with Mir Kamin
I'm a freelance writer and mother of two working from home, which theoretically means I can set my own schedule so as to best accommodate my family. In reality, "flexible hours" often equals "working too much." Yes, I'm my own boss; no, that doesn't mean life is easy. It's hard to leave the office when you live there. But I love what I do and feel very lucky. And not just because I get paid to work in my pajamas.
To learn more about Mir, check out her profile on Work It, Mom! or visit her blog at http://www.wouldashoulda.com/
Just about everyone has a story about the job where the boss was completely unreasonable, right? For most of us, that story goes with a job we had in high school or college, when we maybe didn’t know how to handle such a thing, but I’m always amazed at the number of grown, competent adults who carry around war stories of the Job With The Nutty Boss. Part of the lure of freelancing, of course, is that you’re essentially your own boss, and you also have the freedom to pick and choose with whom you’d like to work.
But. Being a freelancer doesn’t somehow protect one from having a run-in with a difficult client. And it’s easy enough to say, “Not me! I only choose to work with people I really click with, and I’ve never had a problem!” But I guarantee that if you freelance long enough, you’ll find yourself dealing with some less-than-optimal relationships, one way or another.
Remember how I make tax mistakes so that you don’t have to? I also deal with Crazy so that you don’t have to. Pull up a chair.
There are, to my mind, three different ways to find yourself grappling with an unsavory client situation.
1) You know it’s trouble from the start. Why would you ever take a job wherein you suspect the person hiring you isn’t entirely balanced? Maybe the money is fantastic, or the job would be a great credit on your resume. For whatever reason, you may weigh the pros and cons and decide you’ll tough it out because of the perceived benefit. I’m not saying this never works, but it’s a gamble.
I’m happy to say that I’ve not found myself in this situation since I began freelancing.
2) Changes in the org structure. Sometimes the person who hires you is awesome and the job for which you’ve contracted is sweet… and then the organization undergoes some changes. Either your job description suddenly changes, or the person to whom you report changes. You’ve enjoyed the job up to that point, so you figure things will be fine… until they’re not.
This happened to me years ago, and I would’ve sworn it was a bad sitcom if I wasn’t living it. Every day the new boss handed down a new set of requirements; if on Monday we were told “only red,” on Tuesday it was an angry email insisting “everything needs to be blue!” Total. Nightmare.
3) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The job sounds good, the person who hires you seems awesome. And then the job starts and everything changes for the worse.
This happened to me fairly recently. I’ve been successfully freelancing for over five years, and I was positively stunned to find myself in the situation I was in. Had I misjudged the job? Was I really as incompetent as was being suggested (and sometimes flat-out told)? To me, this situation is even harder than something that falls into the category above this one, because it has the potential to make you doubt yourself.
So what do you do? Not that I’m an expert in these matters, but here’s what works for me.
1) Try to steer clear at the outset. This is just common sense, of course, but the best way to handle difficult clients is to stay away from them. If negotiations set off your DifficultMeter, think long and hard about whether or not the potential aggravation is truly going to be worth your time.
2) Assess the problem for fixability. I’m a big believer in communication making nearly everything better. If you find yourself in a situation with a client where you feel something is amiss, it’s time to step back and ask yourself what you think would happen if you addressed the issue directly. Is the client crazy enough that it will make things worse? Might the problem be remedied via discussion? This requires some thought about how/why conflicting or unreasonable expectations are evolving, and also some consideration of how the client is likely to react.
3) Choose your reaction. Depending on the situation, you have several options at this point. You can:
A) Do nothing. Keep your head down and push through it to the end of the contract.
B) Address the problem directly on the assumption that it’s fixable.
C) Address the problem directly on the assumption that it’s probably not fixable (in which case you need to be prepared to be fired).
D) And if you’re pretty sure it’s not fixable, you can quit.
Personally, I’m pretty terrible at Option A. I have a hard time with difficult work relationships—it’s a big part of the reason I left corporate life. I’m not good at the games, and I’m easily stressed out by personal politics. I’ve done both Options B and C, with favorable outcomes for B situations and, yes, I’ve been fired from a job when using Option C. I knew it was going to happen, and once I recovered from the ego-bruising it caused, I was relieved. (Note: Even if you suspect you’re going to be fired, always comport yourself as a professional. There’s nothing wrong with dissent, so long as it’s done respectfully. Don’t see this as an opportunity to “let someone have it;” that will likely come back to haunt you later.)
Option D is a tough one. I was raised to believe you honor your commitments and stick to a job until it’s done. The job I quit caused me a lot of personal angst; I hated to walk away, both because I’d been so excited about the gig, initially, and because a tiny part of me felt I was taking the coward’s way out. That said, I was hired to do something that sounded perfectly manageable (”we’ll give you everything you need to get it done!”), and it turned out to be akin to spinning straw into gold. I was not given what I needed to complete my work, so I had to try to find all of the missing pieces on my own, and then the work I produced was derided… but no guidance was given other than “do better next time.” It was a scenario where I was never going to be able to get it “right,” and extremely stressful and time-consuming, to boot. I did the right thing, walking away. But it was still hard.
4) Review what you learned. Sometimes the only takeaway from a bad situation is “thank God that’s over,” I know. But sometimes there are other lessons, and those who forget or ignore the past are doomed to repeat those mistakes in the future. Carefully consider what happened and what you could’ve done differently, or what warning signs you may have initially missed. Every bad encounter is a learning experience.
5) Onward. It’s easy to quit a job or be fired from a job or even to successfully complete a job that was very trying and feel like, “Maybe I’m just not cut out for this.” Unreasonable clients—even ones who are clearly not in touch with reality—can make you doubt yourself. Don’t. The beauty of freelancing is that it’s relatively easy to extricate yourself from bad situations and find something else and move on. Yesterday’s awful client should have you smiling today, happy to be free, and ready to find the next gig. Seriously.
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