In my last job at a small firm, I was paid in billable hours. I was not a contractor; the firm provided an office, computers, software, books and customers. They also took taxes out of my check. If I bid 30 hours on a job, the company would bill the customer for 30 hours at their rate and I would get paid for the same amount of time at my hourly rate. If I 'finished' a project, but it had an error, I would make my repair at no charge to the client, which means that I did not get paid for that time repairing the error. Problems like this were typically simple but I occasionally dealt with a gun shot wound to the foot.

Now then -- some time ago a client came to have software written for his business. We worked out a deal, I wrote the application for him, delivered it and supported it. The last update I applied to this software was approximately five months ago. I left this job about four weeks ago to pursue a research project, and the customer found an error two days ago. My ex-boss emailed me and told me to contact the customer so the problem can be resolved, and to let him know how it goes.

I have no contractual agreements with this employer or the customer. Am I obligated to fix this error? I've talked to my former employer about it, and he believes I am. What would you do?


Some of you need to read more carefully. As stated above, I have no contractual agreement with the employer or client. Some others made some very compelling arguments. Thanks to all of you for your input.

My opinion -- I submit to you that the employer is responsible for supporting their customers. I am not obligated to fix the error, though it may be in my best interest to fix it because of my previous personal interaction with the client.

Why? Do former Microsoft employees get called when an error they introduced is discovered? I do not know for sure, but I would bet the farm that the answer is a resounding 'no'. The position I held was an internship. I was well known as "the intern" at this office and treated as a remedial employee. I do not own any rights to the software and I have no contractual agreement with my former employer or the client. I do not know the details of the error, but the short description I was given makes me believe it is a misunderstanding of the requirements, but it could very well be a stupid mistake on my part. This employer has another programmer on staff that could fix the problem and I made it clear when I left that I was going to pursue another project that would consume a lot of time.

I'm considering fixing the problem because I am sympathetic to the client who paid money for an error. I am not sympathetic to my former employer who is obviously unprepared to handle an issue related to a software error. If I were unscrupulous, I would fix it myself without the intervention or supervision of my former employer.

+94  A: 

I would consult a lawyer, not a web site full of geeks.

Paul Tomblin
I'll add my favorite comment here. In the US, your local Bar Association will doubtless be happy to recommend a lawyer, quite likely with a reduced rate for a quick consultation. And +1 for showing ungeekly common sense.
David Thornley
I think common sense applies here - don't waste money on a lawyer when you don't need it. Assuming this is the US, its absurd to think that an employee, after leaving a company, is in any way liable to support a product sold by the company - can I get some ex-Ford employee to fix my truck for free?
Perhaps Daniel is looking for an answer from a developer who has experienced this issue before, and not legal advice from a web site file of geeks...
And you think from his short description, anybody here will know enough to judge that their situation is *exactly* the same, in a legal context? The answer depends on the exact wording of his contract with his employer, and the labor history of his state.
Paul Tomblin
I was in a similar situation in 1992, and the biggest regret of my professional life is that I didn't consult a lawyer back then.
Paul Tomblin
@Paul Tomblin: Why? What happened, eventually?
@Paul Tomblin: I'm curious to hear your story too
Paul Tomblin
This answer is practically a code snippet.
Robert S.
That's a horrible story Paul -- thanks for sharing it.
Rob Lachlan
Paul's story is exactly what I was talking about... Thanks for sharing...
I don't see how the two stories are related at all. As for Paul's story, it doesn't sound like a lawyer would have been of any assistance anyway (unless of course there was proof they stole his work)
I don't think they're intending it as a legal question so much as an ethical one. Barring a piece of information they haven't shared, there is no legal obligation to personally support this software.
Nick Bastin
+1  A: 

IANAL but I don't think you are legally obligated to fix it. It sounds like your former employer was taking advantage of you. i think it's between you and your conscience.

I'm from the US and thinking about this from an american-centric viewpoint. I don't know how any of this would work in other countries (typical, i know).


I'm somewhat surprised that this was not part of the initial contract with either employer or customer, since the discovery of bugs in a program after the initial "shipping period" is not really unheard of. I would think that the contract would provide details on whether fixing is mandatory, and how fixing would be billed.

