It started with a LinkedIn connection and questionable, late-night text.
I'll back up a bit.
I was a reporter for a suburban Pittsburgh community newspaper. The publisher/editor, a sweet but salty woman named Georgia, was the 70-something daughter of the original owner. Paid at a weekly rate, I was supposed to work about 15-20 hours covering three school districts, local government, arts/entertainment, etc.
I often worked a lot more, because Georgia was awesome. She was committed to the community and her father's legacy, Penn Franklin News Publishing Company. Often seen on the football sidelines with her camera, she put in crazy long hours getting her hands dirty, writing her own stories, editing mine, and generally being the paper's face. Georgia was professional, kind, and recognized my 100% effort to help her put out a quality paper. She never devalued my time or worth as a writer. I was part of her team. Although she couldn't pay as much as she probably wanted to, Georgia's paychecks were on time ... her praise always generous. I often wrote well over my allotted 20 hours a week, for no additional coin, because she made me care about her business, and community, as much as she did.
Recently, I moved and gave up my job with Georgia. Finding another small town newspaper to call my professional home made sense, so I updated my LinkedIn profile and connected with "Richard," one of several local publishers in my new area.
Through the locals, I'd heard some flattering and not so flattering (red flag) things about Richard. Still, I figured I'd give him a chance. I was pleased when he almost immediately sought me out, via a LinkedIn message, asking to meet. We exchanged information. I gave him my email address and cell number.
Then things got weird.
He quickly requested to become my Facebook friend, sending me an instant message wave (red flag). That Saturday night, after 11:00 p.m., I was woken by a text message on my cell. "Hey," said my new friend Dick (blazing red flag).
I ignored the message, hoping he had pressed the wrong contact number. On Sunday, Richard messaged me, asking what I was doing (red flag). What does one say to that? I again ignored him and discussed this with my husband, wondering if I'd somehow sent the wrong vibe. Richard's communications were just odd/vague enough to make me question ... a lot.
On Monday morning, I sent him a LinkedIn message indicating I'd be happy to meet to discuss my writing between 9 am - 5 pm, Monday through Friday. I should have dropped Richard at this point. But I'm ever the optimist and perhaps a wee bit naive.
I emailed him some writing samples.
Not long after, Richard invited me in for a real meeting, in a real office at a real desk during real business hours. He presented me with a real business card. We discussed my real skills. It seemed I was a good fit for the real needs of his real company.
I was real(ly) relieved. The meeting righted the ship, putting this new LinkedIn connection back on a more professional footing.
Richard's editor, a grizzled reporter with tons of experience, contacted me about my first project ... two 500-word articles. Months before, Richard had asked what I'd charge for a 300-word article. When I emailed my invoice for the 500-word articles, the rate reflected the longer length. Being generous, I added only one extra hour to each project.
My invoice was due 30 days from receipt. 30 days came and went (red flag). I sent Richard a reminder. 60 days. No payment. No communication (red flag, red flag).
I was eventually told Richard wasn't thrilled with my rates (red flag), something he'd never bothered to discuss with me. Oddly, I was asked to meet about additional work. At the office, I made it clear I'd not discuss anything new until Richard dealt with the old. And I'd need something in writing for any future projects ... assurances, shall we say, that we were all on the same page about rates AND I'd get paid in a timely manner going forward.
There was much apologizing. Richard scurried off to get me a check.
I was to work just a few hours a week, Girl Friday to the grizzled reporter turned editor. A kind man. A professional. He reminded me of Georgia. From what I could tell, he worked harder than most anyone else in the room. He said he liked my writing, and I liked him.
I typically work for people I respect.
And for people who respect me.
But I'd need something in writing, I told Richard. I again gave him my rate sheet, and told him to come up with something he felt was fair. Richard sent me a boilerplate contract, with my lowest acceptable rate. My attorney husband took a look and made a few adjustments. I sent it back, approving the rate and asking Richard if he had any concerns. Richard said he'd print it, and we could sign when I started the next week.
Week one, no contract (red flag). Richard said he'd get on it. I was a ghost in the office, only really acknowledged by the editor sitting across from me (red flag). I did my work and tried to ignore the shouting coming from the adjoining office, as an employee yelled at a disgruntled subscriber who had repeatedly requested the paper stop delivery (red flag).
Week two, I brought in my own copy of the contract. I handed it to Richard, my signature already on it. He abruptly left the room and dumped it on the manager's desk, visible from my office. He chuckled, his laughter ricocheting like gunshot through the cubicles. He told the manager to look over my contract and write in the margins as needed. He said it was just his luck his "new writer has an attorney for a husband" (ginormous red flag).
Week three, no contract. Richard unavailable. Manager said nothing (red flag, red flag, red flag). I presented accounting with my first invoice. I emailed Richard a copy.
Week four, I emailed Richard, asking if there was anything wrong with the final contract. No response (red flag). I showed up to work. Still no contract (red flag). Richard didn't make an appearance (red flag). Manager said nothing (red flag).
Week five, I sent my resignation letter, effective immediately. I included an invoice for my final hours. Richard immediately sent an apology email. Asked me to reconsider. What if he put the signed contract on my desk tomorrow?
I sure miss Georgia. She was a great boss. A kind boss. A true professional.
After (too many red flags to count).
Richard's office left a message. The check for my first invoice had been "returned to sender." I'd have to come pick it up. I called back. They had mailed it to a non-existent address ... not remotely close to my address clearly printed on the bottom of my invoice.
I was told they were waiting for my W-2 form. Interesting. More likely, they needed my W-9. No one had given me any form during my month of work. The form was supposed to have come from the manager. Perhaps he was still busy looking at my contract?
The woman had no record of the final invoice I sent to Richard with my resignation.
Really? REALLY?!? Get real.
I gave the woman the invoice specifics. I also told her she was welcome to send me any form she'd like via email as a PDF. I'd get back to her with a signed copy just as quickly as they got back to me with a signed contract.
Freelance writers, beware:
- Toxic clients are NOT worth the frustration.
- Don't allow someone to disrespect you as a professional.
- How a client treats his clients reflects how he will treat you.
- Your time and talents have a value. Know it. Stand firm.
- Be willing to lower your rate for a good client you know you'll enjoy working with. They will appreciate your flexibility and likely hire you again and again.
- Don't let a toxic client talk you into lowering your rate, just because you need the writing samples. They may ask you to work again ... or they may not. These bargain shoppers may not be as loyal to you as you are to them. If you allow them to treat you like the deal of the day, they will ... until they find a better deal.
- Protect yourself. Try to get it in writing.
- Know when to cut your losses and run.
- Trust your gut. Don't ignore the red flags.
- Go find a Georgia ... not a Dick.
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