Frequently Asked Questions on Hiring Freelancers
Should I use an agency to hire freelancers?
Hiring a freelancer sounds easy. You hire people all the time, right? The trouble is, unless you're working with someone you already know and trust, hiring a freelancer can take just as long as hiring a permanent employee -- for someone you're only going to have around for a limited time. An agency that specializes in placing freelancers may charge you more, but can end up saving you money by getting a qualified freelancer in fast to get critical work done. They've prescreened candidates and usually take care of benefits and insurance. Many good freelancers sign with agencies because they appreciate being able to concentrate on their specialties without the administrative headaches.
What should I talk about with a freelancer before making a hire?
Before you talk to a freelancer, it's important to have a good set of specifications for the work that needs to be done. The clearer you can be about your expectations, the better the chance that the freelancer will meet your needs. In interviewing a potential full-time employee, you often leave the money discussion for last. Not so with freelancers. Be up-front about your budget for the job, and (unless your agency is handling this part) when the freelancer will be paid. You will also need to be very clear about what results you expect the freelancer to achieve within that budget, including deadlines, level of communication during the process, and any restrictions on the work (must it be done on-site? can it be used in the freelancer's portfolio?). This lets the candidate make an accurate judgment of the amount of his or her time and resources that will be needed.
What questions does a good freelance contract answer?
A good freelance contract should set forth clear expectations for the work to be done, including answers to these questions: -- When will payment be made? How much? -- What is the deadline for completion of the work? Are there intermediate deadlines for specific pieces? -- What are the deliverables, and what specific criteria do they need to meet? -- What rights is the employer buying to the freelancer's work? -- Must the work be done on-site, or is the freelancer free to work from home? -- How often must the freelancer provide progress reports, and to whom? -- How much revision is included in the agreed-upon price? -- What level of confidentiality do you require? -- Is there a "kill fee" (standard in some lines of work) if the freelancer's work is not used?
How do I know if I've got the right freelancer?
Whether you're using agency referrals or have weeded through a big pile of resumes, you will naturally want to check out a candidate carefully before making a hire. While some candidates may offer impressive education, the portfolio is really the key to determining whether or not you've got the right person. Questions to ask: -- Does this portfolio demonstrate the ability to handle situations similar to this job? -- Does this portfolio demonstrate flexibility in handling a variety of situations? -- Does this person have the experience to understand your company's goals and match the work to them? When interviewing, ask specific questions about the sorts of situations likely to come up on this job. For instance, "Tell me about a time when you had to meet a tough deadline without supervision." Look for evidence of problem-solving skills, creativity, and self-discipline. Check three references, and ask specifically about the freelancer's attitude and quality of work.
How can I prevent my staff from being jealous of the freelancer?
Often, it seems, employees get jealous when the really fun jobs are being given to freelancers. This can lead to lack of motivation and even make it difficult for the freelancer to function on your team. Before the freelancer arrives, be careful to communicate clearly with your staff about what the contractors are doing and why this job hasn't been given to one of the full-timers. If you're concerned about freelance envy, you may want to look at the skills of your existing staffers and see if you're distributing the challenging, skill-building work fairly. Do those who want to learn and improve have the chance to do so within their jobs? It may be that what you need is to give one of your full-timers a shot at the challenging job and hire a contractor to do the routine work for a while.
How do I differentiate between an employee and a freelancer?
United States tax authorities have very definite ideas about who is and is not a freelancer, or "independent contractor." If you hire people to work regular hours at your office with your team, reporting to the same supervisors as your employees, the government may hold you liable for employment taxes for those workers. To avoid this, it's important to treat freelancers as truly independent. This means that you control the results of their work, but not when or how they get it done. You cannot control whether freelancers accept assignments from others, or what supplies or equipment they use. If you do need this kind of control, you need to set up an employer-employee relationship (with taxes withheld, and information provided on a W-2 form) instead of a straight freelance contract (with no taxes withheld, reported on Form 1099). Because businesses' needs vary, it's not unusual for freelancers to accept assignments as temporary or part-time employees depending on the client's needs.
How much do my freelancers need to know?