That being said, even if you are not obligated to fix, if the fix might not be major, you might want to do it voluntarily (and clarify that point), as in the current economic situations happy customers (and references) are never a bad thing. For all you know, your next employmer may contact the previous employer or the customer to ask of their impression.


The real question is matter of reputation, if you choose to go back to that sort of work in the future but you have a rep for not fixing your errors, it may come back bad for you later on.

Jeremy Reagan
You've made an excellent point. Is the error mine or the companies? At what point does my obligation end?
Also a valid point, but ultimately the blame falls on the dev in my experience. So whether it be your fault or not, it will appear to everyone else to be your fault.
Jeremy Reagan
Then where do you draw the line? Potentially you can be on the hook for every bug fix and enhancement along the line if you agree to go along this line of thought.

I don't know about the word 'obligated' but in view of the economy today, and the need to maintain good relations with former employers, I would fix it.

Good relations? I think its rather distasteful and ignorant for a boss to contact a former employee and EXPECT them to fix a software defect.
+1 chris and 'The economy' is never a good excuse to do anything.
+1 for Chris's comment..
+18  A: 

I say no - if you start going down that path, what if someone pops up that takes you 100's of hours to fix?

Your previous boss was making a profit off of your work - his profit should go to supporting the customer, not you. The customers contract presumably was with your previous company - not you.

I'd tell your boss you will fix it, but you expect to get paid for it, alternatively, if this is a simple fix that you are willing to do, then perhaps tel him you will fix it this time because of a misunderstanding, but be clear it will be the last freebie.

If you charge time and materials at a commercial rate, hundreds of hours of work could be good. If you do it gratis, not good. Don't do it gratis.
Jonathan Leffler
I would not go down the road of doing it "this time" for free. That establishes a pattern that you will be pressured into maintaining later. ie: "You did it last time, why not this time??"
+4  A: 

IMHO, since nobody has anything in writing, they have no legal standing. I think the question of whether you should support this customer comes down to personal ethics.

If you made it clear when you left that you would no longer support past clients, then they should not expect you to do so. If that was not made explicitly clear verbally or in writing, I think it's on your conscience to decide whether to make one last exception and then have a meeting with everyone to lay out exactly how things will work going forward.

Dave Swersky
One last exception? Slippery slope advice IMO. In this case it makes the exception the rule. If he obligates himself to fix this under that rule then what's different about the next fix?
Stephen Friederichs
The purpose of the meeting would be to establish the new rules.
Dave Swersky
+10  A: 

Unless it is going to be more than a couple hours, I would just fix it. This would also be a good time to let them know that any future work is billable. In the future you may want to specify a "warranty" period when taking a job.

I would NEVER get a lawyer involved unless you were talking about a huge dispute or hundreds of hours. That will not only cost you a lot of money it will also ruin any relationship you had with your former client.

Shaun Bowe
Don't get a lawyer involved in the relationship - just ask what the law is. Then decide what you're willing to do, and then negotiate on that basis.
David Thornley
Doing it once may well be regarded as setting a precedent for all future work. How hard in each case may not make any difference. IANAL.
-1 "go do the work for free even though you're no longer an employee" is utterly terrible advice.
nailitdown - In a perfect world I agree with you. Sometimes doing the work ONE TIME is just easier than upsetting potential future customers. Would you rather spend 2 hours working on a bug fix to get 30 hours of billable work or not do the work and potentially harm your relationship?
Shaun Bowe
You also have to remember that doing work while not under the umbrella of an employment contract greatly changes the liability situation.
brian d foy
+1  A: 

The customer has a contractual relationship with the company as money changed hands between those two parties. You were really just a subcontractor, and now that you've left, the company must sub out the fixes to someone else.

But IANAL, so find a real lawyer and have him check your contract.

Paul Dixon

Fix it. Your reputation is more important than anything else.

Andrew Cowenhoven

Impossible to say on the strength of your question.

Depends entirely on the legal jurisdiction you are living and/or worked in for the customer and what that jurisdiction says about your ongoing obligations under "at will" contracts.

