Abuse in the Freelance Industry: I Would Like to Buy Shares in Your Time Machine Business

Sexism, Harassment, Free Labor And How to Make It Better

by Angelina Fabbro on April 28th, 2014

Freelancing to break into a career is as frustrating as taking an internship where you’re overworked, except you also have to do your own sales to keep the company in business. That’s what freelancing is. You’re the business, the whole thing, it’s all you.

It seemed like a good way to pay the rest of my way through school with a skill I already had, where I could set my own hours to accommodate my classes. I had nothing in my portfolio and equally scant business acumen, but it seemed like a route to a future job. I started small by naively searching Craigslist and online job boards for freelance contract gigs. For the next four and a half years, I worked for myself taking on a variety of roles, including many beyond web programming like systems administration and audio-visual equipment configuration.

The following year, in 2008, a recession hit. There I was trying to break into this new career while I was watching my friends with full-time programming jobs drop off like flies. The recession shaped my earliest years as a freelancer. Desperation was not in short supply for anyone.

Photo of a couch and coffeetable workspace, with a laptop open.

Image, cropped and filtered, CC-BY via johanl

Finding jobs became increasingly difficult, and pushing back against client bullying became even more difficult simply because I needed those jobs so bad. Even in business, at all levels, just like every kind of relationship – you will find abusers and they will find you.

Here are some stories from the trenches, peppered with a little advice I wish I’d had starting out back in 2007.

Get It In Writing (But Good Luck Enforcing It)

I knew that if I were going to engage in financial transactions with relative strangers, I should keep a paper trail. I always made sure to document conversations about money, scope, and timeline clearly in e-mail, and I also detailed all of that on paper and had all parties sign off on it. Ideally you should hire a lawyer to prepare a default contract for you to modify from client to client. If you don’t have resources for that, you can look online for something pertinent to your legal jurisdiction.

Already you’re in a bad position because if you can’t afford a lawyer, you can’t afford to defend your project if something goes awry. Even if you could, the cost of a lawyer might be more than your contract itself.

If your contract is small then you may represent yourself in small claims court, but that takes more of your time and money, and then even if the ruling is in your favor there’s still no guarantee you’re going to be paid in a timely manner. If you’re doing business remotely over borders, good luck enforcing anything at all without help from an international lawyer.

Have a paper trail to refer to so you can diffuse arguments about the project. But don’t pretend it’s going to save you if your client turns out to be an asshole.

The More Someone Has Invested, The Less of a Shithead They Tend to Be

The more you charge, the less likely your client is to fuck around on you. This is for a few reasons. The more money that has been paid and on the line, the more likely someone is going to want to cooperate. If it’s a project they care about, they’ll want to see it through.

How you price yourself tells others how to value your skills. If you position yourself at a cheap rate, expect only those who can afford cheap services to be your clients. Expect the scope-creeping please-throw-in-a-few-extra-few-hours-for-free kind of folks to show up. Sometimes these folks will even play on your sympathy – they’ll be private individuals with a small bit of savings hoping to launch the website of their dreams on a shoestring budget. But remember you are not running a charity. If you price yourself closer to agency rates, you position yourself as someone who is as good as an agency, but without all the red tape, and you get clients who do business with you as though you are a legitimate business.

Which is how it should go.

Fabbro, the author, smiles at the camera.

Fabbro, the author. Photo credit: Brian Ferguson

Sexism Everywhere

If you are a young man and a freelancer, you are a budding entrepreneur.

If you are a young woman and a freelancer, are you sure you know what you’re doing?

You will have your credibility and rate questioned all the time. It doesn’t matter how many years you’ve been working as a freelancer. It will be worse if you are younger.

When I was working a quarterly contract doing some IT work for a university computer lab, men would ask to have their computer diagnosed by ‘someone who knows what they’re doing’, which I explained was me. Then I would have to listen to how surprised they were that someone not a man could do this work. How fascinating!

