Dear Client, you owe me money

Dear Big Client [in my case, usually a publisher, university, parastatal or government department]:


You owe me money. I sent you an invoice over a month ago, and it was promptly processed by the relevant in-house editor. More than thirty days have passed, and you still haven’t paid me the money you owe me (get used to this phrase, I’m going to be using it a lot), even though you knew from the invoice that my terms are 14 days (and that’s a concession I offer monoliths like you in spite of the fact that equally monolithic clients are able to pay me within 48 hours).

Today I was told that because someone in your finance department didn’t process my invoice in time, it’s being held over for payment until the end of next month. Yes, I have to wait for another payment cycle for you to pay me the money you owe me. For a project I worked on for three months, starting over four months ago.

I swore the next time a client pulled this one on me, I’d write a public blog about it. At this stage of my career, by the mercy of all the gods, I no longer have to chase after work. I also have grown-up resources like credit cards and an overdraft, so I’m not going to starve while you take your sweet time about paying me the money you owe me. But you and your ilk do this all the time to struggling freelancers who don’t dare complain, and someone needs to hold you accountable.

There are parallels with the phenomenon uncovered by the #MeToo movement; the reliance on a culture of fear to silence people often desperate for work and afraid to be seen as troublemakers or boat-rockers in the industry. This is the reason I am publishing this: I am old and established enough to make a noise – not a luxury available to many freelancers. It should be obvious that tardy payments disproportionately affect women (who make up the majority of writing/publishing freelancers) and make it even harder for young black freelancers sans financial safety nets to break into the industry, thanks to your casual assumption that we all have the kind of capital resources that make it possible for us to suck it up when you’re late paying us the money you owe us. Unreliable payments also make it impossible to service debt, so that rules out recent graduates paying off burdensome student loans. Congratulations: you’ve set it up so only the independently wealthy, privileged or those with other financial support sources can afford to work for you. So much for “transformation”.

Here are the reasons why when big companies delay paying the money they owe, it stinks. It’s unethical, it’s a form of bullying, it’s unprofessional (it undermines the ability of your staff to do their jobs), and in the final analysis, it hurts your bottom line (I’ll get to how that works in a minute).

Remember, I have heard it all: “This is how the system/computer programme/ accounts department works, our systems are designed for maximum efficiency in big companies,” and so forth. I told this to a lawyer who specialises in bankruptcy, and he’s still laughing. He says there is only ONE reason companies take 30 days to settle accounts (the maximum legal period before the creditor is entitled to start charging interest – not that I have ever received interest on late payments): it improves their cash flow. 

So it seems you feel entitled to withhold money you owe me to improve your cash flow, but my cash flow needs are irrelevant.

Let’s consider the ethics of this, shall we? First of all: YOU OWE ME MONEY. I performed a highly skilled service, at your request, to impeccable standards. Over a month later, you have still not paid me for this service. Now, we all live with debt. But most of us consider ourselves not only legally but morally obliged to settle those debts. I make certain that the ONLY entities to which I owe money for more than a few days are big, faceless and in absolutely no way financially inconvenienced, much less imperilled, by my debt to them. Which I always pay within 30 days, in any case. (In other words, banks, and – well, that’s it, really. Even my electricity is paid up-front.) If I employ or commission a service from anyone with a face, I pay them immediately, or within 48 hours, even when this hurts my cash flow. This is because I OWE THEM THAT MONEY. This goes for the computer techie, the plumber, my accountant, the freelancers who work for me. Tomorrow I will pick up my car from my mechanic and pay him a vast sum for repairs. On the spot. I will not airily tell him that because of my “in-house accounting system”, I’ll only be able to pay him in five or six weeks’ time. If it’s more money than I have, I’ll put it on my credit card and wince at the interest. That’s because I owe him the money, you see.

Companies like you need to understand that when you owe us money, it’s not your prerogative, but ours, to set the terms on which you settle your debt. Have you stopped to think about the arrogance involved in telling an individual to whom you owe money that because someone at your company “made an admin error”, you are going to delay paying them the money you owe

Exactly the same thing happened the last time I presented you with an invoice – it took almost two months to settle because “someone in finance forgot to process it”. I’m going to be charitable and assume this is pure coincidence (my bankruptcy lawyer friend is now laughing his head off). Seriously, though; shouldn’t the appropriate response be strenuous efforts to pay the money you owe as soon as humanly possible?

