how can I get my freelancers to turn in their work on time?

A reader writes:

I manage 15-20 part-time, remote freelancers, and my role is also part-time freelance. Let’s say our end-client sells access to a recipe database; my job is to find great recipe writers, teach them how to develop recipes according to our house standards, and then get them creating recipes for us on a regular basis. Once a recipe is submitted, I assign someone to test it, and then it is published to the database. I am paid per recipe that gets published.

There’s no real timeline to our need for new recipes, since we’re just building up a back catalog of content. In order to keep things moving and to plan the recipe-tester’s schedule (and ensure my own paycheck), I ask my freelancers to produce one new recipe per month. But consistently, after their first couple assignments, the work comes in later and later. It’s not that developing these recipes takes more than a month — most estimate that they spend about 20 hours on each recipe — it’s that this is a side gig for everyone, and there are no real consequences to submitting late work other than inconvenience for me and the recipe-tester.

How can I get my freelancers to complete their work on schedule, or at least on *a* schedule? If I stopped giving work to those whose work is late, I’d have to hire an entirely new team. I try guilting them by highlighting how much it inconveniences the recipe-tester when their work is late, but it has little effect other than getting lots of emails that are like “I’m soooo sorry, please tell the tester that I really really apologize, but the recipe still isn’t done and I have an emergency deadline from another client and my cat is sick, so the recipe will be two weeks late.”

It sounds like you either need to have consequences for late work or incentives for on-time work, or a combination of both.

On the incentive side, can you offer a monetary incentive for on-time work? Paying a bonus for work received by, say, the 20th of each month give people more motivation than they currently have to get things in on time.

On the consequences side, I hear you that you don’t want to just stop giving work to late recipe writers, since that would leave you having to hire a whole new team. But you’re losing much of the value of your freelancers if you can’t rely on them to keep commitments and get you work on time, so I think you should be open to the idea that maybe you actually do need to hire different people (and perhaps set up expectations with them differently from the start — more on that in a minute). If you really don’t want to do that, though, you still need to build in accountability somehow. One option would be to hire some extra recipe writers so that you have more than you need — and then let people know that you’ll prioritize assignments for the people whose work is on time (and those who are late will go to the back of the line, assignment-wise, and may not get work as frequently).

The other thing I’d look at is what signals you’re sending to recipe writers, particularly when you first hire them. For example, make sure that you’re talking about their work schedule as firm — not leaving anything loose-goosey. It’s the difference between saying something like “we’d like to get these from you once a month” versus “we require one recipe a month, delivered no later than the 20th of each month.” And when someone is late, that’s a prime opportunity to reset expectations — meaning that you’d call them and say, “hey, this was late, what happened?” and “Going forward, I need to get these no later than the 20th of each month. Can you commit to that?”

Note that none of this language is saying “if you don’t do this, we’ll stop working with you” — but most freelancers will assume that’s the implication, and they should. If you don’t actually want them to assume that, you can still reinforce the idea of accountability by instead saying something like, “If you think you’ll be late one month, I need to know about it at least a week before your due date” or “If you don’t think you can commit to that, let’s talk about whether there’s another schedule that would work for both of us.”

I think, too, that in your head you have to be willing to let them go at some point, because if you’re not, it’s likely to come across in the language and framing you use with them. If you aren’t mentally willing to consider cutting them loose if they don’t meet commitments, then you’re more likely to rely on trying to guilt them into action (as you’ve been doing). But if you know in your head that you will impose consequences after a certain point, it’s likely to lead you to use firmer language, and that’s likely to make people take you more seriously.

{ 146 comments… read them below }

  1. Jerry Vandesic*

    Can you simply add more freelancers to the process. Since you only pay them when they do the work, add enough workers to get the volume you desire. Reward the good/quick ones with additional pay.

  2. Emi.*

    One option would be to hire some extra recipe writers so that you have more than you need — and then let people know that you’ll prioritize assignments for the people whose work is on time (and those who are late will go to the back of the line, assignment-wise, and may not get work as frequently).

    If your old writers don’t pull up their socks, this also gives you the option to replace them gradually. Phasing them out would probably be less disruptive to you than firing them all and hiring all new people.

