The best part of freelancing is supposed to be the “free” – the freedom to choose what you do, where you do it, how you do it, and who you do it with. But if you’ve ever worked with a client who turns nasty, you know how quickly that ‘freedom’ can feel surprisingly like captivity.

Early on in my freelance career, I worked with a company that has since gone under – quite deservedly. Looking back, there were a lot of red flags: a haphazard hiring process, an unclear reporting structure (to this day, I can’t tell you exactly who my boss was), relatively low pay, and unreasonable demand. Most tellingly, they employed an army of freelance writers, with a high turnover rate.

Nowadays, I would know better than to get involved. But as a bright-eyed, painfully earnest beginner, I was eager for work – and eager to please.

It didn’t take long for the client to become unpleasant. It started out with small things; deadlines that seemed unreasonable, unsubtle demands to work overtime, a tendency to ignore boundaries. I would send emails that got no response, only to get chewed out days later for not following policy. When I forwarded emails that exonerated me… no reply. They kept giving me more and more work, including assignments I was painfully unqualified for. Then I found out how much money they were charging THEIR clients for my services, while claiming I possessed certain certifications… that I didn’t. I was making about 10% of what they were charging. Their language got increasingly harsh – with me, with everybody.

I spent months working with these people. I knew they were bad, but I thought that I was tough, that I could handle it. Then, funny things started happening. I started getting crazy physical symptoms; chest pains, stomach aches. My profound unhappiness started leaching into other parts of my life, culminating in a massive heaving panic attack on a sidewalk. Finally, I got the message. I started frantically looking for another gig.

About a week later, I (and every other freelancer working for the Client from Hell) got an email; surprise! They were shutting down! Turn in your invoices, suckers, you’re all unemployed!

To add insult to injury, I got a call about a week after I submitted my final invoice; they wanted me to do another round of edits for one of their clients. When I pointed out that invoice had already been approved and my contract was done, they threatened to hold payment unless I accepted their terms. I told them I would speak to a lawyer friend; they suddenly reversed course, sent a last check, and (presumably) sunk back into the lagoon from whence they came.

The point of this whole sad saga?

Don’t work with jerks.

Seems obvious, right? So why do we ever work with terrible clients? And once we’ve figure out they’re awful, why do freelancers ever stick with clients that treat them badly?

I think that some freelancers stay with nasty clients for two reasons: perceived necessity, and misplaced notions about “work ethic”.

When I say “perceived necessity”, I mean the notion that you MUST stay with your nightmare client, because there are no other options – or because they pay you so well, it’s worth the abuse.

This abdication– figuring that you might as well stick with the devil you know – is a a surefire pathway to misery. After all, we spend the majority of our lives doing “work”; being stuck in a relationship with a bad client can affect your health, your happiness, your work itself, and even your sanity. No amount of money is worth that. And the biggest issue? As my experience shows, jerks tend to act like, well – jerks. A client who’s abusive isn’t likely to ever become less abusive just because you’ve resigned yourself to dealing with them. In fact, they’ll probably just get worse and worse… until you finally reach your limit and break away, or until they can get rid of you in the most spectacularly awful fashion imaginable.

There are other fish in the sea. Keep looking for clients who treat you well, and who you enjoy working with; you’ll find them faster than you think.

But even more insidious than resignation to the “necessity” of working with a bad client, I think, is blind dedication to “work ethic” – no matter who you’re working for.

I know so many freelancers who have stayed with terrible clients far longer than they should have because they felt guilty about leaving a job – a kind of misplaced loyalty. These are the same conscientious types who uncomplainingly meet outrageously demands, who have trouble drawing boundaries with clients. They want to do a good job and pride themselves on toughness… and that lets bad clients get away with a lot of abuse.

Don’t do it. Don’t work with people who treat you badly. You deserve respect. You deserve to have a happy life. You don’t owe your clients anything beyond the work you’ve agreed to do; you provide a service to them, for which you are compensated. It is not “tough” to shrug off boundary-crossing or nasty behavior. There is no intrinsic value in working hard for some abuser.

I wish I could go back and talk to myself as a young freelancer, and shake some sense into my eager head – before I wasted months working for people who made me really unhappy. I can’t get that time back, but I can speak to you all, and my message is simple:

Don’t tolerate clients who treat you badly. Pay attention to red flags. Don’t be afraid to walk away.

If you’re in that situation now, I’m sorry – it sucks. Start looking as hard as you can for something else. It’s out there.

Life is so short. Working with people who make you miserable just isn’t worth it. Ever.

Don’t work with jerks.

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