+56  A: 

I'd say that your ex-employer isn't exactly the kind of disinterested observer who could render a neutral opinion on this issue.

I think that the morally correct course of action is to allow your former employer the opportunity to pay you for your services. That would be very kind of you, and would help the customer.

Anything else is basically slavery; what happens if an error surfaces two years from now-- are you expected to fix that gratis? You are only obligated to do work for the duration of your contract, and even then only while they are paying you.

Rob Lachlan
I agree with you Rob, but definitely would do a lawyer consult on this. I had a former employer contact me 1 year later about some error that cropped up when a datafile format changed and the app I wrote didn't work with it. I gave them a lunchtime consult but wasn't slinging code free of charge.
You're right of course. Consulting a lawyer is a must.
Rob Lachlan
+1 you only work for an employer as long as you're employed.
The phrase "morally correct" implies that doing something else would be incorrect (correct me if that wasn't your intention). I have a hard time thinking that it would be incorrect for the OP to refuse his ex-boss' request. It certainly wouldn't be as kind as what you suggested, but that doesn't necessarily make it wrong.
+1  A: 

You are not. Bug fixing is a major part of the development process. One cannot hire a programmer just for development and expect him to fix bugs on his free time. Besides, they could find bugs for the next months.

A project has around 3 bugs / 1000 lines of code in controlled scenarios, usually more. So if you have written 10.000 lines of code, expect at least 30 bugs. Fix one now, and expect 29 more calls.

To show good manners though, I'd fix the really "bad" defects, like if an exception pops out when the user starts the program.

Bogdan Gavril
+5  A: 

Nobody has asked this yet, so I'll do it.

Did the customer have a signed contract for the work, and if so, with whom was the contract made?

My view (though IANAL either) would be that if they had a contract with your former employer, it is your former employer's issue to resolve. If there was a contract directly with you, then you need to start asking for legal advice. That doesn't mean you are liable, but it also doesn't automatically mean you are not.

+14  A: 

Write a new contract with triple the pay rate and send it back to the employer to sign before you agree to fix the bug. Either he pays you a lot of money or he finds someone else to fix the bug. Either way, you win. Cheers.

Been here, done this. They got someone else and I was free to get on with my life.
me too... and to think they balked at $40/hr. They never bothered me again. (the 40 wasn't triple btw, just more than before)
Christopher Mahan
+2  A: 

IMO (and IANAL), you are not obliged to fix the problem for free. You can offer to fix the problem on a time and materials basis - your terms, not your previous employers terms - and make the changes. But your previous employer has the responsibility, not you personally. So, you would need his OK to tread on his territory. Of course, he has already asked you to do it, but it would be better to get that in writing.

So, contact your lawyer.

Jonathan Leffler
+2  A: 

I think you said it yourself - you have no contractual agreements with your previous employer or the customer. So.. no. As others have said - someone somewhere had a contract. Probably your former employer with the customer. You were employed by your employer, you're not anymore. End of story. NOW you can be a contractor. If you want to be a jerk you can make your former boss look bad (and probably yourself in the process) - tell the customer that your contracting rate is $500/hr and it'll take 10 hours. If they ask why they're being charged when they never were before, tell them they had a contract with your previous employer - not with you. It's perfectly acceptable for you to fix it - as long as you're paid like the contractor you now are.

Stephen Friederichs

I can't see how you'd possibly be obligated, unless it's specified in a contract you had with your previous employer. Howerver, you might want to consider helping out anyway.

If it's a relatively simple issue, you could just give them some hints so they can fix it themselves.

If it's too complicated for that you could do the work yourself, but you should be paid for your time. If you want to be nice you could charge your former rate. If you want to discourage this kind of thing in the future, double it. That will put them in a "take it or leave it" position.

Be careful though. Your new employer might not appreciate moonlighting.

+4  A: 

No, Period!

Big Boss

For the sake of your professional reputation and future work you should do this now and I agree with others than establishing a warranty period in future contracts and that this is not a precedent is important.

Since you've been out of the loop for so long there's no guarantee it's even something you did/failed to do, so it's not like a burden of proof doesn't exist on the companies side.