    1. Bonky*

      Agreed! There are a bunch of freelance writers and editors on my team. I’m always looking for new talent because it’s often necessary to rotate people we’re using out – sometimes because of deadline issues, sometimes because the quality of the work is not there.

      Even though these workers are often remote, they all talk together on our company’s Slack, and meet in person on office visits; it’s helpful if you can put something like this in place (if you haven’t already) to make sure they’re talking to one another and understand what norms are in place. That way, dropping a contract with someone because they can’t hit deadlines is seen and understood by all the others; we have much less difficulty in that direction than we might otherwise, because everybody understands that the consequences of not hitting your deadline are that you don’t get any more work.

      I make a real effort to ensure that our group of freelancers is comprised of people who understand the importance of deadlines – and also that the deadlines we set are realistic. It can take a while to get to the point where you have the right group of people, and you’ll still have to cycle occasionally (freelancers take other jobs, go full-time elsewhere, etc.) – but it doesn’t need to be as tough as your group seems to be making it.

    2. Spoonie*

      This was exactly my thought. Add some extra writers to the process and slowly phase out those who cannot return work on time. I understand the occasional late assignment (life certainly happens), but routinely being late is just…no.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        And whether or not this is a side gig, routine lateness means they’re not taking the obligation seriously. Which in my book means mkaybye.

  3. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

    I don’t think you’d be at all off base to establish a policy of “all submissions must be received by the 20th of the month” or whatever. There may be “no real timeline” but you do want there to be a timeline, and you do want a submission monthly, and cats get sick and other deadlines happen to everyone. And if writers start dropping deadlines, then I think they can be deprioritized and/or let go pretty freely.

    Which brings me to: I think you’re really overrating how replaceable a lot of these people actually are. There’s a million tiny food blogs out there with passionate, committed people running them as a labor of love. That tells me there’s a lot of foodies with free time out there. I don’t think you’d find there’s a shallow pool of people who can not only write a recipe, but can be relied on to do so in a timely manner.

    And hey, OP! This may be a bit mercenary given what I just said….but…. I’ve got experience writing recipes, I used to run a food site, and I honor deadlines. If you’re looking for a new recipe writer and see this post, please reply!

    1. TootsNYC*

      It’s not literally recipes

      </Let’s say our end-client sells access to a recipe database;

      But maybe someone will search on the site for recipe writers!

    2. Sunshine*

      My reading of the letter was that the recipes were a hypothetical example to not actually reveal OP’s real field…

              1. Natalie*

                Trivia! “Receipt” means recipe, it’s just rather archaic, and meant that before it meant an accounting of goods you had purchased. So maybe your auto-correct is just a little outdated.

          1. 2 Cents*

            Me too, but as the tester, because if there’s a way to mess up a recipe from vague instructions, I’m very skilled at that :P

      1. neverjaunty*

        Even so, the OP didn’t mention that this was a specialized field or one with a small pool of writers. So it probably is the case that plenty of people can be tapped for this work.

    3. Emi.*

      Is your food site still up?

      But yes, I do agree that these people are probably more replaceable than you’re thinking, OP.

      1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

        It’s not still up, unfortunately. It was called the Cooking Animal, and once I realized it was mostly focusing on grilling, it had a brief revival as Char (which is a double entendre on the results of cooking over fire, and also my first name.) But then I had a kid and got promoted, and while I’m told I used to have something called “free time” that I could use to write, I don’t believe it.

      2. Jessesgirl72*

        Unreliable people are almost always more replaceable than the managers who are reluctant to fire them think.

      3. Falling Diphthong*

        That’s why I wondered below if pay–amount, and how long before it arrives–are a negative for the freelancers OP has. If it’s a few hundred dollars, and will arrive several months after the writer completes the work, that would explain why so many people are letting it fall to the bottom of their priorities–they have better, more reliable pay elsewhere and those projects get first call on their attention. Add on the lack of a “real” deadline, and people good at the job who might just say “no” facing a series of hard deadlines keep the gig on hand as a way to earn a little in a slow week.

        1. TootsNYC*

          Which might be a reason to actually INCREASE the workload of the people who otherwise do good work (even if it’s at the expense of not giving work to others).