One company had an IT contractor that was to give me access to a machine with the right permissions so that I could set up their website’s new environment. This was the reply from the contractor after having completed the request:

“You are now fully endowed, with the exception of accessing my changing passwords and accessing my credit card to buy shoes.”

Don’t You Want Experience?

Don’t ever work for free. Not for experience, not for exposure. Trade value and make sure both parties feel equal in every exchange. There are many ways to be bullied into working for free. The obvious one is feeling like because you have no experience, therefore you’re not worth paying for labour, and you should just be grateful to have a job for the experience.

But everybody should be paid for their labour regardless of experience. Always.

Why Don’t You Want To Build My Great Idea For Me?

Another variant on the ‘work for free’ culprit is the notorious ‘ideas person’ who is narcissistically convinced that an idea they came up with is so astonishingly great that someone else should do the labour of implementing it for free and why don’t you say thank you. I mean, they’ll let you have a fraction of the profits.

If you say no, you may be chastised for either being “arrogant” because you don’t think the idea is good, or an “idiot” because you don’t think the idea is good.

If you have the energy to call this person out on their bullshit, tell them that you never work for free on principle and that you wonder why they would assume you need any help coming up with your own ideas. If you don’t have the energy, the only winning move is not to play.

My New Keyword for the Day Just Became… Angelina Fabbro

I was hired by a small web shop to build and theme a Drupal site. My main contact there maintained and administrated all the sites they hosted on behalf of their clients. This guy, who we’ll call Joe, wasn’t entirely incompetent but he certainly had no notion of best practices or how to make a quality, maintainable web application. He was also exceptionally volatile.

At one point working on the site, I was waiting on payment to continue the work. Excuses were made as to why the payment hadn’t been transferred to me yet, followed by stern words to keep working because we were on a tight deadline. After realizing I was dealing with a client who intended to not pay me, I pulled the plug. Although the client had the work I’d done on the front end in their staging environment, I had kept the database on my own machine. I pulled the plug and the site went down.

I emailed the woman who had hired me, who apologized for the mess, but then eventually stopped responding. I was never paid.

I received emails like this from Joe on a daily basis for a while:

“K who the fuck do you think you are???? Release the DB for [redacted] or i will report you to all drupal web development websites as a crooked drupal developer, last chance. Also I have a full 600 word article on your development abilities key worded to your name. … your choice…, I don’t work for Daria anymore…. so try and fuck with me. I dare you!!”


“Now because i just dont like you? after by personal blog? you will be done anyhow. My blog is read by 1000’s of not only developers but by people that care about what they . not your garbage you call website design. all over the world Ang. My new keyword for today just became…Angelina Fabbro

Messing with a s top ranking SEO professional? not smart at all my dear! I will forward you a link to the # 1 in Google for your name. You cost us 1000’s of dollars!!!! This fiasco you have caused here, will NOT GO UNRECOGNIZED, mark my words! have a nice career after my blog! developers such as yourself should be shot and pissed on, you give the industry a bad name, have a nice career after my blog.”

This had me very upset and scared. My address was on the paperwork. I called up the RCMP and I told them that I was being harassed and that I was receiving threats online. The officer told me, “He doesn’t say he is going to shoot and piss on you, only that you deserve to get shot and pissed on. That doesn’t count as a threat, so there’s nothing we can do officially here.”

What I don’t tell the officer is that I’ve had a stalker before, and it didn’t even escalate to threats before that creep showed up in person. I know it’s lost on him. He doesn’t care and this isn’t a real issue to him or his department. I felt helpless. I crossed my fingers and I clutched my pepper spray a little tighter walking home each night.

I’m Watching You

In another incident, a client had egregiously missed negotiated and contracted deadlines for content I needed from them to complete their website re-design. I had a major project scheduled with another client, so I took steps to begin transitioning the work that had been completed to hold up my end of the contract. The IT consultant I’d been working with became very aggressive and angry, despite the fact that I had set clear expectations throughout.

