting. I would be willing to offer limited services (e.g. draft a job description, assist in making a strategic plan) as an independent contractor.

What I am wondering is how I can pivot our current conversations into an independent contracting offer. It feels awkward to say at this point that I’m unwilling to chat with him more for free. It’s one thing to make conversation at a conference, but he mentioned that there would be many more emails coming my way,.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 38 comments… read them below }

  1. Escaped a Work Cult*

    Having been here before, once you mention that it will become consulting, people drop off. You should still do it because your time and labor deserve appropriate compensation.

  2. quill*

    Say you were happy to give the more general advice, but anything tailored to his situation / active candidate searching / creating a widget will need to be paid for.

    1. Teapot Repair Technician*

      In this case is even more specific: “I’m happy to talk shop at a conference, but anything that requires me to allocate time out of my everyday life will need to be paid for.” Seems reasonable.

  3. Netts*

    I always see stuff like this in viral tweets and wonder how often it works out. Like someone will post “I’m sick of doing free labor, so when people ask me X I tell them my rate is Y.” Maybe the point is more to just get people to stop asking them, but if it’s to get paid then I’m sceptical their approach leads to $$.

    1. Jennifer Strange*

      It may not lead to payment, but it does get them out of providing services for free. If more people would do that and stand firm behind it folks would have no choice but to actually pay for those services.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yeah, the primary goal isn’t “get paid for doing this.” It’s “stop doing this work for free.” There are two ways to accomplish that: by getting paid for it, or to have the person stop expecting you to do it once they realize you charge for it.

      2. Ess in Tee*

        Agreeing over here. I’m a language instructor and an acquaintance who was studying it once announced on Facebook that, in order to get his speaking skills up, he was thinking of having weekly hour long Skype sessions in this language. Just a friendly chat! Every week. During my billable hours. And I would likely be expected to correct his mistakes and help with vocabulary, grammar, etc. And we weren’t in the habit of speaking to each other outside of social media posts to begin with. And he didn’t ask me directly so much as he sort of told everyone in our social circle at once that this is what he wanted, which I was not impressed with.

        I pointed out that what he was suggesting wasn’t hanging out so much as becoming my students for free, which I was not cool with. Guy realized what he was saying, apologized for being insensitive, and dropped the matter entirely.

        It also works for when people try to lowball you. I had a colleague who wanted private lessons from me for a third of my fee. I firmly told her the fee was non-negotiable and that she was welcome to find someone else who would take her on as a student for the amount she was suggesting. Boom, she dropped it and never asked me again.

        Was I expecting to get some business out of this? No, I wasn’t. My acquaintance was a nice guy, but I didn’t want to have a client relationship with him, and I disliked being around my coworker in general (she had some major boundary issues, to say it nicely). Did I want them to drop the subject? Yep. And it worked quite nicely.

    2. Environmental Compliance*

      I did this. Left a job, old boss semi-jokingly told me they’d call me all the time for help because *how will they survive*, I semi-jokingly told them “LOL yeah not for free you aren’t at that scale”, and then somehow it turned into here’s my rate and a contract.

      Made a decent amount on it but also really cut down on the amount of stupid asks once they got the first bill. I was spending hours a week on really rather silly things that if they just read the How To Do document I left with everyone.

    3. Koalafied*

      It’s definitely meant to reduce demand. Cities set parking meter rates using a similar logic – the goal is to price parking affordable enough that people will be willing to come downtown and pay for it, but not so cheap that people who come downtown can never find parking because the demand is too high.

  4. goducks*

    Is it possible he’s trying to recruit OP? I know two different people who were approached in a similar manner where the person asked all these general questions about how one might hire a person such as themselves, and what the job description would look like, and what appropriate comp would be. In both instances, it was really an attempt to hire that individual, but due to professional curtesy across organizations, they didn’t feel that they could recruit directly. They really hoped they person would throw their own hat in the ring.

    1. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      Well, if there’s no job posting, there’s no ring for the person to throw their hat into.

      Coy only goes so far. Eventually it’s the employer’s responsibility in this case to say out loud that there’s a job to apply for.

      1. goducks*

        Sure. In both of the instances I’m aware of, the conversation started, “hey, I’m looking to create/hire a position in my company that does what you do. Can you help me write a job description/help me figure out how to make a hire/help me determine comp/whatever?” Implicit in this coy conversation was that there was a job being created, it wasn’t just for the general knowledge of the inquirer.

        One case was my husband, the other company literally said, “we’re looking to hire someone for this new role, and we want someone who is exactly like Mr. Goducks for it. Mr. Goducks, how would we go about finding such a person, and what comp would be expected?”

        1. TardyTardis*

          This reminds me of the story about Aladdin, the animated version, where someone was looking for a Gilbert Gottfried type for the parrot Iago. At which time, Mr. Gottfried said, “Hello, over here! Talk to my agent!”

  5. Mister Meeble*

    I go to a monthly meetup (pre-Covid) for a specific technology. I worked within that industry for years and am a bit of a subject expert. The Meetup is social (meet some friend ahead of time for dinner and shop talk) and also a way to help those with various issues. After the meetup ends, there’s usually another hour or so of individual chat. It’s nice to just socialize.