          If this job takes up more of their time, they won’t have time to give to other employers or priorities, so there’s less competition for their time.

          And they’ll be more invested in keeping a good relationship with the OP, because this income will be sizeable enough that it’s worth more to them. Plus, they’ll see themselves are more vital to the OP, and that’s motivating.

          (The number one motivator for people is when they feel that their work is important; when you only produce one “recipe” a month, you don’t feel very important; if you’re doing four or five, you feel a lot more crucial. And peopel tend to rise to meet the need when the need is powerful.)

          One or two people w/ who do a lot is often easier to manage, and to motivate, than a lot of people doing only a little.

          1. Spondee*

            That was my thought as well. OP might actually do better with FEWER freelancers. The freelancers are prioritizing their bigger/more important clients. Give them more work, and you might get more reliability.

        2. OP*

          You’re totally right, Falling Diphthong. Our pay is alright but not great (I have no control over this), and I’ve worked hard to get payroll timelines tighter (payment within a month of completing the work). My best writers are the worst offenders at deadlines because they have plenty of other work and we’re just a back-up gig.

          1. INTP*

            Would it be possible to give the best and/or most reliable writers multiple assignments per month? Any established freelancer can probably afford to lose 5 hours/week of work but if you’re giving someone, say, 3-4 assignments per month so you form up to half of their income, they would be more likely to prioritize the assignments.

            1. OP*

              I’m thinking about this, based on comments here. My best writers all have day jobs (I don’t love the work I get from full-time freelancers like me, I prefer the work I get from people who are still working in the field), but I’m thinking through my roster.

              1. Dan*

                TBH, if you value contributions from day-job people more, then you need to pay enough for their deadlines to be a priority for you.

                1. AdAgencyChick*

                  Very true. OP, even though I sympathized with you elsewhere in the thread, I also sympathize with your writers, because like them I have a day job. And my day job pays me well over ten times what I make as a freelance “recipe” editor. If a deadline at my day job ever conflicted with a deadline on my side work, I would not hesitate to let the side work slide.

                  Thus far it hasn’t been a problem because I’m a highly anal-retentive, er, organized, person, and I also work quickly enough that I’m able to manage nearly all of what is asked of me at both gigs (and keep the editorial calendar running far enough in advance that if I have to set the work aside for a few days, no one has to scramble to fill the slots). But I am up front with the owner of the company I freelance for, when he makes last-minute requests, if I don’t think I’ll be able to accommodate them. He pouts, but he deals with it. I think he’s pretty well aware of how difficult it would be to replace *me* on what he pays me, so he’s never threatened to cut me loose. (If he did cut me loose, I’d be a little sad, but I’d live.)

                  Anyway, if you’ve got an iced-tea budget, you can sometimes get beer, but you will not get champagne.

          2. MsChanandlerBong*

            Interesting. My company just started a huge hiring blitz. My fellow editor messaged me today and said that he’s on day three of doing phone interviews, and he was surprised to find that all of the best people are coming in at the end of the interview process, while the ones who aren’t as experienced/talented signed up for last week’s interview slots. I suggested that maybe the most talented writers were already booked with work last week, so they had to select later interview dates, while the less talented freelancers didn’t have work to do and were able to schedule calls within a couple of hours of receiving the “We’d like to schedule a phone interview with you” email. Sounds like you have something similar going on.

    4. OP*

      OP: Haha, not the actual work we do! But this does illustrate an actual problem I have: our work is the sort of thing, like recipe-writing, that makes a lot of people go “oh hey I can do that.” So when I open the gig for new hires, even in an extremely limited way (eg, posting it solely on the job board of my graduate school), I get swamped with a hundred applications, and very little solid way to select between candidates because pretty much if you went to my graduate school you are qualified.

      1. Grits McGee*

        OP, can you ask for a “recipe”-relevant writing sample as part of the application? If the typical brief is “write a recipe for three-tier cake”, maybe ask for a sample recipe for buttercream icing? If you have a ton of candidates, so this would at least weed out some of them.

