Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“My Former Boss is Bullying Me to Work For Free”

I worked for a non-profit for more than four years and, though I liked the people I worked with and the job was flexible, my boss was a misogynist and bully, and multiple colleagues (male and female) left during my time there because he was unreasonable, insulting, and belittling. I left because of him, but I continue to work in the same line of work in the same part of the city.

Before I left, I had to train my replacement. He had a similar personality as my boss but also didn’t want to do any work at all. He complained about responsibilities, buckling at the simplest tasks, and didn’t want to “learn the ropes” even though that was the very purpose for us working together. My boss never intervened, despite my telling him what was going on; he actually defended my replacement. It was an incredibly frustrating experience and l was happy to wash my hands of that job nearly a year ago.

I recently received an email from my replacement, asking me for a sit-down to talk about “logistics” for another round of the project we worked on during our training session. I responded by asking if he meant bringing me in to consult on it, to which he replied no, that it was a one-time meeting. I explained that my schedule is packed because of my new consulting job (I work part-time and stay home with my daughter a few days a week) and that I wouldn’t be able to meet in person, but that I could answer specific questions via email.

The next email I received was from my old boss asking me to come in to meet with the replacement, and that he would appreciate me doing it. I’m so angry about this on so many levels. I tried last year to engage and teach this person who wouldn’t have it. I left everything in perfect order to easily replicate the project. I truly couldn’t have done a more complete job.

I don’t know how to respond. I want to say no and explain how unprofessional my replacement was and how it’s equally unprofessional to ask an old employee to donate time because someone won’t do the necessary work of figuring out the ins and outs of the project.

Old feelings of regret are coming up from the times I should have stood up to my old boss. He has one of those towering personalities that makes it hard to stand up to, plus he is a lawyer and very well known around town. Though I wouldn’t be working with my old non-profit, some current consulting work brings me close to them. He has smeared others in the past for not doing what he wants, and he’s the type of person who would definitely remember it later on. What do I do? — I Quit

Stick to your guns. Wait a day or two — you’re busy, after all! — and then email your boss back and tell him that, as you explained to your replacement, you have a full plate of paid consultancy work and any time you devote to that work is time that you have to pay for childcare. Thus, you simply are not in a position to work pro bono. Reiterate again that you would be happy to answer specific questions over email, but if they still want you to come in and meet in person, you will give them your consulting fee and let them know what your availability is. THE END. Do not let this asshole bully you. If former colleagues left the company before you did and for similar reasons — because your former boss sucks — then word is out in your industry, and his potentially imitating a smear campaign against you won’t get very far. He likely has a reputation, and it probably isn’t that of a trust-worthy, likable person. Continue being a professional with clear boundaries and that will be your reputation in your industry. As for your replacement — well, he’s not your problem, and neither is the mess you’ve basically been asked to come clean up. Too bad, so sad for them.


Follow along on Facebook, and Instagram.

If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy@dearwendy.com.

43 comments… add one
  • artsygirl March 8, 2016, 1:31 pm

    LW – please follow Wendy’s advice. Just remind yourself that your misogynistic boss would not ask a male former employee to come in and ‘assist’ on a project without compensation – in fact, he is willing to tap you despite filling your old position! I can promise you that if you bend and go to the meeting, you will be asked again and again to help out with the project. You happily left this position, don’t get sucked back in!

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  • Addie Pray March 8, 2016, 1:34 pm

    I also wonder if lending help (whether paid or unpaid) to your former employer could pose a problem for your current employer, who generally expects you to devote your full business time to them. Not sure if your current employment is in competition with your former employment, but, to the extent it is, they likely wouldn’t like you working for the competitor, with or without a non-compete. So before you answer any email questions or provide your hourly consulting rate (btw, I like and agree with this approach Wendy suggested), make sure you’re not violating any covenants of your job.

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  • Stillrunning March 8, 2016, 1:49 pm

    LW, first off, sound like you’re doing great.
    WWS, wait a day or so before you reply. You have the power here on what you say and how and when you say it. Be pleasant and professional while you repeat that you’re busy and are willing to consult via email. (You might want to put a limit beforehand on how much time you’ll spend on emails with him).
    Your old boss is a tyrant, so do yourself a huge favor and don’t meet him or your replacement in person. Last bit of advice, don’t get involved in a discussion about your replacement’s lack of professionalism. Your old boss knows and wants you to fix it. Nope, keep your interactions brief, simple, and on your terms.