Unlike your regular employees, your freelancers weren't around for the annual meeting, didn't go to the summer picnic, and probably won't be on the companywide e-mail list. That means they need some information that full-timers pick up just by showing up every day. What is your organization trying to achieve? What is your strategy for achieving it? How are you doing? This information may seem irrelevant -- you're just hiring this person to do one thing. To a good freelancer, though, it offers an opportunity to fit his or her work into a larger puzzle, and even to come up with creative solutions that will move your company closer to its goals.
What can I do to keep contract obligations reasonable on both sides?
A good freelancer will go over expectations and deadlines with you carefully, and will provide feedback on any that seem unrealistic. If you hire someone who is working fulltime at another job, it's reasonable to set longer deadlines. This may be a worthwhile tradeoff if you're getting someone with specific expertise or if you're working with a limited budget. If your project is urgent, consider bringing in a team of freelancers, or offering a bonus for on-time completion. Most work will require revisions. Budget time and money in the contract for at least one round of edits. This will be more manageable if you're very clear about who in your organization has the power to require changes, and if those people have reviewed and agreed to the contract.
What are some of the potential problems in freelance relationships?
When problems occur in a freelance job, they often crop up at the revision phase. This is where flaws in the original contract can become crystal clear. They can include: -- Failure to specify a limit of time or scope on revisions. -- Failure to get key decision-makers' buy-in on original contract requirements. -- Failure to communicate the standards the work was expected to meet. -- Outsourcing a job that required deep understanding of organizational goals and strategy, and should have been handled in-house. -- Failure to check out the freelancer's claimed skills thoroughly before hiring. -- Changes in organizational priorities during the time the work was being done. This sometimes means the freelancer shows up for revisions and gets assigned a major addition or alteration. Or the project could be reduced in scope or even canceled.
Why shouldn't I hire a freelancer based on price?
If resources are limited, it's tempting to go with a cheap alternative -- a student, intern, or low-end freelancer who confidently claims he or she can do your job for below-market rates. Sometimes this is the only way to get a job done. If you have to go this route, be aware that unseasoned freelancers will require more supervision, more communication, and more rounds of revisions than professionals in the field. All of these things will take up your valuable time. In some fields, local freelancers are being priced out of the market by low-cost workers from overseas. If you're investigating these alternatives, be aware of the obstacles that can be posed by time differences and language barriers.
What do I need to know about negotiating freelance contracts?
You've got a good set of specs and a freelancer who seems to have what it takes. You're set to go, right? Maybe not, if the freelancer wants to negotiate. Experienced freelancers know that once managers have invested time in getting to the contract stage, they don't want to have to start over. There may be genuinely negotiation-worthy points -- perhaps your rates are out of date for the market in which you operate, or perhaps there's a rights or deadline issue that can be easily resolved. Like all negotiations, these sorts of talks require knowing your bottom line and sticking to it. If you can come up on price a little and make your freelancer happy, it's probably worth doing. At the same time, there are a lot of freelancers out there. If someone is really out to take your company for every penny, you may be happier just walking away.
Why would I hire a team of freelancers?
If the work you need done involves many areas of expertise, it may be best to hire a team of freelancers rather than just one. Experienced freelancers in a market often form informal alliances and back one another up, so that a client who needs (for example) a website can get a developer, a writer, and a designer all in one contract. Why would a freelancer work on a team? Freelance work can be isolating, and many people enjoy collaboration with creative teams. Some teams evolve into full-scale firms, with offices and full-time employees. If all goes well, the firms then find themselves with too much work and have to hire more freelancers. Ideally, you would look for a team who has worked together in the past on similar projects. You get the work done faster, and the pieces are more likely to fit together than if they were done by separate freelancers.
What is peer sourcing?
"Peer sourcing" is a fancy name for "Do you know anyone who does X?" The idea is that if you know a good programmer, that person might also know a good designer or database administrator. Often, an experienced freelancer will get to know others, either on jobs or through networking, and such referrals can be especially valuable coming from a freelancer you already know and trust. In some places, particularly in tech industries, peer sourcing is taking on a more formal structure, with networks of hundreds of freelancers who refer one another for jobs. A more formalized way to engage in peer sourcing is to use an agency, which can offer prescreened candidates with track records of successful work.
