Navigating Politics at a Client Firm

Navigating office politics is difficult for even the most socially adept and diplomatic full-time employee. When you’re working as a freelancer, this can be more challenging: By definition, your job requires you to “meet, greet and fit in” at a new place of business on a regular basis.

In fact, you’re probably already good at easing into a variety of political situations on the job. However, there are times when the most polished and professional creatives face a problem that rivals one from the television show “The Office.” While your manager may not insist on playing the guitar and singing his “best hits” for you and your coworkers, following are some challenging situations you may encounter on the job, as well as some tactics to help you overcome them.

Challenge #1: You’re covering for an inexperienced employee. Truth be told, freelancers often have “green” workers to thank for many of the projects that come their way. For example, it’s not uncommon for a manager to bring in a stellar designer for a high-profile assignment that he doesn’t feel a new staff member is ready to take on.

This is a delicate situation: The full-time employee could be resentful of your help. Make sure that you know exactly what your duties entail before agreeing to do the job. You also want to be sure the supervisor has communicated your role to the staff member. For example, has he told him you’re in charge of the project and have authority over design decisions? If each person’s responsibilities are not clear, it will create resentment. Once you begin work, treat everyone with respect to create a harmonious work environment.

Challenge #2: The project isn’t what you signed up for. This is the bane of any creative’s existence: You’re set to begin a major redesign of a company’s marketing pieces, but the only work you’ve seen in two weeks has been rearranging PowerPoint presentations. While you’re being paid for your time, you took the job so you could gain experience in collateral design—not to perfect your already stellar PowerPoint skills.

This is when it’s key to have written documentation of the project you agreed to do. Did you receive an e-mail or contract that states what sort of work you were hired for? If so, take it to the hiring manager and diplomatically point out the discrepancy in the projects you’ve been doing, which should remedy the problem. After all, the company won’t want to pay a premium hourly rate for your services when they could hire someone else to complete the project for less money. If you don’t have documentation, arrange a meeting with the supervisor and tell him or her about the discrepancy in project work. Explain that you believe you have a lot more to offer the company. Try to be flexible and friendly in your discussions; if this project doesn’t work out, there may a future one. (Just be careful not to be too demanding. No employer wants to work with someone who continually complains that projects are beneath him.)

Challenge #3: You’re getting mixed messages. The person who hired you, the creative director, tells you to create an extremely contemporary, streamlined advertising piece; the VP of Marketing tells you she wants it to be traditional, conveying the company’s long history. What’s a designer to do? Instead of trying to combine both ideas into one item, which could result in a disastrous “historical/retro/future” look, arrange for these individuals to talk with each other as soon as possible, and be prepared to offer your suggestions, based on the firm’s objectives. You might first tell the creative director what the VP requested and ask for clearer directions. You may see some clear benefits to going with a more contemporary look as opposed to a historical approach, for example. Just be sure you’re not stepping on anyone’s toes (or egos) with your recommendations.

Challenge #4: The check isn’t in the mail. You finished a short-term project for a small firm two months ago and have yet to see payment. You have twice politely reminded the hiring manager that you haven’t received compensation, and he assures you that he has sent your invoices to the accounting department. Yet, no check arrives and you’re starting to worry.

In this situation, you need to be firmer with the person who hired you. If you haven’t already done so, begin to document every interaction via e-mail. Always be diplomatic in correspondences, but let the hiring manager know that you need to receive payment by a certain date. Also, ask if you can speak directly to someone in accounting to discuss the matter; perhaps the manager is overwhelmed and hasn’t had time for a thorough follow-up. If you still aren’t making headway, speak to the hiring manager’s supervisor to see if he or she can help clear up the problem. If you receive no worthy explanation for the delayed payment, you may need to take legal action. But that’s a last-ditch effort. Try all avenues within the company first, remaining professional but direct throughout your negotiations, and think twice before working with this business in the future.

Keep in mind that a good way to mitigate these and other challenges is to work onsite at a new company for a few days when you begin an assignment. You’ll get an immediate sense of the political “geography” and be a face that people can connect to a name. You’ll also have an opportunity to get to know the administrators, who can be valuable contacts when you have questions about how an office works.

In the end, a freelancer can choose whether to return to a client in the future based on each experience—and a company can decide whether or not to work with you again. Your diplomacy and professionalism in each situation is key not only to handling the challenges you may face, but also to earning recommendations and assignments in the future.

The Creative Group is a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and Web professionals on a project basis with a variety of firms.