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  • Diablo March 8, 2016, 1:49 pm

    I’m going to respectfully disagree somewhat with Wendy on this one. The somewhat detailed explanation she suggests, for a clear narcissist like your ex-boss, is an invitation to debate how busy you are and to try to come up with a time that can fit your schedule. Any dithering on your part gives him ammo against your reputation as an efficient competent professional. As well, he doesn’t deserve any “over and above” from you whatsoever. You don’t want to do this and don’t have to. Don’t justify or explain yourself one bit. Your email should read: “Sorry, I’m not available to consult on this project.” You don’t owe any explanation for why, when or anything else. Let them solve their own problem. I guess i’m actually agreeing with Wendy, just saying “say less.” say as near to nothing as you can, because every word you give this guy is an invitation to discuss further what you are or are not going to do. And that isn’t any of his business at all. It’s time for a whole new generation of kiddies to benefit from what we in the 80s called “Nancy Reagan’s heavy artillery”: “Just say NO!”

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    • Diablo March 8, 2016, 1:55 pm

      Actually, addendum: you don’t have to say anything at all. You don’t have to reply to the email at all. You could just leave him hanging. You don’t owe this guy shit. Not the time of day, not good manners, and certainly not a response on his terms. Delete, and continue living your life.

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      • Monkeys mommy March 8, 2016, 10:02 pm

        I agree with this! I would not even give those assholes the time it takes to type a response at all.

    • Kate B. March 8, 2016, 2:59 pm

      This is exactly what I was going to say. Just say no.

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    • Vathena March 8, 2016, 4:06 pm

      I agree. The details about finding childcare, etc, might especially court his misogynist wrath. It’s none of his damn business how you are spending your time, and you don’t owe any of it to him or to the incompetent person he hired into your old position.

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  • Stillrunning March 8, 2016, 1:51 pm

    Good catch on the conflict of interest aspect. The LW may be in breach of contract if she helps her previous employer.

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  • LisforLeslie March 8, 2016, 1:53 pm

    Go to the mirror and practice these phrases (practice them so that you have spoken them aloud and are prepared if you are caught off guard):

    1. I’m sorry, that won’t work for me. I have provided you options from which you can select.
    2. I understand your predicament, however, the impact to my schedule is significant and I am unable to accommodate your request.

    and my recommendation:

    3. You’re inability to plan is no longer my problem.

    Shits like this will walk all over you. Give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. If you agree to meet for an hour, they’ll keep you four by saying “One more thing” or “Can we just get this done before you leave so I know it’s right?” or “I thought we agreed you would help!”

    You owe them nothing.

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  • Stillrunning March 8, 2016, 1:54 pm

    I agree with Diablo. They don’t need details about your work or private life. “Just say no,” went through my head, too.

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  • blink14 March 8, 2016, 2:07 pm

    This so reminds me of my old boss! She was an absolute nightmare to work with, and if she ever called me to help her on this level, I would 100% say no.

    Here’s my advice – Politely respond and say that you have too many obligations to consult on anything else and wish them the best of luck on this new project. This way, you haven’t burned the bridge on your end – given that you work in the same field, in the same city, not responding at all could end up in him exaggerating the situation and complaining about you to others in the same field. Responding politely but firmly covers all the bases.

    If he or the replacement continue to email you, do not respond. Save the emails, you never know how harassing they could become, but do not respond. Responding gives them room to respond and try to needle you into helping them. If they crash and burn on this, it is their fault, not yours.

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    • for_cutie March 9, 2016, 11:12 am

      I agree. Responding one last time, briefly and firmly. There could be damage from a lack of response, but a clear “no thank you” will cover your bases.
      Wendy is also right about your boss’ reputation in the industry. Your experience isn’t isolated. As his staff continues to diminish and turn over that reflects upon him, regardless of whether anyone speaks up about the truth of the situation (which professionally, they shouldn’t and neither should you).

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  • dinoceros March 8, 2016, 2:52 pm

    I agree that you’ve just got to say no and move on. I think the less said the better because it leaves less room for him trying to convince you otherwise. I get that the idea of him smearing you is unpleasant, but the alternative is working for free indefinitely, and that’s not going to fly.

