Q&A: What to do when a freelance client treats you like an employee

Today, in the first episode of our Q&A series, I tackle a question I hear pretty frequently: “How do I handle a freelance client who treats me like an employee?”

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  1. Hello,
    I am in Poland and was working British translation agency for last 8 years, now they laid me off, the worst thing is that I was working with them like a regular employee, from 9am to 6pm with one hour lunch break but I was not there employee. I am freelancer and self-employed in Poland. The company I was working for is going to pay me only one month extra wage. Last day of my work is this Wednesday. Is there anything I could do to convince them that is not fair? Any ideas?
    Looking forward to your suggestions

  2. I had a client that tried to treat me like an employee. I had a sit down talk with them to let them know that I understand all of the particulars concerning their project. They need to trust me and concentrate on their business. Unfortunately they did not like my timeline and I noticed that they were not listening to what I was instructing them to do concerning the timeline and dates of the project. The contract was annulled. I felt good about it, because business to business relationship has to do with respecting the expertise of the other.

    If a plumber is going to fix pipes for a merchandising store, a contract is drawn with will include allowances for mishaps. Respect is the foundation by which each one will be successful. I do not think graphic designers should berate themselves just because of a dollar. After all your designs will lead to their business success. It is very important to write a concise contract that makes allowances for mishaps. I do not think that you should ever let any business, company or organization control you company.

  3. I have never done a contract with any clients and in 7 years have only had 1 not pay.

    To me a detailed contract for each job feels like a Radio Shack purchase. They ask for your name, address, phone etc for a simply battery purchase. It puts up red flags right from the get go and if its this much of a hassle to begin with what’s to come.

    To me you are an employee of the client – stop whining – do the work – please the client and move on. If its a horrible client – when they call the second time decline to work or set new clear expectations and add a PIB fee (Pain in the Butt) disguised as a few more hours of work. Almost anyone will work for any difficult person on a project if the price is right.

    If you became a freelancer in hopes to avoid conflict and difficult people or situations you’ll never succeed I recommend a different field of work.

  4. Remember that a client who treats you like an employee is paying you a compliment. They have accepted you as a close and valuable member of their team – in fact, they’ve come to depend on you. If the alternative is that that they keep you at arms length and see you as “just another part of the supplier pool”, then being taken for granted once in a while may not be so hard to take.

  5. Thanks so much for the great advice! I appreciate what you do with your vlogs very much. They are very informative. Quick note: The form to filling out this reply section states: “Will not published” & I just want to point out that should be corrected. Thanks again!

  6. nice first outing on this project. Congratulations!

    It would be great if you could share the “phrases” or “clauses” as samples and talk about the pro’s and con’s of each. Sometimes seeing an example of wording will inspire someone to take action.
    All the best,

  7. Hi Preston, very good advice overall – but I am curious about one thing, contracts. With over 30 years in design (mostly freelance), I have never entered into a contract with a client. This may have to do with the type of client business and their expectations, but how common is this practice?

    In my experience, setting the tone of the client relationship is more of an evolving process: At the outset they are usually only concerned about the results and the cost, so I focus on that. Later, as other concerns emerge I try to address them right away, clearly and honestly. I find keeping communication open and clear shows that I am supporting the client. Mutual respect is tantamount.

    And you are absolutely right, you will be treated exactly how you allow yourself to be treated. If you go along with “put up and shut up”, expect lots to put up with! I am digging myself out of one of those situations right now, and it’s gone on a long time so there’s lots to dig 😉

    Best, James

  8. I agree with all of your points, especially the first one. The biggest mistake you can make is allowing your clients to treat you like an employee. You have to set the precedent in order to have a balanced and mutually beneficial working relationship. Great video!

    1. Totally agree, E. Thanks for sharing. It’s all about standing your ground and acting like you want to be treated.

  9. Hi Preston, you are right. First of all you never act like an employee of their staff. Second, Hear them and suggest something onestep advanced to their project, It will make them hear your words, this is what am doing for last one year and its working for me.

    don’t be lazy on time (form meetings and delivery) or don’t make a chance scream on you.
    At last Be like a friend but don’t comment on something which you don’t have much knowledge.

  10. I am new to design, very new to freelance work, not college educated in it, and have just started building my own website for my business, so my take on the question could be a little naive. So, listen with caution.

    However, since the top of the year, I have worked on 6 separate projects for 4 different clients, which isn’t a lot, but I have gained a little experience now.