What do I need to know about confidentiality agreements?
If your freelancers are working with sensitive information -- future marketing plans, proprietary software, legal or financial issues -- it's important to protect your organization in advance by having them sign a confidentiality agreement. This prevents the freelancers from disclosing any information about your company that they may come across in the course of their work. Ideally, the contract will also protect freelancers from having their work misused or reappropriated by the employer, or from having their business information publicly disclosed. The more specific you can be in this part of the contract, the better. If very sensitive information is involved on either side, it may be wise to have a lawyer look over the agreement before anyone signs.
How can I be sure I've got the right freelancer?
If you are considering using a freelancer for a long-term or critical project, it's even more important to get the right person. Of course you checked the candidate's references, and of course you took a good hard look at the portfolio. Yet you'd like to be really sure. One good way to break in a potential freelancer is to hire him or her for a one- or two-day project. This should offer you valuable information about whether the person meets deadlines and how good his or her work is. You'll want to be up-front about the prospect of longer term of work -- a high-demand freelancer might otherwise turn down your short-term job -- and the qualities you want the freelancer to exhibit.
What resources do freelancers need from within the organization?
Along with acquainting your freelancers with the goals of the organization and how their work fits in, you will also serve as their guide to the resources available within your organization. If a programmer's work is closely connected to an in-house project, make sure she meets the project manager. If your contract writer is expected to follow house style, be sure he has a copy of the style guide. If your freelancer is on-site, be sure your IT and other relevant departments get a desk and computer set up with the appropriate software and any necessary logins before the freelancer arrives. There's nothing so frustrating as paying people to be there when they can't do the work.
What are some avoidable communication problems?
For every manager with a horror story about a freelancer, there's a freelancer with a horror story about a client. Most of these problems center on lack of communication. Sometimes the communication issues take place within the hiring organization, resulting in conflicting messages given to a freelancer who may understandably be upset at being told to rip up a previously agreed-upon section of work. Often, the problem can be traced to a vague or incomplete set of instructions. A contract may ask for a "website design" but not specify whether the freelancer is to convert the approved design into web-ready code. Other times, a freelancer or company may claim expertise in several areas, but will really only have one core set of skills. This is where it's important to be clear with agencies and candidates. If what you really need is a writer with some web competence, be sure you're not really hiring a coder who dabbles in writing.
Why would I want to budget extra money for a freelance project?
When formulating the budget for a freelance project, it's a good idea to tack on an extra 10% just in case. Sometimes the extra isn't needed, in which case you can congratulate yourself on saving money. However, it frequently happens that a freelance project needs to be reworked beyond the agreed-upon level of revision. It's only fair to pay a freelancer for extra effort required because (for example) your contract wasn't sufficiently clear, or because your boss changed her mind about one aspect of the project after work had begun. It may also sometimes happen that a freelancer suggests an improvement to bring the project more in line with your organizational goals. With the extra "wiggle room" in your budget, you can give the green light and reap the benefits.
Should I contact a freelancer during the project?
If a freelance project extends over weeks or months, it's important to establish regular check-ins. Some of the things you need to talk about: -- How is the job progressing? -- Does the freelancer have everything he or she needs to complete the job on time? -- Has anything changed at your organization that will affect this project? -- Does the freelancer have any questions about the project? End the conversation by reaffirming the goal of the project and establishing a time for your next talk.
How can I choose the right talent agency?
There are many agencies out there who would like to fill all your freelance needs. Many of them promise to screen candidates and present only the most qualified to you. Be cautious about agencies that seem too small -- they may be presenting the same few people as experts in an array of skills, instead of offering specialists in the job you need done. Likewise, very large agencies may lack the time to tend to the needs of each client. Look for evidence of technical and design savvy. A reputable agency will also take care of taxes, insurance, and payments to freelancers, and will attract quality candidates by offering benefits and other enticements. Working with a good agency takes a lot of the risk out of hiring freelance help.
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