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  • Adrienne March 8, 2016, 2:57 pm

    I am in the, send them what your consulting fee is (AND if they claim to hire you, get a retainer).

    So un-asked for “future” advice: You didn’t do yourself any favors by NOT telling your former boss reservations you had about your replacement. As a generalizationn, we women don’t always speak up for ourselves in the workplace or give “constructive criticism” for various reasons. Don’t be afraid to tell people what your time is worth, and that you expect to be paid. You’re going “over and above” for your family and that littler girl. get your money.

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    • artsygirl March 8, 2016, 3:00 pm

      Just as a quick point, the LW did inform her boss according to her letter per the second paragraph. The boss brushed aside her opinion.

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    • dinoceros March 8, 2016, 4:11 pm

      What Artsygirl said. In addition, I don’t think it is the responsibility of the outgoing employee to vet the new employee, unless selecting the new person is a part of their actual job duties. Aside from the unpleasantness of having to train someone obnoxious, the ineffectiveness of the new person is not her problem.

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  • _s_ March 8, 2016, 3:01 pm

    I agree with a combination of Wendy and Diablo’s advice, which blink 14 summed up above; you don’t owe this guy anything above and beyond what you owe any colleague in your field. Do NOT feel obligated to get sucked back in; but if you decide you WANT to do it, do NOT do it for free. I speak to you as someone who was in a similar situation, though without the asshole boss. I left a job and did everything I possibly could to prepare things for my replacement (who hadn’t been hired when I left) including showing the boss as much as I could. I was happy to answer calls and e-mails for a little while once the new person came on (within reason), but any time they asked me come in and train the new person I billed them for it on an hourly rate. And after a certain point I just had to kindly say I was not available and they got the hint. And this was the “nice” arrangement I was willing to make because I liked them and we left on good terms. In your situation, I would not be as “nice” – just polite, professional, and firm on what you are or are not willing to do. I like the idea of keeping it minimal – don’t give excuses (like child care), just state plainly that you are not available (if you don’t want to do it), or else you are available on X date and your rate is Y (if you are willing to do it. Period.

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    • _s_ March 8, 2016, 3:03 pm

      ETA: don’t worry about this guy hurting your reputation – my experience in every industry I’ve been in is everybody knows the assholes and takes them with a grain of salt.

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  • Kate B. March 8, 2016, 3:10 pm

    Alternately, you could do what a friend of mine did. After he left a company to go freelance, his old employer called him, wanting him to come back as a consultant. He said he’d be happy to, and named a price THREE TIMES HIGHER than the going market rate. They accepted. True, he ended up working for them longer than he expected, but he made a mint. Do check out the conflict of interest, though. That’s good advice.

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    • BlueKate March 8, 2016, 5:08 pm


      OP, tell both of them that you charge $xxx per hour (do twonor three times your current consulting rate), you will round up the hour (so even if you do 15 min of work, you charge an hour), and that because this so last minute, an urgent fee will be tacked on of $xxx (in the hundreds). Consulting over email is the same as in person or over the phone. You will charge not just for the actual consult, but for any doc review or any additional work you do for this project.

      Also, save these emails in a dedicated folder. If your ex boss tries to smear you, take the emails to a lawyer to request a cease and desist letter.

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      • BlueKate March 8, 2016, 5:10 pm

        And as previously suggested, request a retainer of at least a $1000.

      • Kate B. March 8, 2016, 6:52 pm

        And expenses. And have an ironclad consulting agreement spelling out the exact scope of work, the hourly rate (plus retainer and expenses) and a finite time period. Don’t do anything until the agreement is signed. That is, if you choose to go down this path.

  • Firestar March 8, 2016, 3:51 pm

    My comment didn’t post earlier? Not sure what I did wrong so sorry for repeating if it shows up.
    If you are willing to meet then just email back and say “Nice to hear from you. I charge $200/hr for my time consulting on projects now. As a kindness to you, I told “lazy new guy” I would be happy to answer any questions I could off the top of my head if he wanted to email them. If you would rather book me to meet in person then send me some dates and I’ll check my availability and get back to you.” If you are not willing to decend back into that particular hell then “Nice to hear from you. Unfortunately my schudule doesn’t allow for any in person meetings at this time. I told “lazy new guy” I would be happy to answer any questions I could off the top of my head if he wanted to email them though. Take Care.

