Day 2 – Professional Boundaries and Freelancing


Welcome to Day 2 of the Conquering Client Conflict course!

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When a freelancer asks me for advice about a particular project or a problem with a client, one of the first things I ask is, “What are your policies regarding professional boundaries?” The blank face that stares at me tells me that the answer is “I don’t have any.”

In my 13 years of experience, I have found one common theme in problems related to freelancing. Whether it’s turning down clients or charging a healthy rate, most issues boil down to setting professional boundaries. Even when we lay out good boundaries, we often cave the moment a client pushes against those boundaries. In short, we stink at holding the line.


The benefits of holding professional boundaries

Clarity.  When both parties know exactly what to expect and what should happen – when both parties are up-front – the friction and anxiety between you and your client are effectively reduced. This is worth its weight in gold. Clients don’t like surprises, and neither should you! A successful freelancer is one who employs their expertise in such a way that their client is never taken unaware by anything during a project.

Respect. A lot of us freelancers mutter about how we are treated by our clients, as if we’re mere order-takers and not the true specialists that we are. Have you ever grumbled about a client being abusive or difficult? Well, setting boundaries early on allows you to be viewed and treated as a real professional who operates with real established rules.

Quality. I’ve always advocated the idea that freelancers should not be afraid of turning down or firing clients. Sometimes, the hassle of dealing with a bad client is not worth the professional fee. Setting clear-cut boundaries with prospective clients allows you to create a filter that enables you to choose clients that you like and eliminate potential clients who are likely to cause difficulties.

Why freelancers fail to hold professional boundaries

By no means am I an expert in human behavior. However, in my years of experience advising freelancers, I’ve found a few reasons why we sometimes fail to establish the ground rules for selecting and working with clients. What are these reasons?

Fear.  As I’ve written before, there is enough work to go around. However, many freelancers fear that establishing professional boundaries will make it difficult for them to get work or earn them a bad reputation in the industry. Have you ever felt this way? I know I have! But with time-in-industry, intentional mindfulness, and a bit of grit, this nagging fear can be conquered.

I know how difficult it is to stick to those boundaries when you are just starting out and you need to put food on the table, and there are bills that need to get paid. You may already know my (in)famous story of starting my consulting business on the spur of the moment, when I was laid off from a corporate job immediately after buying a house, when I was cash-poor, at a time when nobody was hiring developers. Talk about fear! I absolutely took on a few troublesome projects without setting any kind of boundaries out of fear. Think about the last time you did that – now think about the most recent time you took on an engagement based on terms that you set. The feeling of power vs. helplessness is night and day, right?

My usual advice for the freelancers I mentor when they are confronted with the choice between working with a bad client and letting that client pass is: carefully weigh the benefits! Sometimes, a client is simply not worth the headaches, however big the paycheck may be. At other times, survival may be the deciding factor. It’s a deeply personal decision, but I will tell you this—if you’re not in survival mode, you should absolutely be setting and holding your professional boundaries.

Self-esteem. Another common reason I see among freelancers for not holding boundaries is a lack of self-confidence. A lot of us – especially when starting out – worry that we lack industry experience or the necessary skills and talent to truly stand out from our peers. Some of us also suffer from an inability to see the value in what we know how to do, because our skills seem normal to us.

This lack of self-esteem leads to signing up with each and every client that comes along — even the bad ones, sometimes even for a paltry pay check. And then we wonder why we have to deal with constant conflicts!

Culture. Sometimes, this fear or lack of self-esteem was ingrained during childhood. A lot of us were never taught about having even personal boundaries as a child, let alone taught that one day we’d need professional boundaries! Some of us grew up being taught that sacrificing – if not outright damaging oneself – is a virtue. Some freelancers even think that setting up boundaries may make them look selfish, but I’d argue that this is just fear talking. Fear says crazy things to me sometimes; what does it say to you?

I’ve written before that there are a lot of jerks in the freelancing world, and if you are just starting out with your career, that’s one image that you should avoid. My advice is to be gracious at all times. That, however, does not mean that you should be a pushover. Transgressive behavior from anyone, including clients, should not be tolerated. Be gracious…but be firm.

In the next installment of this course, we’ll talk about how to get started on resolving whatever conflict has developed with your client.

Homework Assignment – Post Your Work To The Comments Below!

Now that you understand what boundaries are, why they’re important, and why we often fail to set & hold them, get busy on the action items below, and post your work:

1) Tell me about a time you set a boundary with a client – and then totally caved when they pushed back.

2) Be honest, now – what fears are stopping you from holding stronger boundaries with your clients?

3) If you could look your client in the eye and very firmly tell them what your most important boundary is, and why, with no negative consequences, what would you say?