Articles - 25th March 2020

Employers should have guidelines on how to treat freelancers

Words by Ralph Jones
Illustration by Oscar Price

I had a demoralising experience with an editor the other day. I can’t say which publication they worked for (one of the downsides of freelancing is that this might come back to haunt me), but the incident made me think about the relationship between the employer and the permanently precarious freelancer.

The experience wasn’t remotely dramatic. It involved an editor telling me to rewrite a piece in a laboriously specific way; printing a version that wasn’t what they had asked me to write; and then never bothering to check that I was all right with the strange melange they had decided to print.

This specific problem is common in journalism, but the power dynamic it highlights is an issue across all industries in which freelancers work. As a freelance writer I look out for online guidelines about how best to pitch to editors.

These are extremely useful, and I doubt the compilers of the best examples realise that in freelancers’ eyes they wear a virtual halo at all times. But the existence of the guidelines begins to imply a false hierarchy; it emboldens editors to think of themselves as better than freelancers by definition. Just because freelancers are being paid by employers does not mean the freelancer is inferior, nor should it mean that only the freelancer needs to conduct themselves with common courtesy.

Lady Gaga is a freelancer. Olivia Colman is a freelancer. Stephen Fry is a freelancer. You can bet that employers would bend their hallowed rules for them.

For a moment, let’s take journalism, as the example I know best. If, as an editor, you insist that you’re so busy you can’t be expected to respond to every pitch, then it clearly isn’t fair to expect writers not to pitch to several publications at a time. Asking writers not to do so demonstrates a failure to understand what it’s like to be a freelancer, and an inability to understand how most editors behave. (An email saying “Sorry, missed this!” after three weeks is how a lot of editors behave.)

Leaving aside the issue of paying on time – on which Anna Codrea-Rado has written persuasively – here are a few things things that freelancers want employers to do better.

Don’t get in touch at the last minute and expect an answer

Digital marketer and content writer Steve Ash says that large corporate companies are often disorganised with their time management. “Rather than contacting you two weeks before a known deadline,” he says, “they’ll contact you two days beforehand – and have an expectation that you’ll be free and available.”

If Nash doesn’t have the time he will be open about saying that he can’t do it until the following week. “For me, the best way to underline that these kind of late requests/emergency requests are not OK is to make it very clear when you aren’t available. Underline that you’re busy with other clients, that you want to do the job but that – in a nutshell – they will have to wait.”

Give clear briefs, and stop changing them

Steve Hay is an actor based in Oxford. “I had a job years ago where the client decided that it might be good with a whispered voiceover – after we’d done the shoot,” he says. “And because I’d come up from London to Glasgow for the shoot, they decided to get a locally-based actor to dub me.” Olivia Foster, a writer and producer, finds it frustrating when editors aren’t clear about what they want: “They commission a top-line idea only to reveal after you’ve written it that they were really set on including a particular set of details or wanted a certain line or interviewee that they haven’t mentioned in the brief.”

She thinks that it’s become more frustrating in recent years, when the fee-to-work ratio has got worse. She also thinks this problem is particularly acute in journalism. “I always try to ask people now if there’s anything specific they want if they’ve sent a simple brief but there’s still the occasion where you find they’ve got a very firm idea in their head that they haven’t told you about.”

Don’t chicken out of breaking bad news

When Kim Robinson’s contact at a marketing company left, her regular voiceover work with them evaporated, and, though she checked in and secured a meeting a few months on, that meeting was two years ago and she has heard nothing since. “I appreciate companies change in terms of how they are run and what their goals may be and freelancers aren’t necessarily a priority,”Robinson (not her real name) says, “but when you rely on the work coming in and you just get completely ghosted, or the work doesn’t materialise, it’s a kick to your bank balance, your self-esteem and your mental health.”

To a certain extent, freelancers realise that a little uncertainty is inevitable but when employers lack the common courtesy to announce that a project has ended, they make the situation pointlessly stressful.

Be clear about when you’ll pay

Everyone wants to be paid quickly, but Chris Sayer, who has been a freelance journalist for five years, says that clarity is more important. He says that an editor who was once freelance might acknowledge that your invoice has been received and sent to the finance team. A “God-league” editor will tell you roughly when the money will arrive in your account. “Dennis Publishing, for example, has always been good for this. Surprisingly few other places actually come to mind when I think about it, which is mad.”

A typical editor, he says, will tend to tell you when you’re getting paid after you have politely complained that “your one and only yet perpetually ignored work stipulation for 30-day payments, that you helplessly add to the footer of each invoice, has been pooh-poohed yet again”. Sayer now avoids working for companies who don’t pay him on time. “Five years in the freelance business has shown me that the stress and annoyance of waiting and chasing for money isn’t worth the work.” The employer ends up suffering because of their incompetence – they have lost a freelancer and any freelancers that he might have recommended.

Don’t try to renegotiate a fee

Once an employer has decided how much they’ll pay the freelancer for some work, sometimes they will try to revise their fee. Hugo Finley works for a few digital agencies in Manchester and has found that companies often try to renegotiate after signing contract documentation.

“Last month I had a great example of this, where one agency said, ‘Oh I thought we agreed…’ They had not read the agreement that they signed, stating what my rates are.” As Finley says, work is never work for a freelancer until something is signed. “Occasionally I get irritated by cheeky requests for discounts based on the ability to get more work in the future,” he says.

Reply to emails

A bane of the freelance journalist’s life is having pitches ignored by editors – often editors who have explicitly said that they are looking for pitches. 2019 was Amy Booth’s second year of freelancing and she articulates perfectly why the problem is so annoying.

Between January and November she sent 57 pitches: 27 of them received no reply; 11 were accepted; and the rest included rejections or something similar. “It takes far longer to place stories when editors don’t reply,” she says. “That means I’m less efficient and, ultimately, earn less money.”

In Booth’s experience an editor almost never responds to follow-ups. “So you’re left with this in-between time where you can’t work on selling the story, but you’re not writing it either. When you’re putting all your effort into crafting pitches and researching stories and nobody is replying, you start to question yourself.

You begin to assume that editors must see you as incompetent, boring, annoying or even crazy. You certainly don’t feel that they see you as a fellow professional and colleague. You start to question your self-worth and your abilities. It’s incredibly depressing.”

As freelancing can be an isolating experience, Booth says, unanswered emails simply add to the stress. The likelihood that a pitch will be ignored means she might put less work into the pitch but this is dangerous because of the need for an idea to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace. “Nowadays,” says Booth, “I’m considering leaving the profession. This year has been particularly difficult because I’ve been looking into some very sensitive stories that I really believed in, but ultimately haven’t been able to place, and it’s getting harder and harder not to lose faith.”

To editors pushed for time she suggests copy-and-pasting a reply to the journalists whose pitches are being turned down. “I don’t for one moment blame individual editors for structural problems affecting the entire industry. But I do think we could sorely use a bit more camaraderie.”

There is a comparable problem for actors. Steve Hay says that most other industries will let you know if you haven’t landed a job. Not so with acting: “There’s been times when the first I know for sure I didn’t get an advert job is when I see it on TV.”

In September, Equity campaigned for actors to be given feedback on auditions in a reasonable time. Another actor, Hayley, says that it is difficult to raise objections because of the power dynamics involved. “I do think that actors are seen as disposable (unless you have a profile of course) and so we seem to be the last consideration when it comes to planning, timescales etc.”

A little empathy will go a long way. If employers were to follow these guidelines, just as they advise freelancers follow the guidelines they put online, numerous industries would be full of happier people.

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