columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

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.

Green responds:

It's entirely reasonable to say that you can't keep giving him advice for free! It would be unreasonable if you'd said that in response to his first question or even his second, but at this point, it's more than reasonable to set some boundaries when it comes to giving away your time and expertise.

The next time he contacts you with questions, you could say this: "I know you have a lot of questions about how to design this position. Would it make sense to set up a consulting agreement, where we'd agree on a rate for assistance with drafting a job description, crafting a strategic plan for the role, and potentially recruiting assistance and whatever else you think would be helpful?"

If he's good with cues, he'll understand that you're saying that will be necessary in order for him to keep getting help from you.

But if he's not good with cues, there's a chance that he'll say, "Oh, that's not necessary--I just have a few questions and won't take up too much of your time." If that happens, say this: "Oh, I'm sorry--my schedule doesn't allow me to keep helping for free. But if a consulting arrangement makes sense, I'd be glad to keep talking."

This gets even easier if you can refer to having existing consulting rates. Then you can say, "I usually charge a consultation fee of $X for this kind of help." That's a very useful phrase, because if the other person doesn't like it, it puts them in the position of having to explain why you should give them for free what you charge other people for. 

Of course, he may say that it's not in his budget to pay for help. That's OK! Just cheerfully say, "I understand. Well, I'm glad I was able to provide the advice I gave you earlier and I hope it helps. I look forward to hearing who you end up hiring for the position, and I wish you all the best with it!"

And don't feel bad about this. You have expertise that he obviously finds valuable, you've already given him a solid amount of advice without charge, and it wouldn't be reasonable to expect you to donate significant amounts of your time and knowledge for free.

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