Setting Boundaries Like a Boss
It’s a Friday evening at 7:00 pm. My laptop is shut, and I’m done for the day. I’m ready to go out and have dinner with some friends and just one glass of totally-fine-for-my-waistline wine (or three, but who’s counting).
And then it happens: the dreaded client email.
“Hey, can you fix this one thing for me, really quickly?”
Not, can you fix it on Monday—but can you fix it now. Like I’ve got nothing better to do than stare at my inbox for another three hours, patiently waiting to get a follow up about my edit. C’mon now!
I want to be helpful. I want to be responsive. So I do it. And that’s how the door is opened.
No One Respects a Pushover
Ever heard the stupid cliche, if you give an inch, they’ll take a mile? Welcome to Miletown, people; you have arrived.
It’s easy to blame clients for asking too much. It’s easy to get upset with them for asking about edits that really could wait until the end of the day. It’s simple to get angry when people don’t treat us the way we think they should.
But there’s just one problem.
You are responsible for how you allow people to treat you.
A while ago, I worked in an organization that didn’t treat me very well. My boss was publicly mean, made fun of the staff at staff meetings, and was generally a complete displeasure to be around.
One time, she told me in front of a coworker and to my face, “I can’t believe that someone could ever be as stupid as you.”
I had three options in that moment:
- Look at her with a stunned face and then get back to work.
- Respectfully ask her never to talk to me that way again, and probably be fired on the spot.
Because I was young, needed a job, and whatever other shitty excuse I could come up with at the time, I stayed quiet and got back to work.
She never treated me better. She never apologized. I never said anything about that incident or any of the others that happened later.
She, of course, shouldn’t have said something that awful, and she should have treated her employees with respect.
But once I knew the way she was going to treat me, it was my responsibility to make a decision that would keep my dignity intact. I could either allow her to continue treating me this way, or I could quit.
At first, I chose to stay and deal with her out of my own fear and ignorance. But that was a choice I was completely responsible for, and when I finally did quit six months later, I had to own up to the fact that I had allowed her to treat me this way because I chose to stay in a job where I knew this wouldn’t ever change.
You can’t control the way people treat you, but you always have a choice. And the first choice you have to make is how are you going to allow them to treat you? If they’re being disrespectful of your time, your talent, or your work, you can always walk away.
What Boundaries Have You Unknowingly Set?
The first thing to consider if you’re feeling irritated that a client is overstepping their boundaries, is this:
Is the client doing something they shouldn’t, or have you set a precedent?
Do you read and respond to emails while you’re lying in bed at night? Or on Saturday afternoons? Or at all on the weekends?
Because if you do, it’s not the client’s fault. It’s yours. You don’t have to reply to a message at 1 am, ever, unless the message is something like, “Holy shit Steve, my site went down and I’m in the middle of my launch.” At which point, Steve, you better get on the damn computer.
You’re a business—think like one
When you email your bank on Friday at 11pm, you don’t actually expect anyone to respond, right? You’re emailing because you remember the question you had about your account, and you were sitting in front of the computer
watching cat videos working.
You have an expectation that sometime on Monday you’ll get a call or email from the bank, in reply to your question. They’ve set the precedent that they’re closed for the weekend, and no one will be getting back to you.
Your freelance business is the same—because it is a business. So treat it like one.
Don’t check your email after you’re done working for the day. Don’t respond on nights and weekends. Learn to let the email go until the next working day. Aggressively protect your time, because no one else is here to do it for you.
But wait, you’re thinking, what if there’s an actual emergency?
They have your number right? They’ll call. If that server goes down during a launch, you can be damned sure your phone will be blowing up if you don’t answer within five minutes of the email hitting your inbox.
Set the Right Boundaries from the Beginning
I don’t like taking calls before 10:00 am, and judging by my general attitude before 10:00 am, no one would like taking calls with me before then either. I also don’t do evening meetings, and weekends are for my side projects and playing outside.
These are my time boundaries, and I work within them. I don’t go into every project telling my client, “Well, ok, but here are all the times I won’t be talking to you,” but I only set and accept calls for times that truly work with my schedule. That’s one of the many perks of freelancing after all, right?