    One of the members is a nice enough guy, but who has very basic questions. And he has plenty of them. And wants to be spoon-fed answers. For several meetings in a row he would run up to me immediately after and start peppering me with questions. The first time, I helped him and didn’t realize he ate up the entire social hour. The second time, I had to interrupt him about 30 minutes in to let him know that I needed to talk to others there. He didn’t get the hint. The third time, as he approached, I said firmly but politely, “Fergus, I can’t provide free consulting to you at these meetings. I’m here to help, but not guide you through various things. I’m also here to socialize and cannot have that time monopolized by one person. If you need additional help, I’m happy to give you as much time as you need at $150 an hour, which is my discounted rate.”

    Fortunately, he understood that and I haven’t heard a peep since.

  6. Dust Bunny*

    I mean . . . you can try?

    Either it works and you get paid for your time and effort or it doesn’t, but you get your time back.

  7. Edward Unthank*

    “Hey, I do some moonlighting helping companies fill this gap. I’d be glad to help out in that respect if you need more than just off-the-cuff advice. Things like JD drafting, technical screening for candidates, and recommendations. Let me know if you’re interested in that. Wish I could take the job myself, but I’m not in a position to move for the next year or so.

    [Networking friend]”

  8. Justin*

    This is actually how I started consulting on whiteness/racism. I got fed up being known as someone who studies and writes about (not to mention experiences) these things and getting requests for free advice as everyone’s Black friend, so, last summer, I finally said, “If you want to know more, I offer classes (etc.).” Some folks stopped talking to me after that (which is fine), and some folks went ahead and signed up.

    So, yes. Do it.

    1. Samantha F*

      This seems a bit…. different, though. I get you are saying you write about it (and get paid for it, as opposed to a blog or something, I presume, cause otherwise this is quite a demand.). Do you really charge friends for trying to understand how to combat racism? I get that it might feel old after a while, and I think it would be fair to say “hey I’ve written about this” and forward articles or whatever. But if I have a good friend and I want to learn about their perspectives, “take my class and pay for it” sounds… Really unfriendly. I mean, I get doing this to random people who want your expertise for work (ie. they would financially profit from it) but here it’s about people asking how to be a ‘better person’, right? I would also not to be your friend after that.

      1. Justin*

        Well, that’s the thing: it was people who barely talk to me but only showed up to ask these questions. So they weren’t really my friends, and they just wanted free labor.

        1. Samantha F*

          Oh I see, not ‘real’ friends, but they treat you like their token “Black friend”. OK, suggesting they take a class totally makes sense.

      2. katkat*

        I think you summarize perfectly, how these situations emerge… “people are just asking how to be a better person” or for doctors “people just want to be healthy” etc… Of course you should help your friends, but I think any professional should decide early on in their career the basic lines, what sort of expertise costs money, even for friends. And obviously there are exeptions, but having those basic guidelines help you a lot.

        1. Mongrel*

          Not forgetting that some advice will always be burdened with professional obligation, a Doctor or Lawyer friend who gives you advice still has to maintain professional standards and a measure of liability

        2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          yeah, and people find injured animals and take them to the vet, who is supposed to care for them out of their “love for animals”.

      3. Aquawoman*

        You’d cut someone off as a friend for having boundaries around how they use their time? No one’s obligated to take on the effort or burden of helping someone be a better person. Some people do and that’s great but it’s fine for people not to. No one is entitled to another person’s labor. Therapy is helping people be better people, also, but therapists charge for their time.

      4. Analytical Tree Hugger*

        Personally, I would respect my friends *more* if they demonstrated that they trusted and respected me enough to tell me, “Hey, this is my profession, here are my rates.”

        My friends have put in time and energy to develop their skillsets, so I don’t expect them to give it to me for free. Anything from fitness classes to project managment to IT support: I would pay my friends for their services, because I respect them.

  9. YayContracts*

    I don’t think its been mentioned, but I would also be careful before you propose a paid consulting option that your current employment contract doesn’t prohibit it.

    1. TPS Reporter*

      exactly, most employers that I know would not allow this type of thing as the work is in the exact field of the primary job. I know with my company they’d ask that I run this type of work through them and they would get a cut. I would get bonus $.

      1. TPS Reporter*

        also even if your employer doesn’t really prohibit it you could use it as an excuse to get them to back off

  10. Elizabeth West*

    Saving this, because when you mention you’re a writer, guess what? Everyone has a messy-AF draft and wants your help to make it better. Many people can’t take honest, thoughtful feedback, and it’s not worth listening to them push back on your advice (i.e., throw a fit) for free.

    In fact, I decided not to do it at all for free unless I’m trading critiques or beta reads with another writer. I do know someone I don’t work with who constantly asked me for edits to their work without any form of compensation, and that got old.

    If a colleague at work asks for my input on a document, sure. That’s a different beast–we’re collaborating on our work stuff.

    1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      I don’t mind helping friends, who knows they might be able to help me in the future. But friends of friends?
      We have a spare room and live in Paris. I put friends up gladly. But friends of friends? I mean, I have to clean the room out, put fresh sheets on, then wash them after just one night? And spend time explaining how to get to the Eiffel tower, and the best place to eat good French cuisine, and which metro station is closest, and the wifi code and how the coffee machine works… And since I work from home, they’ll interrupt me all the more. So now I say my rate on airbnb is X, but since you’re the friend of a friend, you don’t need to go through the website.
      And I don’t mind spending time helping a friend with a CV, especially the kids of friends who are just starting out. But if you want me to translate your website, sorry, that costs money.

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