What to Do When a Client Treats You Like an Employee

How to Handle it if a Company Forgets You're a Contractor

Young woman with cell phone and paperwork at breakfast
Mark John / Getty Images

Freelance life is a lot easier with an anchor client, someone who engages you on an ongoing or long-term basis to perform a set amount of work for a set amount of pay. But, while anchor clients make it a lot easier to pay the bills, they also bring their own set of potential pitfalls for freelancers.

For instance, it's easy to find yourself committed to a lot more work than you originally agreed upon, or expected to behave in ways that are more appropriate for a full-time employee.

If you've ever had a client who expected you to drop everything for their priorities or to be available at a moment's notice during work hours, you already know what I'm talking about.

Of course, a certain amount of consideration is to be expected, when a client books a hefty percentage of your time. It's just good business to make sure your best customers are happy. But keeping good customers happy shouldn't prevent you from developing new ones or getting work done on other projects. Let your clients forget that you're not an employee, and you could find yourself doing full-time work for part-time wages, with no benefits, paid time off, or unemployment insurance. 

What to Do When a Client Treats You Like an Employee

Bottom line, when it comes to freelancing, you want to give your best work to your clients and do what you say you're going to do – but your ultimate loyalty should be to yourself and your business.

Here's how to draw the line.

Contractors vs. Employees

First things first: the IRS has a very specific set of legal guidelines that define the difference between contractors and employees. The primary differentiators are related to "control and independence." Generally, for the IRS's purposes, you're an employee if the entity that pays you controls or has the right to control:

1. The behavioral aspects of your work, meaning what you do at work and how you do it.

2. The business aspects of your work, meaning how you're paid, how expenses are reimbursed, and who provides tools and supplies.

3. The type of relationship between worker and company, meaning contracts or benefits, whether the work continues, and whether the work is a key aspect of the business.

Reasons to Stay Freelance

Sometimes, contractor relationships turn into employer-employee relationships, to the benefit of all involved. The client might realize that a freelancer is a great fit for a position that just opened up at the company, or the work might grow in scope to the point where a new job emerges from what was a temporary project. This is great news, if both sides are interested in a more permanent working relationship.

From a company's perspective, hiring an employee costs money but also potentially saves legal headaches, if the contractor is already performing employee-type work. From a freelancer's perspective, there are plenty of benefits, too, including obvious reasons such as job security (or, these days, the illusion of the same), entitlement to unemployment benefits in the event of certain types of termination of employment, and splitting the cost of Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes with an employer.

With all this in mind, given the option of going full-time, why would anyone want to stay freelance? The key is in the term. For some people, keeping work on a freelance basis offers more freedom. Sure, you have to pay self-employment tax, and occasionally hound clients for payment, and deal with gigs that disappear – but you also have an unusual degree of control over your working life.

If you want to sleep late now and then, or take a week off to travel, or drop your hours to care for a family member, freelancing is a better bet than working full-time (at least for most employers). Freelancing also makes clear something that's true for workers in today's economy: you need to be on your own side, or no one will be. There's really no such thing as job security in the 21st century. Freelancers are just more aware of that than most employees.

That doesn't mean that freelancing is for everyone. But if it's for you, you might find that you're better off counting on yourself than an employer.

How to Keep Scope-Creep From Turning You Into a Secret Employee

Once you've decided to play the freelance game indefinitely, the goal is to make sure that you don't wind up acting like an employee, anyway.

Employers might not even consciously try to treat you like an employee. There are a lot of reasons it just sort of happens, including projects that grow larger than anticipated and a team made up primarily of full-timers. If you're the only freelancer in the room, it'll be hard for people to remember that you might not be at your desk at 9 a.m., their local time, every weekday.

To keep scope creep from ruining your freelance dreams, try the following:

1. Avoid same-day work on an ongoing basis.

As a writer and editor, I've had plenty of gigs that require same-day turnaround, such as editing blog posts on breaking news. But, generally speaking, I've found that it's best to avoid packing my client list with these, because they tether me to my desk, wiping out the freedom aspect of freelancing we discussed a minute ago.

Unless you're getting paid enough to have a lot more flexibility during the rest of your workweek, or are taking on a project of short duration, I recommend not taking on too many same-day projects. Book yourself into 40-plus hours a week of sitting at your desk at the same time every day, and you might as well look for a full-time telecommuting gig instead of freelance work – or go back to the office.

2. Set boundaries, and stick to them.

Freelancers hate to say no. Every time we do, it feels like turning down money. But setting boundaries isn't the same as saying you'll never be available again. As long as you do what you say you're going to do, and make accommodations for good clients now and then, you have every right to set your schedule and balance your client list as you see fit.

The goal is to manage your time, not let your time manage you.

3. Communicate.

Many freelancers feel strange talking to one client about their responsibilities to other clients. I think this is a mistake. If you're open with your clients about your other deadlines, you're more likely to come across as a businessperson who's trying to follow through on commitments, instead of an undedicated worker who's shirking a project.

You don't need to share the details. Just don't be afraid to speak up when a client request would come into conflict with your other responsibilities. If it makes you feel better, think of it not as saying no, but saying "not right now" – and then move that client to the top of the list, next time there's a conflict.

Read More: 9 Types of Freelance Jobs | 6 Places to Find Freelance Listings Online | What You Need to Start Freelancing

Related: Top 10 Jobs to Work Remotely | Top 10 Job Search Tips | How to Find Freelance Jobs

Note: These tips are provided for informational purposes only, and do not constitute legal advice. Please seek legal assistance if required.