103. When Your Client Treats You Like You’re Their Employee

What do you do when a client wants to treat you as an employee rather than an independent freelance business owner? I answer two questions from freelancers dealing with this conundrum: the first centers on a retainer agreement and the second is dealing with a performance review. I present the case for why you’re not an employee, and ways you can respond if you find yourself working with a client who wants control. A third question deals with how to protect your work during a creative review.
Freelance Road Trip Podcast with Alvalyn Lundgren 103 When your client treats you like you're their employee

What do you do when you’re a freelance creative and you have a client who wants to treat you as an employee rather than an independent, separate and business owner?

There’s a couple scenarios that have been brought to my attention. One of them is regarding a retainer agreement and the other is regarding a performance review. So I thought these were interesting topics to tackle because very often, no matter how long you’ve been freelancing, you’re going to find yourself in a situation with a client, where they’re still expected to treat you as if you were their employees. And what do you do about that? Well, you could go along with it. If you’re okay with that sort of thing, and many freelancers seem to be okay. And that’s their choice.

That’s one of the things about freelancing is that it’s a choice. It’s what you can. It’s what you decide to do with your client relationships.

But for others of us, it’s going to present a problem. And things can run amok rather quickly in those situations. So what do you do? 

Adopt an owner’s mindset.

This is a mindset issue. You have to take on the mindset of being an owner, rather than just a creative or an employee. 

It’s also a bit of a mechanics issue, because these are how do you questions.

It’s also a bit of a marketing issue because marketing and positioning work together. If you’re positioning yourself where the client takes the lead and it’s not a peer-to-peer relationship, that’s a key indicator of how you’re positioning yourself.

Freelancers often shift into independent business from employment experiences:  they’re working full time and freelancing on the side, or they jump ship from their full time day job directly into full time freelancing. It’s natural to take the same mindset with them into their freelance business and carry on as if they’re employees of their clients.

But this is how things can get difficult for the freelancer.


When the client wants to set your retainer fee.

The first question is from a freelance designer who shared that their client wants them to work on a $500 per month retainer to do social media posting, post creation, and visual asset creation including 20 – 25 new graphics every month consistent with their brand.

So retainer agreements come with a couple general expectations:

  • You’re giving the client priority in your work flow.
  • Because of consistent, reliable income, retainer fees are lower than your standard pricing.

You also have to consider whether you want to be paid by the hour and how unused hours will be credited and extra hours will be billed.

Now the question is one of pricing:  is a rate of $500 per month suitable in exchange for the creation of a minimum of 20 different graphics? If you’re hesitating that it’s not enough, don’t engage in a retainer contract. Instead, negotiate a different creative fee or continue on a project-by-project basis.

Always when working with clients you need to communicate with the client effectively what your expectations are in terms of compensation for your work. And you need to set those expectations up front and put them in writing.

Another thing you can do is set a minimum for retainers, similar to a minimum engagement:

  • My minimum for retainers is $1,200 a month. This is how it works. This is what you get. This is what you can expect from me… Or,
  • My retainer is $2,000 per month. This is what you can expect…


Always use contracts.

No matter what you decide about fees, time or results don’t work without a written contract and be sure you’re the one that’s offering the contract.

I teach and train about contracts for creative freelancers inside the Freelance Road Trip program.


When the client wants to give you a performance review.

Another freelancer has a client that wants to include them in an annual performance review.Evidently in this case the freelancer acted as part of a creative team — the other creatives were employed by the client. Should the freelancer agree to a performance review?

A performance review is an evaluation by an employer to assess whether an employee is a valuable asset to the department, team or business overall. Your work your effort, your results, the results of your efforts are scrutinized, and evaluated, customarily as the basis for wages increases, promotions, and bonuses.

Are you the owner of your own business? Are you an independent contractor and a separate entity from your client? If the client is treating or attempting to treat you as an employee, that’s problematic for a lot of reasons. There are labor law issues both federally and state-wise that will be violated if a client attempts to treat freelancers as employees.

You are either an employee or you are an independent contractor. If you are a freelancer, you cannot also position and act as an employee of the client.

Employees get paid no matter what the results of their work turn out to be. But  freelancers are valued based on results.

You can’t review an independent contractor in the way that you view an employee. Independent contractors choose when to work, where they work, how they perform the work. So there will be different criteria.

What I recommend in this situation is to decline to participate in the performance review, and have a separate conversation to evaluate the project process and results based on the purpose and expectations of the work.


When you’re concerned the client might “steal” your work

And the third and final question centers on how to present concepts in a creative review without concern the client will take them.

The scenario goes this this: you create concepts for review by the client and so you package up your ideas and send that to the client. So now they have the concepts in hand and they’re supposed to review them and respond, but they ghost you. Later on you discover that the client using your concepts and hasn’t paid you. 

There’s a way to avoid this:

Never send the client a PDF. Make an appointment and present a slide deck. Don’t give them a copy of the slide deck. Present on screen in a Keynote or Powerpoint, but don’t transfer any digital files. Before you present your ideas rehearse the purpose, the goals of the project with the client. This sets up the context and the basis for your design decisions before you present your first concept. Then present your first concept. Walk them through your design decisions. Ask for their feedback and answer their questions. Have a conversation. Then you present your second concept do the same thing. And so on.

The client walks away assured that you’re aligned with them and they’re looking forward to the next review. You walk away assured that the client values your work and respects you.

Once the project is paid for in full, including expenses, then release the final versions of the graphic assets.

Understand that this is all founded on the presence of a solid written contract and a complete onboarding process before you even start the work so that the client knows exactly what to expect. When you’re in communication on an ongoing basis throughout the lifecycle of the project, the client is going to trust your decisions. They’re going to be more prone and likely to understand your methods, your approaches your business policies, because you are very open with how you run your business.

Communication, managing expectations, and keeping a guard around your creative work until it’s time to pass it to the client are essential to maintain your independence.

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