The IT consultant went and found my Twitter, took personal information about me and wrote me an angry e-mail including it – things like the fact that I was moving, starting a new gig soon I was excited about, and that I’d unfortunately had to deal with bedbugs. He listed each of these things as if to ‘let me know’ that he’d done his homework on me. He listed them all and told me how nobody at the company cared about me or what was going on in my life, that nobody cared that I had another obligation lined up. He said I was ‘clearly talented but unprofessional’ for not setting expectations and deadlines.

A man in silhouette works on computer monitors in a basement workspace.

Image, cropped and filtered, CC-BY via black_claw

The whole thing made me feel uncomfortable enough that I actually re-read every single conversation I’d had with the company to verify my own sanity. All the trail was there – I’d done my due diligence, lined out expectations and deadlines. But if this guy wanted to get under my skin, it worked. I fired that client immediately and told them it was unprofessional to have a creep like that working for them, along with sending them the correspondence.

I Think You Should Work For Free Because I Say So

Once, I was hired by a limo company to redo their existing website. I took the deposit, worked with a great agency to do the visual design, and then began implementing it after I had a confirmation from the client that we were done with the rounds of revisions included in the contract. When the design was finalized, any further changes would require a new contract, and of course more allocation of my time, and more money billed to the client. This was all spelled out up front.

In the middle of implementation, I get an email from the client.

“I just wanted to let you know that I have spent this entire day working on the photos and the home page design with my manager.”

Uh oh.

“There is going to be a few changes, but I know that it will not impact the ‘blueprint’ of the site.”

The client, of course, then went on to list a number of changes to the finalized design that would mean a significant rewrite of the HTML and CSS.

I stuck up for what we agreed on. Then the intimidation tactics began. He immediately said he needed to speak over the phone and that “[he is] not able to express things over e-mail.” I called a few times and couldn’t get ahold of him. Eventually I replied by email:

“I thought that your instructions were clear, I just need to have some written confirmation through email that we agree to proceed down that route since it was not quoted for and we already moved into implementation.”

I received a wall of text reply that told me in no uncertain terms that it was in everyone’s best interest to get this done immediately, that I had ruined his vacation trip because I wouldn’t agree to do the work for free, and also that they felt like they were being more than fair.

Later, sitting in a hot bath, I reached some kind of pivotal moment of self-realization. Why wasn’t I firing these clients? I was doing well and I could afford to now. Was this a vestigial defense mechanism from earlier years? After I got out of the bath I fired the client immediately.

Would You Like to Buy a Time Machine?

Over the years, other freelancers and I would take to drink and discuss what we wish was different so we could do this job we loved without the abuse. Here are some of the ideas:

  • Local Unionization: Unions for freelancers organized in states or provinces, or even nationally, could provide a standard for business ethics for both consultants and clients. Such unions could also provide professional resources, and pre-vetted clients would be a boon to any freelancer. These organizations could blacklist known con artists and bullies.
  • Discussion of Bullying in Business: I’m glad that as a culture we are finally starting to take online bullying as seriously as we should always have been. But I want to see the same sort of education programs discussing problematic behavior in online business dealings – such as campaigns that inform people about problematic behavior, and resources to help.
  • Local Police Support: I wish that I were able to contact the local police of someone who’s threatened me, provide my evidence, have it taken seriously, and have that department be able to do something to help. When I was harassed, it was clear the police were unable and unwilling to help.

All in all, the whole experience of freelancing I wouldn’t trade for anything; it’s shaped my business acumen and it’s given me a lot of lessons that gave me the experience to stand up to bullying in this industry as best I can. I made wonderful things. I made wonderful mistakes too. But would I use a time machine if I had it? Yes, I think I would. I’d tell Angelina of the past that it’s worth it to freelance, but maybe to wait a few years instead.