    No justifications. No explaining your child care. You don’t have to tell him that you have expenses whatever those expenses are. Your time is valuable – if he wants it he can pay for it. He’s a lawyer. He knows how that works. It’s how he pays his mortgage every month. And as for those questions you are willing to answer – answer briefly and end with “hope that helps – that’s all I can remember”. And if there is blow-back then just say “How odd – I sent him my rate package but didn’t hear back…” But if he has a reputation for being an asshole I wouldn’t worry about anyone thinking less of you.

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    • BlueKate March 8, 2016, 5:12 pm

      I honestly an super wary of saying she’ll reply to the emailed questions. Emails take time, and thought. And who knows what kind of super specific crap they’ll be asking her.

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      • Firestar March 8, 2016, 10:07 pm

        I agree but she already said yes to the email. If the emailed questions are too extensive then maybe a reply stating “sorry these aren’t questions I can answer off the top of my head… I’m sure boss man can guide you better than I can at this stage.” Seriously if the email takes longer than 5 minutes to answer then bow out. You owe them nothing.

  • Juliecatharine March 8, 2016, 4:56 pm

    The number of assholes in non profit really is astounding.

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    • Diablo March 8, 2016, 5:23 pm

      I doubt it is out of proportion to the private sector or the world in general. Having worked a couple decades in the charitable sector, I find that they are mostly wonderful passionate people who set aside their own best interests to work below market rates to do some good in the world. Really, some of the best people I’ve ever known are from the sector. People i wish i could be, but I am weak and lazy and selfish compared to them. Trouble is, the bad ones use these people’s dedication and passion to get more than they should out of them. Looking for the best in people: it works out sometimes, but not often. A possible amended version of your comment could be “The number of assholes in the world really is astounding.” And I do feel ya on that one.

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  • Sara March 8, 2016, 5:30 pm

    I think the don’t provide detail advice is excellent advice in general. You don’t need to explain why you are saying no.

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  • Bcamber March 8, 2016, 5:50 pm

    Good grief. No! You don’t work there anymore, he is no longer your boss. You did the best you could to train your replacement, end of story.

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  • Anon March 8, 2016, 8:34 pm

    I do consult, and this happens a lot. A few things come to mind:
    1) Do not say “I’m too busy to consult.” That can cost you other clients if he tells that to other people. “Oh,” they think, “I shouldn’t call her. She’s too busy to consult.” If you want an excuse, you can say, “I’m fully booked for the next few weeks (or whatever time is long enough he can’t wait).” If this is the tack you take, I would reply to the email with a “Thank you for your interest in hiring me for the XYZ project. I am fully booked over the next few weeks/months/timeframe of your choosing and unable to work on this project, but wish you and the team (however you refer to your old office) all the best on this and future projects. Something to that effect, assuming he intended to pay you (even if you know he didn’t) and acting with professional decorum that would impress a White House protocol officer. Your reputation does matter and bullies can smear it. Not everybody discounts smears from horrible people, and it does hurt you. Write something you’d be happy to see on the front page of your local paper. You don’t owe him a reply, but you owe one to yourself. “She never even replied to my email about the project” makes you look nonresponsive when he repeats that to other people.
    2) Do NOT address childcare issues or other reasons you can’t come in. None of his business, but worse, it puts you on a mommytrack and plays right into his misogyny. Never say I can’t get a sitter/I have to pay a sitter/or anything involving “my kids are blocking my ability to work” to a client. Ever. If you don’t believe me, just imagine your most high-paid male competition saying “Sorry, I can’t make the meeting, I can’t get a sitter” and see how it sounds coming out of his well-respected professional mouth. Then don’t do it.
    3) If you are willing to work for them for an astoundingly large sum of money, quote them that rate. (The discussion of that point was spot on.) Do NOT say it’s your going rate, see issues with him repeating that to potential clients above. Say it’s the rate for this project. That has the added advantage of being the truth.
    4) Be aware that no matter how ironclad your agreement with the a**h**e is, he will almost certainly try to stiff you. Consultants I work with agree that every client we’ve ever had who tried to cheat/stiff us started out by refusing to pay our going rate or trying to get us to work for free. I have learned the hard way that anyone who asks is not worth the bother because the engagement will be a awful and no matter how well we plan, we may not be able to collect. But if you’re willing to risk it, try the “pricing at the rate that makes it worthwhile to put up with you” strategy above.
    5) If you do go that route, lawyers, lawyers, lawyers. Make sure you include the cost of getting them to draft the contract in your overpricing strategy. (Worth having a good lawyer draft an agreement you can also use with your other clients anyway.) And get paid in advance. Any work you do that you intend to bill them for will likely get you stiffed.
    And know that he will still lie about what you did and it will still hurt you. Best advice: Be so polite and so firm about no you’re not available to do it because you are fully booked with other clients right now that he gets the message and never calls you again. Otherwise you’re in for years of this s**t.
    And even better advice: Have a backbone the first time he’s an a**h**e, when you’re working for him. It will prevent things from getting this far, and once they get this far, it’s hard to get rid of him without hurting yourself.
    Good luck!

