There’s a saying in the Army (and probably other places) that you’ll spend 90% of your time on 10% of your people. Now, this might apply to your employees, but it almost always can apply for your customers.

One of the joys of freelancing and being your own boss is that you don’t have sh*tty people running your work. In fact, having the independence to make your own decisions is one of the leading reasons that people go out and start their own businesses.

That said, sh*tty people still exist, and you’re going to have them around, either as a client, or as an employee.

Here are some ways you can cope if a sh*tty person starts to interfere with your work.

1. Acknowledge that the person isn’t sh*tty, it’s their behavior that’s sh*tty.
Okay, easier said than done. If you’re a ball of rage about to press ‘Send’ on a foolishly worded email, do yourself a favor and wait 6 hours (or 12, depending on the time of day or time-sensitivity). If you’re dealing with them in person, take a quick breath and remind yourself something funny or ridiculous to calm you down. I get road rage regularly, so what helps me is something my friend’s sister once told me: “If they’re driving like jerks, they probably need to poop really badly.” I laughed so hard because frankly, it could be true! When someone is really upset, and so are you, frame the situation in a way that gives you sanity and closure (but I highly advise not saying it out loud).

Now, when faced with a person who is either paying you money or is thinking about paying you money, it’s best not to ascribe the negativity to the person. For one, they probably don’t view their behavior as particularly sh*tty, because psychology has shown us that the average person thinks highly of themselves. Okay, so they’re both ignorant AND horrible. Next.

But before we go on, don’t try to educate that person on why they’re sh*tty (Unless it’s something that is discriminatory or harms others! Skip to #4&5). You’ll spend forever trying overturn years of self-assurance, and only find yourself more aggravated than before. So instead, figure out what is motivating them.

2. Pinpoint their pain point.
It’s awfully tempting to shout at the top of your lungs, “But what about my pain point?!” And if you keep that up, the two of you will be shouting at each other like that ridiculous video of Dueling Talking Carls (for context: Talking Carl is an app that mimics what it hears). If you take a step back, listen to what they have to say, then chances are their pain point might actually be something entirely different than what you (or even they) think it is.

For example: Sometimes, a crappy clients wants to get their work for free. Obviously, that’s impossible when you a) did the work which they agreed to pay for; and b) you rely on their money for income. But you can listen to why they want the work for free: they might disappointed with the outcome because they were expecting something else, or because they received the product later than they expected. As a friend of mine used to say, almost every argument between couples (and people in general) is an expectation management problem

3. If you can, solve the problem. If you can’t, make them feel like they’ve been heard, and like something will be done.
Sometimes, you can’t win. A client literally wants a stop sign to look green, and a green light to look red. That’s client work for you. As much as I hate the mantra “the customer is always right,” they are the ones paying you to make something for them. Sometimes they’re really frustrated that their management is making them turn the stop sign green, and you’re the only person telling them that the stop sign can’t be green. The key is, hear them out, and ask them, “Why?” The stop sign might be green at the end of it all, but at least the client is glad you heard their concerns. If it means you have to talk to the next person up the ladder, then you now know this, instead of merely shouting it out.

4. Avoid severe ideological differences when possible.
If it’s a matter of religion, politics, or an ideologically motivated argument, you will drown in misery, and you will regret it. Some of the worst massacres in history were in the name of ideological differences. Remind yourself that a) this is business, not a religious or political conversion, so this shouldn’t even be a topic of discussion in the first place unless it directly impacts your livelihood and everyday life; and b) you are entitled to your own ideological beliefs as long as you do not enforce them on others.

If you end up in one of these situations inadvertently, (i.e. a client would like you to design a logo for a Baptist church and you’re very firmly anti-organized religion; or vice versa) you have two options. You can turn down a client (and frame your concern in a way where your client does not directly benefit from your involvement, and you can refer them to another equally qualified source). Or you can take on your client and view the work as strictly professional, and not as an endorsement of a belief. It is your right as a business owner to make that decision, and neither is inherently right nor wrong. That said, be careful to understand that hate-motivated discrimination (i.e. the gay-wedding-pizza scandal… by the way they accidentally catered a gay wedding) often results in lawsuits, bad press, and worse, in some states.

Tread carefully, and treat all people from all walks of life with respect. In sum: Be sure you’re not the one being the sh*tty person. Then act.

5. If it endangers or threatens the well-being and livelihood of others, discontinue the situation at all costs.
This is probably the most important bullet point and the hardest one to enforce. You, as a business owner, are responsible for identifying when something or someone is threatened. If you find a sexist, racist, or otherwise violently intolerant or unethical person has entered your business world, you have the right and responsibility to call it what it is.

For example, if you’re an independent contractor who renovates for people, and you run into someone who hires you to build unstable structures, you have the responsibility to call it what it is: unsafe and unethical. If someone hires you to build e-commerce websites and requests specifically that your security measures are not strong, call it what it is: unsafe and unethical. If someone can’t afford to pay for the safety and security, deny them the service. You’re responsible for the work you do.

Now, for the question all freelancers want to know…

How do you deal with someone who stiffs you (aka leaves without paying?)

You could technically call collections, but this is often a lot of work. If they stiffed you a $5K payment, absolutely, get collections involved. If it’s for $100, it may not be worth the amount of money it’ll take to get collections involved. Ultimately, there are some sh*tty people you simply will never be able to fix, and there is no bargaining or being nice which will help you get anywhere.

You can however, avoid the danger of being stiffed by asking for deposits, and having a condition in your contract which stipulates that a payment must be remitted before the final product is delivered. If the client can’t pay the deposit, they probably won’t be able to pay the final bill. Use that to help screen your clients.

May you conquer sh*tty behavior with the refreshing breeze of kindness, understanding, and patience! And may your walking path remain forever clear of actual sh*t. If you’re still pissed off, be kind out of spite, it’s surprisingly effective. Good luck.


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About Therese Fess

Tech researcher, Army Reservist, aspiring weightlifter, aspiring minimalist, writer, wife, pet mom, and fountain of profanity. I'm obsessed with wellness and helping others.


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