Setting Boundaries: Hard, but Worth It

The life of a freelancer is full of pitfalls. It’s also a wonderful way to work if you are determined and strong. In yesterday’s post, I talked about guidelines for taking on a job. I missed a lot of the warning signs and had to quit a job. Today, I’m talking about boundaries necessary for a freelancer to establish a healthy relationship with a client.

I have many wonderful clients in my life; I’ve been fortunate to have a long line of great clients. But the freelance relationship needs boundaries to make it work, and when I don’t enforce them, I wind up in trouble. Here are some rules I’ve learned to set. Sometimes I’ve learned them over and over again.

1. The best a client is going to treat you is when they want you to take the job. If they are angry, shifting blame, or unclear then, it will only get worse. Smile, thank them, and leave. Fast.

You can build your own boundary, of your own design. It has to work for you, it's not meant to work for others. It does have to be fair. Image from coolboom.com

2. Set boundaries early on. Boundaries help keep your hands and decisions clean. Be clear. “I don’t work on weekends, so getting me the team materials on Friday afternoon and having it due on Monday won’t work for me.” You get to choose and set your boundaries. Your boundaries should be fair, simple, and clear.

3. Expect push-back on your boundaries. The client may think all freelancers work from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. each night and both days all weekend. The client may want to treat you as an employee, but without the benefits. The client absolutely doesn’t understand how freelancing works–that you get paid only for times you are working, and waiting doesn’t count.

The client generally doesn’t understand that you have other clients for whom you are also doing rush work, and can’t push it aside every time they phone. Everyone always knows his job better than anyone else, and you know freelance.

Your boundaries have to reflect your reality. Often it’s like explaining to a horse what a hamburger tastes like–an exercise in futility. That why boundaries are practical–they require enforcing, not explanations.

Surveying the boundaries to keep them in place. Image: enterconstruction.com

4. Don’t change your boundaries. Even if you want to be nice. Even if you want to please the client. Even if sucking up is in your DNA. Once you change the boundaries, the client will know they are paper boundaries, not brick boundaries. Boundaries protect your strength and your ability to work hard when you are working on that project. Backing off on the boundaries encourages the client to engage in scope-creep (asking for more and more for the same price and deadline). Pretty soon you’ll be giving up your kidney.

5. It’s OK to stick to your rules, even when the client doesn’t like you. The client doesn’t like you because you are sticking to your sensible rules. You chose them because they are sensible and healthy. Expect accusations like “you aren’t a team player!” or “I’m really disappointed in you!” or “You are not professional!”  or “That’s industry standard.” When those accusations are hurled at you it’s a good time to remember that we often accuse people of faults we have ourselves.

Stand your ground.

Create your own list of non-negotiable demands and boundaries. Make them fair. Then stick to them. If you get bowled over, outvoted, and threatened with public disgrace, take those threats seriously. You may have to walk away from the job.

Quitting or firing a client lets you leave a lost battle before you get burned. If you stay, you’ll not only get burned, you will also have to dig through your charred remains, searching for your soul.

Quinn McDonald sets boundaries, but will always need practice in enforcing them.

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8 thoughts on “Setting Boundaries: Hard, but Worth It

  1. I watched women, especially, struggle with this in their personal and professional lives while working as a therapist for 20 years. If people-pleasing results in diminishing or devaluing you in any way, then it’s not healthy. Look up the definition of “assertive” and try to apply it to boundary issues, especially when you catch yourself faltering.

  2. Lots of wisdom here. My husband and I have been self-employed for many years and it is a constant struggle with clients to keep them happy and paying you and keeping yourself sane! Thanks for sharing and reminding people of some of the issues of working for yourself.

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