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  • Anon March 8, 2016, 8:39 pm

    Oh and PS — no replying to emails. They can easily eat up hours of your time and become neverending. Act like a lawyer — get your money up front in a downpayment, bill for absolutely everything you do in 15 minute increments, and do not give him even one email or one phone call or thirty seconds of your time for free.
    Once he realizes you’re a professional and this is going to cost him, he’ll probably disappear. He doesn’t want to hire you. He wants you to work for free. So don’t take that bait, and make clear you plan to charge him — a fortune — for every. single. second.
    Besides, it’s good practice for learning how to manage your real clients.

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  • Dear Wendy March 8, 2016, 9:05 pm

    Great advice, everyone – better than mine today. I agree, after reading your comments, that it isn’t wise to mention childcare issues or being too busy to consult. A simple, “I’d be happy to help out. My consulting fee is $X for email, phone, or in-person consulting.”

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    • Cleopatra Jones March 9, 2016, 11:22 am

      Not that I want to divert traffic from your site, Wendy but AskaManager has covered this topic on her site many many times. She has some good sound advice on this situation.

      Apparently, there are a plethora of a-hole exBosses out there who think this is acceptable behavior.

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  • TheRealLW March 8, 2016, 9:42 pm

    Hi readers, I’m the LW. Thank you very much for taking the time to give your thoughts and opinions. I did respond initially to my replacement asking if he meant he wanted me to consult on it again. It was made clear that it was a “friendly one-time meeting” (their words, not mine).

    I really have no problem telling old boss I can’t do it. It’s not the delivery/answer I’m anxious about it. It’s my level of connectivity to the non-profit community. I live in a city that’s really a “big small town.” I am consulting for a group that is literally a few streets over from my old employer. I’m working on other projects that will inevitably cross lines with old boss. I’ll even be seeing him at an event coming up. We all work with the same people and word travels. So I’m more concerned with him warping the truth and making me look bad.

    So this really comes down to me sticking to my guns and doing what I know is “right” and risking it doing harm to my reputation.

    I’m still seeing red over this and am just so pissed about it. I think more than one of you said this, but he would never ask a male employee to do this.

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    • snoopy128 March 9, 2016, 9:46 am

      I think many people here have given you good scripts which leave the ball in his court. And should it ever come up to your face, you have yourself covered by saying “I send him a quote about my consulting rate for that project and never heard back”. Which is true. And exposes part of what he is doing in a rather classy way. Your best chance at coming out of this ahead is to remove your emotions while you write the email, and write it as a cool, collected professional. His assholeishness may determine how much you charge or your terms, but when you present them, do so without anger or spite.

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      • snoopy128 March 9, 2016, 9:47 am

        As my dad says: CYB. Cover your butt

    • BlueKate March 9, 2016, 4:21 pm

      Boss: this will be more if a friendly one-time meeting.
      You: I can fit you in for 5 min on this day. We can briefly discuss the project, but if this will take up more than 15 minutes if work, I will be charging $xx per hour, and if this is urgent the it’ll be $xx*3 since I am currently working on other projects.
      Boss: it won’t be too much time
      You: I understand, but since I do have other projects, I will not be able to accommodate more than 15 minutes of pro-bono work for you.
      (This entire conversation to be done via email.)

