You know this client.

You spot an email or text and you feel a gnarly combination of dread, anger and anxiety. You spend your days and nights making endless tweaks to an onerous project to please them. And they’re not even paying you what you’re worth in the first place! They’re flaky and uncommunicative, and you have a creeping sense they’re going to abscond with your paycheck.

Dear readers, you are not alone! Bad clients are an inescapable part of freelance life. While you might tolerate certain “quirks” if you find the work rewarding, lucrative, or a great resume-padder, there comes a time when your self-respect, sanity, and valuable time have to come first.

So when is the right time to fire them? Well, if your client behaves in the following egregious ways, you should seriously consider cutting all ties (politely and professionally, of course):

1. They don’t pay you on time. Or at all.

Even if you’ve covered all your bases – writing up a contract, establishing the terms of payment, and promptly sending an invoice after completion of a project – you still might hear crickets. Maybe you’ve even sent an invoice and followed up by snail mail, email, or a phone message. Still nothing. Or, you finally get payment, but it’s weeks, or months late.

If this is a consistent (or even just a one-time issue) you may want to kick this client to the curb. As a freelancer, you want to have certainty about exactly when your paychecks are coming. If your client consistently disrupts your cash flow and places you in the stressful position of waiting for a delayed check, it’s time to terminate the relationship. Your time and energy are too valuable to work for deadbeats.

(If you need to take action against a client that hasn’t paid, check out this post.)

2. They seriously hamper your productivity.

A “helicopter” client might harass you with frequent calls or texts to check up on your work – even at odd hours of the night. They’re anxious and needy, and feel entitled to way more time than you have to give. They want an explanation for every little detail, or ask you to submit onerous reports on your progress. Or, they’re wishy-washy and ask you to change course after they’ve already given you specific guidelines for a project. Maybe you actually find the work you’re doing interesting, but you barely have the time or freedom to work without interruption.

If you find this arrangement maddening, it is time to find a client that is far less high-maintenance.

(Learn how to fight “scope-creep” here.)

3. They’re disrespectful, sleazy, or unethical.

If a client denigrates you or your work, has an angry outburst, or makes you seriously uncomfortable in any way, it’s time to say goodbye. Or if a client is asking you to perform work that you feel morally ambiguous about or that you consider unethical, it’s best to get out of the situation.

It’s never worth it in the end to work for a jerk. Avoid that stress, trauma and the gross, polluted feeling you get from them at all costs!


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4. They underpay.

When you are an eager freelancer just starting out, you may not be as discriminating about the gigs that come your way. While you’re building your experience and reputation, it is acceptable to sometimes take low-paying, or even unpaid work to establish yourself.

However, once you have a roster of substantial clients, rethink keeping a job that pays badly. It’s important to know your worth as a freelancer – charge a rate that is proportionate to your skills and experience, and reflects the standard in your field. Sometimes a low-paying gig can be the most demanding, pointlessly draining your time and hurting your cash flow.

5. They want free work.

Your contract is there for a reason: so you’re not exploited to do free work that isn’t within the scope of your agreement. If a client repeatedly asks you to make edits to work you’ve already completed, or sweetly requests that you tweak another project that you or a total stranger worked on, don’t fall into their trap!

Even if you feel uncomfortable, it’s your right to say no and protect yourself from insidious unpaid work situations. If a client gets prickly about you setting boundaries, find someone who won’t.

6. They’re chronically flaky.

The only thing worse than an overbearing client is a totally uninvolved, absent, or flaky client. They hire you one day, then cannot be reached by phone, text, or email for the next week. When they come back around, they’re full of apologies or excuses, but again go missing when you have a critical question, or need materials or instruction to complete your work.

Or, they come across as clueless and cannot give you a clear outline of what they need. While this breed of bad client is more rare than their overly demanding brethren, they can be just as frustrating and seriously impede your work. If your client isn’t supporting you, and isn’t available at crucial moments in your project’s timeline, reconsider working for them in the future.

There are undoubtedly excellent, reliable clients out there that will appreciate the work you do, pay you fairly, and respect the terms of your contract. You deserve to be happy, so go out there and find them instead of working for problem clients!

Did you ever fire a client? What drove you to the edge?