Yes. 4 month contract -> 2 month contract -> 6 month contract. And they wanted me to telecommute cross-Atlantic when I moved to the UK. I don't even think it's uncommon: PMs like hiring contractors who worked out before, it's obviously better to have a known than an unknown if the known is decent.

Oh my, there are so many things I can say, but first and foremost, check your contract. And yes, contact a lawyer if your ex-boss threatens legal action.

+2  A: 

I would say that you are not responsible if your employer is the one that made the deal with the customer. You say "We made a deal". If you were part of the deal making, then you should have had an understanding of how fixes would be taken care of.

My own personal opinion is it really depends on your relationship with the customer. First do you both agree it's a bug (or is it a misunderstanding for what the software is supposed to do)? If it truly is a bug, you were the dominate person in the deal, you don't have any contract about how to handle maintenance, and you want to maintain good standing with the customer, then you should fix it. If it's a simple fix, do it for free. If it isn't then work out the terms of the fix. It sounds like the customer has had a while to identify this bug.

If you weren't part of the deal making and you don't have a relationship with the customer, then I would work out with your former employer a rate to fix the bug. If he isn't agreeable to that then your former employer needs to find someone else to fix it.

+39  A: 

Not only are you not obligated to fix the error, it would be a very bad idea to touch it.

Your employer was always on the hook for errors & omissions. I suspect they held a hefty insurance policy (since most clients demand it) for exactly that purpose. Thus, if one of their clients incurred losses due to software created by your employer, the client could sue your former employer. Damages against your employer would be paid by the E&O insurance, up to a limit. That's true no matter which employee caused the problem. Liability rests with the contracted party... which wasn't you. (It wasn't you, was it? If so, then it's a different ball of wax.)

Do you have a personal E&O policy? Unlikely. Do you have your own corporation to absorb liabilities incurred by modifying the client's software? Also unlikely. Note that an LLC doesn't fully shield your personal assets.

Finally, doing work for a client of your former employer may well run you afoul of a noncompete clause in your employment agreement or separation papers. The fact that your manager asked you to get involved doesn't necessarily indemnify you. This varies hugely from state to state and country to country, so there's not much more I can say about that except, "Be very careful."

You feel a sense of commitment and moral obligation to your customer. That's good, it's the mark of a professional. Sometimes, however, professionalism also dictates that you not get your hands in places they don't belong.

All the more reason to consult with a lawyer before making any sort of decision - there may well be many factors involved that most of us aren't even aware of.
Chris Lawlor
@mtnygard: I couldn't agree more. If you decide to do anything, make sure you have a new contract with ex-employer that covers that.
Milan Babuškov
IANAL, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say this is extraordinarily good advice.
Larry OBrien
+1: Whether or not this is true, the overall point is critical -- doing a "nice thing" in this context could turn out to be a very bad idea.
+2  A: 

How does your current employer feel about this? It may be a violation of your current employment agreements to do the work.

Good point, but it does not apply to me. I am a student.
+1  A: 

Doesn't matter there is a contract on paper or not. Verbal agreement is effective too. However, the Situation is, once you left the company, you have no responsibility (in terms of work) for your ex-boss and the clients of your ex-boss. So, you don't have to fix for your ex-boss for free. it is your ex-boss responsibility to make sure the software deliverable is bug-free (which never happen in real world), and you have fixed all the major problems before you left.

What I suggest is, you come up a deal with your ex-boss. How much you will charge for this fix. something like a part time deal. then, u happy, you ex-boss client happy, and you ex-boss will be kinda happy too. :) If you ex-boss doesn't want to pay, then sorry.. that's his problem. However, I have to warn you one thing. If you just do that for your ex-boss without a deal or mutual agreement for the bugs fix in the future, you will get burn & get annoyed. And ruin your life. So, better come up a deal. a reasonable charge.

My previous experience is, when I draft the contract with the client, I will make sure there are two stages: development stage & maintenance stage. After development, client has to sign off. Then all bugs will go to maintenance which will be charged free for the first 20 hours of work (or somthing like that, depending on your deal), and charge hourly thereafter. so, it forces the client to find all bugs before signing off, and prevent them to make a lot of changes (and they will call it bugs) afterward. Which will be a nightmare.