    The way I view my relationship with clients is basically as an employee/employer relationship, with a few exceptions. I am a consultant in the fact that I meet with them one-on-one in the beginning, discuss their project goals, do a little q&a so I fully understand, give them an estimate, AND…..if they sign my contract, for the duration of the contracted project, I look at myself as basically their employee. I have a day job, so I make it very clear in the contract when I will be available to meet (usually 2-5 hours a week; usually the same amount of time is put in on my own, as well) during the project’s duration. But, when we do meet, I am basically their employee. If they want the type changed, I change the type. They want a color changed, I change the color. I look at the times we meet as a “feedback time” because, in the end, it is my goal to produce something that makes them happy and will work practically for them, so, afterward, hopefully, they are more than willing to hire me on for other projects or refer me to their friends and acquaintances.

    I’m still new, so it’s hard to determine if this strategy is actually working given my small sample size, but I think if I just establish my times available, the amount of time each week that I will be spending on the project, and what the project goals are, from the get-go, that will go a long ways towards not feeling like I’m an “employee.” At least, that’s my impression, so far.

    Of course, I am still working a day job because I’m afraid to take the total leap into freelance, nor do I really want to until I build such a large client base that I have to. My current goal is to gain experience and some extra cash, that will help me gain a day job in graphic design and web development (bland data entry is something I’m trying to get away from), and possibly go back to school part-time and earn an MFA (as an academic at heart, I’ll always be interested in further study and the possibility of adding teaching to my repertoire). We’ll see where things go.

  11. Your last comment really got down to one thing. They sign the checks, they get what they want if they insist (and making them insist a lot is a bad thing). A designer can only go so far with reason and graphic logic. If you say potato and they want potahto after your best explanation why potato works best in this situation, they should get potahto.

    As for being treated like an “employee” I’m not sure what that means to your writer and you never outlined what that meant either. Technically, and employee is when the employor dictates the work day. As in “I want you to start at 8:00am and break for lunch at 12:30pm and only take fifteen minutes for lunch.” They can’t do that or aren’t supposed to do that. But as far as requests on how the work should look or function, I’m not sure what “an employee” is. The line is very blurry. And, they DO write the checks so thay get to dictate quite a few parameters of the work if they desire.

    As a freelancer, if you are uncomfortable with the working relationship with the client, maybe you shouldn’t be working with them.

  12. Theresa (and all Millo readers),

    I had a client treat me like an employee in that she felt it was okay to berate me like an employee. It really bothered me, so much that I tried to fire the client (it backfired, and now we have a great relationship)! Read here: http://www.graphicdesignblender.com/tried-to-fire-my-client-it-backfired-and-somehow-our-business-relationship-improved

    First of all, I shouldn’t have let it get to that point. The first time she said something that bothered me, I should’ve spoken up instead of internalizing it and hoping it was a one time thing.

    When I finally did speak up, I pointed out (gently, but firmly) that I didn’t feel her criticism was constructive and getting us closer to the finalization of our project and that it diminished our business relationship.*

    *Notice the words I used there – business relationship. Choose words that remind your client that you’re a professional, a consultant, that you have a partnership with them, and that you don’t have to continue working with them if it’s not beneficial for you.

    Good luck!


  13. Video can be a good tool when done properly. Production value has a lot to do with how your message is communicated. As designers, we know this, but sometimes we don’t put it into practice.

    I found that I was too distracted by the surroundings in the video (your shirt, the bare walls in the background, that large metal object in the foreground, etc.) to completely absorb and listen to the message (the brain stall in the middle didn’t help, either).

    LOVE your email blasts. I’m a dedicated follower. Might suggest rethinking the video aspect, or at least considering the setting and script a little more.

    1. I appreciate the honest feedback, Craig. The thing I like about videos like this one is the raw nature of them. Could I have re-shot or cut out the brain stall? Sure. But, you know what, I’m just having a conversation. And I hope that people appreciate the genuineness of the whole thing. Thanks for your support. I will definitely continue to look into adjustments for the videos. Thanks!

    2. His SHIRT is distracting? Really? I submit that if he took off the shirt, now that would be major distraction!

      But on a serious note, I agree with everything Preston said, if only I could go back in time and begin again with a few of the clients from hell I’ve worked with. I remember after many months of torture, (way past the deadline my client set for the end of the project) and I told him I’d had enough, he said “People give 2 weeks notice”, to which I replied, “No, PEOPLE don’t give two weeks notice, EMPLOYEES give 2 weeks notice!” Some clients, no matter how much they pay you, are simply not worth having the soul sucked out of you. Amen.

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