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  • Sketchee March 9, 2016, 12:55 am

    Myself as a graphic designer, I’d just write up a quote that includes a details of exactly what I’m agreeing to do. If anything is outside of that, I write “That’s out of the scope of what we agreed to, I’ll add it to the quote.” I say the same things with good clients and not so, and the good clients treat it as if it’s normal. So I don’t fret, I just act like it’s normal. If there are questions, I just say things like “Oh okay, this is how I handle that. If we start any of this work, then it’s an agreement to pay my fee. Let’s continue this discussion after I receive your 50% nonrefundable deposit.” I have better things to think about than those who don’t want to go along with my systems.

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  • Anon March 9, 2016, 10:45 am

    I get it — it’s frustrating to know that he can, and very likely will, distort the truth and ding your reputation in a small community, and there’s nothing you can do to stop him. That’s the reality of working for a bully — he lies to make himself look good and you look bad.
    One suggestion going forward: You said, “I did respond initially to my replacement asking if he meant he wanted me to consult on it again.” That’s where you opened yourself up to making this problem worse — by asking. That gave them the chance to give you the “friendly meeting” answer and put you in a difficult position. He outmaneuvered you. Next time, don’t ask. You and your reputation are in a safer position if the initial response goes straight to the, “You’d like to meet on this project? That’s $XXX/hour, with a minimum of Y hours (however long you think the meeting will run) payable in advance. (You’re making sure you get paid your entire fee in advance here.) I’ll be happy to forward a contract for your signature.” Then when he asks you to do it for free, act incredulous that anyone would suggest such a thing. He’s gone, your reputation is harder to hurt.
    The problem is that someone who is an exploitative bully will find ways to smear you, and there’s not much you can do about it. That’s an unfortunate reality, and it’s hard to accept. The only defense I’ve ever seen anyone use against it is to conduct yourself so impeccably professionally that, when the smears come back to you, the truth will make you look like a serious pro and him look like a jerk.
    And presumably in such a small community at least some of the people you want to work with will know he’s a jerk and you’re a pro. As long as you don’t let his intentional attempts to maneuver you into doing something unprofessional — like meet for free — work.

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  • saneinca March 9, 2016, 2:54 pm

    LW, if you really have to, do have a meeting for your career’s sake. Sometimes we just have swallow that bitter pill. But set it up on your terms.
    A 1 hour meeting, set after 2 or 3 weeks cannot hurt. But make sure you walk out after that one hour. Don’t linger, don’t give them a chance to extend. And ask them to send a list of questions beforehand. make them do their homework.

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  • bittergaymark March 9, 2016, 8:28 pm

    Wendy was a bit off base here — and wisely corrected herself. Everybody else was pretty much dead on in your advice. I had a similar situation in that after I was laid off from my job as a content producer at some lame cable network… Weeks later, they started calling, wanting my own personal side project work binder that I alone had maintained to make my job easier — there were six of us in the same position, but only I created such a binder. One where I pulled all the info reports from the episodes that had clips we could make promos from… Naturally, as I am brilliant, everything was filed in a system that ALL the producers simply loved. So much so that they were constantly coming to me for promo ideas or borrowing my binder… Anyway, in a fit of rage, I took it as I left.
    Weeks later they called asking what had become of that “wonderful binder…” I laughed and told them the wonderful binder was mine and thus on my desk at home. I then refused to give it back. As I said, this was MY Binder and nobody else did it. I came up with the idea myself and it was NOT in my job description. Naturally, I offered to sell it back to them. This prompted a call from HR implying that I was way out of line…
    They must have called begging for it six times over the next few months.
    Eventually, I shredded it and that was that… The gall of people… The nerve of what employers just expect you to do after fucking you over was rather eye-opening.

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    • Mark Elliott March 10, 2016, 11:33 am

      Good thing for you they didn’t pursue it further. In many states, without a contract or formal agreement, any and all work done while the employer is paying you belongs to them. From Lawyers.com – “If you are a regular employee who collects a regular paycheck, the work you complete while doing your ordinary job belongs to your employer.” Since it’s gone I hope they don’t ask again.

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