+8  A: 

I'm kind of shocked that nobody has mentioned how terrible the original terms of your employment were.

I certainly wouldn't feel like I owed anything to those people, and if they wanted my help after I left, then they'd have to pay me. They seem quite mercenary, so they shouldn't expect anything else from their former and current employees.

+1. If it were me, I'd cheerfully inform my former employer of my new, order-of-magnitude higher hourly rates, and ask if they wanted to purchase a 5-hour or a 10-hour package. Paid in advance, of course.
Sarah Mei
+1  A: 

You have absolutely no obligation to fix this bug. You no longer work for that company.

...That being said...

I would certainly want to pursue an opportunity to correct the error and would take it up with the customer directly. Explain to him that you are no longer at the company but at a fair rate you would love to address his issue.

Doesn't the company you used to work for have other software devs? No one else can fix this issue? Seems a bit odd but I do not know the nature of the application.

As well, I would certainly inform my new employer of my intention to do side work, but that is all this is, side work.

William T Wild

That's an easy no... the client contracted your ex-company to make the software, at their rates. Whether they sub contracted or not is a moot point... the responsibility is the company's. If you're supposed to accept direct responsibility to the client, will you be paid the direct rates that the company charges? I think not.

Sudhir Jonathan
+1  A: 

I'll side with those who advocate you establish a fresh contract with your ex-employer. If they want you to continue to provide service to their clients, then they can either pay you time and materials or put you on some kind of retainer. Either way, you're not obligated to do anything, and I certainly wouldn't if there's no money in it. If your former employer makes any reference to the way things were done in the past, respond with "That's how it used to be when I worked for you. I don't work for you any more." Unless you want to work for this particular company again, I wouldn't hesitate to tell them not to contact you again if they ask you to work without compensation.


The best way to approach this, in my opinion, is to contact the client directly and offer to fix the bug for a standard hourly rate. You could elect to charge either what the client paid to the horrible (IMO) company you worked for, or you could elect to charge the hourly rate you were paid. Either way, you should charge for the fix.

Since you have no contractual relationship with either the old company or the client, you are probably quite free to contact the client and negotiate this fix. Heck, if you want to do it "gratis", that's fine as well - BUT MAKE SURE THE CLIENT IS THE ONE GETTING THE DEAL.

If you go through the old company, you will be screwed. I can pretty much guarantee this.

As for your reputation, consider this: your old boss has probably ALREADY trashed you to the client and to whomever else he sees. This kind of boss is all too common in the sweat-shops that masquerade as contract programming establishments. But don't fret - everyone in the industry probably already knows this person and HIS reputation likely increases yours with every complaint he makes about you. (really!).

As for your rep with the client, the best way to ensure it remains (or gets back to) good is to contact them directly and fix the problem as per the above.

If the old company complains, remind them of the "no contract between us" since you left.

Best wishes,


+3  A: 

I just wanted to add this.

Many people point out the possible risk to your reputation if you don't do this. But that being said, I think it is possible to respectfully decline to fix the problem. Especially if you present a sound argument, such as the fact that you should not be committed to fixing every future error, because that would be madness.

Besides, as long as the company/you had some good standards and practices for coding, your code should be easy to read and fix by someone else. That's what they are for anyway.

It's also a risk to your reputation if you *do* this; you could have your reputation sullied as a pushover.
@Imagist: Seconded. I strongly agree.
Jørgen Fogh
+3  A: 

You're being played as a sucker. You were working as "the intern" which means you were probably being paid much less than their regular, full-time programmers, and now they are asking you to make changes for free because you did it in the past. The only reason why they're asking you to do it is because they want to save money and has nothing to do with contractual obligations. Tell them you will bill your standard, previous amount--take it or leave it.

I would not accept the previous ammount in this case, but otherwise you're right on the money.
Jørgen Fogh
You can safely assume when he switched jobs, his salary increased because he was more skilled than when he started as an intern, thus his time is worth more now. Ignoring the issues of who was contracted, liability, reputation, etc, he should charge at least what his current job pays, if not more, since it's a sacrifice of time above and beyond normal working hours.
Matt Garrison

Sounds like lots of people have said something similar, but here goes:

Fixing things for free was a mistake on your part in the first place. Unless the problem was clearly due to negligence, you should have insisted on being paid for your time.

