Doormat or diva? The freelancer’s dilemma

Freelancer (video game)
Freelancer (video game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll quote from the email directly:

Your invoice got lost in accounting again.

And, no, I’m no longer working for this client. They did pay me the full amount they owed for all the work I’d done, and sent the check Fed Ex — which I insisted on — and they graciously actually did.

The great challenge of working freelance?

When do you stand up for yourself?

When do you accept crap without complaint ?

I started freelancing as a magazine and newspaper journalist when I was still a college undergraduate. I needed that income to pay my bills, for tuition and books and clothes and housing and food, with zero financial aid or any help from my parents. My writing was not some cute hobby or unpaid internship or spare change I planned to blow on shoes or partying. This was the cash I needed to support myself.

So I learned at a very early age to negotiate, to ask for what I thought was fair. I once overheard an editor begging a fellow freelancer, (a man, older than I), not to quit his weekly column, for which he was getting — in 1978 — $200/week. She was paying me $125. I was 19.

Lesson learned. You can’t get what you don’t ask for.

But you can’t ask for what you don’t know is possible.

Every woman working for income needs to read this great book, “Women Don’t Ask”, which teaches women to negotiate (better) and explains culturally why we often just don’t even try. Men usually do!

Here’s a long, smart and persuasive blog post about why women freelancers so often undervalue their skills and under-price them as a result.

Like many self-employed people, I work alone in a super-competitive field, one (journalism) that is shrinking and whose pay rates have been cut in recent years even as our living costs soar. That means being up to date on what’s happening out there with my colleagues.

Are they getting screwed, too? (Often, yes. When I posted the comment above on Facebook, I quickly got sympathetic replies from peers across the nation with similar stories.)

Standing up for yourself, all alone, is scary.

If freelancers, (some of whom just refuse to stand up for themselves), just keep on accepting the bullshit — “Oh the person in accounting who writes the checks is on vacation” –– you’re going to be a broke, angry, bitter doormat. The people feeding you this BS certainly got their paychecks! Their lights are on, their phone bills and rent paid.

But if you fight the bullshit and demand better treatment, even politely at first, people can dismiss you as a diva, never work with you again and tell everyone they know you’re a pain in the ass.

Here’s a link to one of my favorite blogs, Freelance Folder, with a list of how and when to say no to a client.

And another, on how to spot a PITA client before signing a contract with them.

This one, on how to avoid burnout, is something I need to read more often.

If you work for yourself, how do you negotiate this crucial balance between assertiveness and deference?

14 thoughts on “Doormat or diva? The freelancer’s dilemma

  1. Julia

    Standing up for yourself is scary, especially the moment when you realize that you are standing alone. This may or may not be a temporary experience. It might be permanent!! Any brinksmanship is a high stakes game. Unless the game starts again the next day. Then, tomorrow is another day (kudos to Scarlett O’Hara)

  2. Pederson Arts Inc.

    Your post hits a real chord. We have a contract with a very large firm who outsources their AP to India, notorious for finding excuses to delay payment, the latest being changing net terms from 45 to 75 days – without notice.

    So your question is a hard one and the angst you feel is shared. I wish I had an easy answer or quick solution but there isn’t one. We try to insulate ourselves by living on less than 50% of what we make so we can handle these aggravating situations, but it still angers me. And sometimes I wonder if clients who like paying their bills even exist. Is there greener grass?

    1. Lawyers on speed dial. And no, I’m not kidding. I got my most recent check after leaving a polite but clear email and voicemail with the people I had completed work for, and mentioned that I would be forced to take legal action if I was not paid promptly. It’s not an idle threat — I’ve done it with deadbeats in Vancouver (yes, I am in NY), in NY and in Kansas City. And I’ve been paid each time. I simply paid a lawyer a couple of hundred bucks to write on my behalf…if you’re owed a few thousand, what would stop you?

      The larger question is how many bridges you are willing or able to burn? It’s not a great business model, but deadbeats cost you time, energy, income and stress. I’d rather move on and find someone ethical. And, yes, they are not that easy to find.

      1. David Pederson

        Deadbeats in Vancouver! I think it must be the gardeners here. They sure love their pots. Anyway, I am glad you wrote this post. It really helped us realize we aren’t the only ones feeling the pinch of power plays that make no practical sense.

        In our case, once the CFO (yes – it had to go that high to get action), realized we had negotiated a term of net 45 with a late payment penalty of one day’s fees for each day late he pushed some big buttons and we got paid.

        While I think we’ve done the best we can to protect ourselves, you are right about letting a lawyer handle AR issues. It would help us keep our relationship with our client unfettered and add a new level of professionalism to those moments where AP decides it knows best.

        Thanks for your candor. I think it is good advice.

        Best wishes to you!

  3. Interesting post, as always. I do a fair bit of freelancing for a mainstream Australian newspaper (and some other places), and, as you say, there are times when it’s important to stand up for yourself. Sometimes (often) the pay is lousy. Sometimes my work gets edited and the piece comes off second-best. Sometimes there’s an issue which myself and a few other freelancers want to take on. But when do you cross that line and go too far? From my experience so far, this world is all about relationships, and it doesn’t take long to bugger those relationships. So, as you suggest, it’s a fine line. Also, the newspaper world is in such a precarious position right now no one really wants to rock the boat. But then again, not rocking the boat can lead to aimless drifting! So, perhaps in the end, it all comes down to being polite and respectful and articulate, and letting the rest look after itself.

    1. I agree that polite, articulate and respectful are all good. Sometimes, though, you have to get a lot tougher to just get paid. And if someone makes working for them that unpleasant, I’m done.

  4. Pingback: Blogs of the Week (Post 28) | Sweet Mother

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