It’s easy for clients to overstep or take too much of your time if you don’t have clear boundaries. Don’t assume that others work the same way you do, and don’t expect clients to know how you want to work without telling them upfront. Which brings me to my next point…
We all know the value of good communication, and we’ve all been in a conversation gone horribly wrong because of a lack of clarity.
The same thing can happen when you don’t communicate your boundaries to your clients. You hate getting early morning meetings, and they don’t like having calls at 4 pm every day. That’s cool for both of you, but you’ve got to let each other know.
As an awesome freelancer, you should communicate your boundaries early and encourage them to do the same. I always tell my clients how I work best and then I ask them how the prefer to work, so we can find common ground. If you set these expectations from the beginning, and you’re clear on both ends, you’ll have a much better working relationship.
Respect the boundaries of others
I once worked with an amazing marketing manager who was a very busy man. Constantly traveling for work, working remotely from home, and basically wasn’t around much.
He also checked his email very infrequently, and when he did, things got missed. Instead of getting irritated that he wasn’t responding, I called him and directly asked him the question I needed an answer to.
I also asked him the best way to get in touch with him. He apologized, and said he wasn’t ignoring me, but he was pretty strict about when and how often he checked his emails. This was a boundary that he’d set for himself.
If I needed to get in touch with him quickly, and sometimes I really did because I worked in HR, he said to go ahead and text him, and that he would always respond quickly. It worked like a charm every time.
If you’re expecting others to be respectful of your boundaries, you have to be respectful of theirs.
If you want clients to treat you with dignity, respect, and honesty (and this is a minimum requirement people) then you need to do the same.
You’re accountable for the way you allow people to treat you, and the way you treat them.
Don’t want people to email you at 8 pm on a Friday? Don’t email them at 7:30 — that’s you telling the client it’s okay to email late.
You need to set the example for what you find appropriate, and follow your own rules.
Don’t Run from Conflict
Sometimes, you get hit by a crazy train. Nothing you can do to stop it. Every once in a while, especially if you’re new to freelancing, you won’t pick up on the odd responses that potential clients give you or the batshit glint in their eye that lets you know they left rationality and reason back in 1999.
One day, you’re going to get a client who’s off their rocker.
And on that day, you’re going to have to deal with some conflict.
A little bit of conflict is a good thing to keep you thinking creatively.
That being said, if someone isn’t treating you with respect, it’s time to speak up.
If your boundaries have been violated, talk about it
Some problems will go away on their own, but issues where you feel you’ve been disrespected usually end up just being worse.
So, if a client has been asking too many small favors or not respecting your time, you have to say something.
This can be terrifying. What if they get mad at you? What if you say the wrong thing? What if you end up looking like the asshole?
You can’t guarantee that a tough conversation will go smoothly, but you can take steps to ensure it’s got a better chance:
- Always have this conversation on the phone or in person.
- Make the conversation about how you can be better for them. > Hey Tina, I wanted to talk about that quick update you wanted me to do on the site last week. I’m happy to do small updates, but this one took me a couple of hours. I want to make sure that I’m providing you and my other clients with great service, so in the future, we’ll need to schedule extra time for your updates.
You don’t have to tell a client you won’t help. You just have to tell them how you can help on your terms.
Don’t let issues fester
In cases like these, time is really of the essence. Don’t get irritated, talk to your boyfriend about this asshole client, complain to your mom when you talk on Sunday, and then finally blow up at your client a week later.
That’s just silly. Like we’ve talked about, you need to be accountable for how you allow people to treat you, and you need to communicate clearly. And part of that is communicating quickly.
If a client does something that makes you uncomfortable, wait one day to give yourself some time to cool off. But only one day.
If you’re still feeling out of sorts about the problem after a day, chances are you’re going to continuing being pissed, so do the stand up thing and let them know. Be respectful, and be quick.
Wouldn’t you prefer to know you were upsetting a client, rather than wonder why they never wanted to work with you again?
Setting Boundaries Takes Practice
Setting boundaries can make you feel confrontational or even mean. But remember that when you set boundaries, you’re actually being upfront and fair with people, and they’ll respect that in the long run.
It takes time to figure out how you like to work, what times work best for you, and how you prefer to schedule your day. So change your boundaries as the need arises, but remember to always take accountability, communicate early, and communicate clearly. Then you’ll really be on the way to acting like the boss you are.
Marisa is a copywriter who loves traveling, working on creative projects, and starting great conversations with new people.
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