And now for the more subtle, but no less ugly side of this practice: the way you shelter behind the skirts of the often lovely in-house staff your subcontractors/ freelancers work with. You bank on our affection and respect for these people, our unwillingness to make trouble for them, our desire to be re-employed by them, to keep us quiet. This is a particularly insidious form of emotional blackmail.

When companies pull this kind of stunt, they undermine the abilities of good staff members to do their jobs, as well as their authority. Your employees should not have to worry about whether their freelancers are getting paid on time, or chase after the in-house finance department, or write apologetic emails to their suppliers. They have better things to do with their energy and time. Worse, your conduct makes it awkward, and sometimes impossible, for your employees to continue working with us, even though we might both benefit from an ongoing professional relationship. And one of the sadder things about your delaying paying the money you owe is that it often brings a sour note to an otherwise rewarding work experience. 

At my most cynical, I might assume that you have no concern for the ethics of your behaviour, and are untroubled even by undermining your own staff, and hampering their capacity to do their jobs. So let me turn to something that might penetrate: this kind of behaviour hurts your bottom line. 

First off, I always do the job to the very best of my ability, and (there is no modest way to say this) my best ability is damn near legendary in this industry. I never rush, skimp or edit mechanically. I work with passion, total commitment, meticulous attention to detail, and three decades of experience under my belt. So you’re getting a top-quality service when I work for you. Maximum bang for your buck, and it shows in the final product.

Okay, maybe you don’t care about the quality of the edit, or the expertise and experience I’m able to bring to projects. But there’s something else I have a reputation for as a freelancer: I meet deadlines, sometimes impossible ones (go ahead, ask around) without compromising quality. As part of project management, I anticipate problems and revise schedules accordingly, even when this means weeks of working into the small hours. 

I know exactly what effect schedule slippage has on YOUR bottom line. And no one who employs me ever has to worry about this on projects I work on, at least not on my account. Consider the ironies of this: I bust myself making sure I won’t be even an hour late – much less a day, MUCH less any longer – in delivering a prepared manuscript and all supporting materials – for the benefit of your bottom line. You, however, have no trouble making me wait well past the legally mandated period to get paid – my bottom line is irrelevant. A little reciprocity would be nice, don’t you think?

This lack of two-way respect (if I honour your deadlines, I expect you to honour mine) will make me hesitate the next time one of your employees offers me a job tailor-made for me. And that’s one more extremely skilled and specialist freelancer, one who can be absolutely relied on to meet super-tight deadlines, potentially lost from the pool available to your in-house staff.

I’m not inflexible: I’ll sometimes agree – IF this is negotiated upfront – to a tiny independent press or NPO taking time to settle my invoices because I know they are literally waiting for funds to flow into their accounts, or because the sole proprietor needs to pay their mortgage first. Big clients, however, do not fall into this category. Many of them (including publishers, NPOs and think-tanks) pay me within days (four to five maximum, some within 48 hours) of being invoiced. There is no (legitimate) reason the rest of you can’t do the same.

And another thing: do not EVER send me an email saying you “can’t” pay me the overdue money you owe me just yet because of your systems, or your admin error, or [insert excuse here] and then add: “apologies for the inconvenience”. Bouncing stop orders, being unable to pay the bond or rent, driving a suddenly uninsured car or losing medical cover: these are not “inconveniences”: they can be catastrophic. 

One last #MeToo-inspired thought: why are we the ones made to feel shame for insisting that you pay us the money you owe us? You’re the ones squarely in the wrong, morally and often legally. Yet we’re somehow grubby and greedy for making a fuss, we’re being “difficult” and should sweat it out in silence, and – this has always made me hop with rage – after we’ve had to do the chasing and the begging, we’re expected to be grateful when you eventually pay us the money you owe us. I’ve lost count of the times finance departments have behaved as if they’re doing me the most enormous favour by paying me MONEY I AM OWED. Let’s put the shame back where it belongs, shall we? In. Your. Corner.

I’ll leave you with a hadith to consider: “Pay the labourer [their] wages before [their] sweat dries.”

Helen Moffett