Proper Care and Feeding of Freelancers

When I worked in-house for two private universities, I was fortunate to have the budget to bring on a handful of trusted and talented freelancers to help us with design, photography, videography, and writing. One of my biggest priorities as a freelancer “manager” was to treat them with the respect and care I would for any of my internal colleagues. In general, I was pretty successful—because I did a lot of legwork to set them up for success.

Since I became a full-time freelancer two years ago, I’ve been able to see the other side of the coin—and I’m always thankful for the organizations who offer me the same level of care I once gave to my freelancers. But that experience hasn’t been universal. Many organizations don’t have an infrastructure or process in place for recruiting or working with independent contractors. If they do, it may not be clearly messaged to the staff who work directly with freelance producers. That oversight can lead to a challenging relationship and a less-than-stellar end-product. Nobody wants either of those!

Freelancers can proactively manage client relationships, and there are many resources (here’s one) that focus on those tips. This piece takes on the other side: How organizations can be more mindful and intentional about working with freelancers to achieve optimum results. Here we go:

Understand your organization’s accounting requirements

I don’t know of any organization, large or small, that has a straightforward accounting system whereby a freelancer can send in an invoice and *poof* payment is processed. Before engaging a freelancer—ideally, even before you go searching for one—make sure you know what paperwork your organization requires to register an independent contractor. For some, this is just a W-9, which reports the contractor’s payment to the IRS for tax purposes. For others, there are additional steps to set up purchase orders within a particular payment system. Be ready to provide all of that to your freelancer at the beginning of your engagement so there isn’t a delay in paying them once invoices are sent.

Speaking of delays: most freelancers (myself included) operate on net-30 payment terms. That means I’ll charge clients a late fee if I don’t receive my check within 30 days of the invoice date. You need to know if your organization can accommodate that time frame. If it can’t, let your freelancer know up front and give them the option to either accept or decline your terms. It isn’t a legal requirement, but it is a professional courtesy.

Have a contract

It’s hard to remember what you ate for breakfast today, much less the contents of a Zoom call that happened last month to iron out the details of a project. A contract ensures that both you and your freelancer have a written record to refer to regarding deliverables, deadlines, and the payment schedule for your project, heading off fundamental disagreements at the pass. It holds your freelancer accountable for providing the services your organization needs, and it holds your organization accountable for compensating the freelancer appropriately.

The good news? Your organization likely has a contract you can use or adapt, like an independent contractor agreement. If you’re not aware of that document already, ask your business, legal, or accounting department for help finding it.

Provide one point-of-contact and one backup point-of-contact per project

Many freelancers operate in small shops. I’m one. It’s exceedingly difficult to get things done if I have to field emails and calls and edits and requests from a dozen different people in the process of completing a project. This scattershot communication increases the likelihood of a misunderstanding between me and my client and/or delays in the timeline for the project. These interactions are also probably out of scope for the contract, so they’d also result in additional charges.

To ensure your freelancer can deliver the best product, on time and on budget, designate a maximum of two people as points-of-contact (one main, one backup if the main isn’t available). Meeting schedules, scope changes, feedback, progress reports, and other communications should be funneled only through the point-of-contact.

Adhere to timelines—and holler when you can’t meet them

Most freelance work is project-based, meaning that we often work with several clients on multiple projects at a time. It’s a delicate balance to ensure we have enough work to stay solvent, but not so much work that it can’t all get done. Timelines are essential to keeping that balance; when clients miss deadlines, it can negatively affect not only that specific project but my entire workload—and my bottom line.

Freelancers are human. We know things come up that slow projects down. But we don’t like to be left hanging. As soon as you recognize you’re going to miss a deadline you’re responsible for—a review of a draft, for example—let your freelancer know. We don’t love hearing about delays, but knowing about them as early as possible allows us to adjust our schedule accordingly. If you need an extra week to review a draft, I can move another project up my priority list instead of sitting idle as I wait to hear from you.

Supply respectful feedback

Once upon a time, a client sent me an article I wrote with their feedback noted in tracked changes. One of the pieces of feedback was: “This sounds stupid. Change it to [insert jargon sentence here].” Now, I’m all for differences of opinion. I’m all for corrections when I miss the mark on something. But I’m not going to accept that level of disrespect. I finished the project for that client, and I never worked for them again.

When you hire a freelancer, you’re doing so presumably because you (a) have a need and (b) believe in the qualifications of the person you’ve hired to meet that need. You don’t always need to defer to a freelancer’s expertise and point of view, but you do need to respect them. The fact that you’re paying a freelancer for a service doesn’t give you license to treat them rudely—particularly if you ever want or need to work with them again.

Pay your people on time

I’ve saved the most important for last. If you take nothing else away from this post, please please please—pay your people on time. Ensure your freelancer is set up to be paid before you make an assignment (see note above on that). Process invoices the day you receive them. Confirm your freelancer has been paid. Act quickly if they say they haven’t been.

Freelancers don’t get a paycheck twice a month. We get paid when our contracts say we get paid, and our livelihoods depend on those schedules. When a client is late on a payment, even by a day or two, it can have major consequences. We don’t have the time or interest in hounding you to get paid (but we will if we have to).

So that’s it! It doesn’t take much for freelancers to thrive. Set us up for success, communicate with us clearly, and pay us on time. We want to do our very best for you with every project—and with your help, we can!

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