I suggest you tell your previous employer that you would be happy to fix the problem - at 35% over your previous hourly wage and 50% paid in advance. If they do not agree to this, contact the customer directly and offer the same deal to them.

Hugh Bothwell
+1  A: 

Can you even fix the problem? When you leave a job, you give up access to the tools (source control, compilers, access to specs,...) that enable you to get work done on company projects. There are also several potential legal issues. You wouldn't be covered by your ex Employers insurance so you could be held personally liable for that code. And the code you write might be owned by you and not your employer which could be messy.

Easiest way to solve this is to have your previous company hire you as a consultant.

+1  A: 

I have been in this kind of situation before.

IMHO give them some informal, rough advice on how to fix should be sufficient for them.

If you have to actually fix the code then let them hire you. Of course with the higher rate than you had been paid since right now you are external subcontractor from their perspective, not an employee anymore.

You have let yourself go since you had already left the company. That company will somehow do the job or else they won't survive for long. It's their responsibility to maximize client's satisfaction.

Finally, this is one of my favorite quote from my former boss (but he said this to my friend, lol):

If you have to go, then go. The company can survive without you.


Look at your original terms of employment. If they don't state what your obligations are with respect to fixing bugs you should be fine.

I think this kind of situation would need to be clearly described in the terms of employment for it to stick.

The company with the problem contacted the company you used to work for for a reason; they didn't contact you. That sets the precendent with respect to the relationship. Your previous company obviously wanted to 'own' the relationship with the client. They got want they wanted, and now they (not you) need to show some professionalism and service their clients.

I think I would consider what you might get out of fixing the bug. If there is a chance of getting business from that client then go for it. Maybe avoid the same work/project for a while (or until your non compete expires if you had one), but if they have been happy with your previous work they may give you more.

If your looking for the non confrontational approach do absolutely nothing. Ignore all email, phone calls etc. Wait and see if your old company goes away. I think you said you already contacted your old company about this issue though so that might not work at this point.

I think the most important thing is that if you feel that you've given good service, worked conscientiously for the company, and treated your old company in good faith then at some point you have to draw a line.



You should never do work in the US without liability and E&O insurance. Your former employer likely had it, and it was the ONLY thing standing between you and a lawsuit if the process went pearshaped.

The correct thing to do here is to politely state to your former employer that you were an employee, are no longer and employee, and cannot take the risk of working on this project without the legal protection of working under the umbrella of his company in a paid position.

You are not convinced you working for free would satisfy the requirements of law required to enforce insurance if he had it, or liability to him if he did not. If he wishes to pay you to do this task, first providing a deposit after providing a contract stipulating an hourly rate (equal or greater to your old hourly rate), you would consider the enhancements/bug fixes on the project. Also mention to him that any mention of a lawyer or suing will result in you immediately cutting off contact until which time you have the time, money and wherewithal to hire a lawyer of your own.

Personally speaking, my company offers such warranties, however I find it abhorrent that your boss tried to make each individual developer offer such warranties. You have no reason to do such a thing without a document saying you do, and take several BAD risks doing so.

Additionally, in most states it's HIGHLY illegal to state anything other when a person worked, perhaps how much they made, and the reason for departure (quit, fired, layoff, etc). Even which of these are allowed varies highly among states. Look at the law in your state, he likely is opening himself up to a HUGE lawsuit if he says anything to anyone about your performance after you left.

+1  A: 

no dont have to


From what you describe, your former employer is acting beyond all reason. According to some of the other answers, the only reason to do this (except for a legal obligation) would be if you are trying to protect a relationship.

My advice is that it is especially important not to do this if there is a relationship to protect / get out of. Some people will suck you dry if you let them. If some people do not want to work with you if they know that you will stick up for yourself, that's good. That goes for future employers too.

If they were referring to you as "the intern" it is obvious that you didn't play a role where this could be expected. No way, ever.

DISCLAIMER: IANAL. This is not legal advice.

Jørgen Fogh

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