        1. OP*

          This is what I do, yes. Maybe the problem is that I find hiring to be both kinda overwhelming and not the point of my job (and also, since I’m not salaried, only a minorly renumerative activity), so I just don’t want to put a lot of time into it. :)

          1. Not So NewReader*

            This sounds like more fo the same problem. Just not a lot of pay going out to anyone.

      2. Falling Diphthong*

        Have you asked your freelancers? That’s very often how work travels–Good Writer is busy this month but worked a project with Torrid Cucumber and thinks they might be a good fit.

      3. MillersSpring*

        I would select between them based on writing ability, work references regarding ability to meet deadlines, particularly freelance experience.

        You may not have a budget to pay them more for getting them in early but maybe you could penalize their compensation when they’re late.

        Also, so you have a written agreement with these folks that codifies payments and schedule?

        Finally, could you offer some kind of non-monetary incentive to the reliable freelancers, such as cross promotion on social media or a “certification” or awards program that you could gin up?

  4. Anna*

    I manage freelancers as well, and am in a situation where sometimes the work is really not high-priority–but sometimes it is.

    When I first took over managing them, the person before me had not given firm deadlines, and while this wasn’t creating any true “problems” with scheduling, it meant that stuff was just languishing and getting forgotten about, which didn’t really reflect well on me and my team.

    One thing I did was standardize the schedules. Now the deadline is ALWAYS the same day of the month, so the freelancers can be in a routine and not let deadlines slide unnoticed. I also shortened some of the turnaround time–I found that when they were given long turnaround times, things were put to the side as “Oh this isn’t due for a really long time, and it will only take me 20 hours!” until it was past due. A reasonable turnaround time that better reflected the time it might take them to get it done actually worked better.

    And one person did need a formal reprimand from my supervisor, who had the ability to fire her with my input. That also helped.

    I also explicitly say when I can and can’t budge on the schedule, and end with “if you think you may not be able to make the date, please let me know by X day.”

    All of these steps helped me get back on track, and now, even though not every single item comes in on time, at least nothing is being forgotten about or languishing on someone’s desk for weeks on end.

    1. BritCred*

      “I found that when they were given long turnaround times, things were put to the side as “Oh this isn’t due for a really long time, and it will only take me 20 hours!” until it was past due. A reasonable turnaround time that better reflected the time it might take them to get it done actually worked better.”

      Yep. As my student lodger has discovered. If she has an assignment for a month or more’s time she’ll end up doing it in the 24 hours before it has to be in the box and be rushing to get it submitted. If her assignment is by the next class next week she seems to do it the same day she got it…

    2. KR*

      I agree with this. My old supervisor was a big fan of giving our team assignments with no due date or time frame. Then it wouldn’t get done for months on end. So I began a 2 week maximum turn around for typical projects and putting longer numbers on bigger projects even when they didn’t need due dates. Surprise – we started getting things done.

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Very much agreed. I’ve been a freelancer as a side gig, OP, and if I missed deadlines (which we had—set one for your freelancers), I was taken out if regular rotation for a period of time (e.g., one month for the first missed deadline in the past six months, three months for the second, six months for the third missed deadline in a year, then fired). I could still submit recipes, but I no longer had priority for having my recipe post—the job requires a steady stream of work but not necessarily an unlimited # of recipes per day—which also meant I was deprioritized/delayed in getting paid. And timely performance came with greater latitude on things like needing to skip a month to handle life and my primary job because I was seen as reliable.

    4. Someone Else*

      I agree – I’m a full time freelancer, my work involves immovable deadlines that could cost my clients significant money if they were missed so my livelihood and reputation depends on meeting those deadlines. But give me the work two or three weeks before it technically needs starting and it’ll just sit there waiting while I do other things.
      Weirdly, the longer it sits there, the less I want to do it and the more I’ll put it off until there’s only just enough time to squeeze it in. *digresses into multilayered psychological reasoning*
      I’d like to think that more time = better output but years of experience tell me it’s the opposite!

  5. TootsNYC*

    If I stopped giving work to those whose work is late, I’d have to hire an entirely new team.

    This reminds me of the people (Uber, I’m looking at you) who say, “We can’t fire that jerk because he’s a star performer.”

    You (and they) are overlooking the part of the equation that is the ongoing cost of dealing with these people.

    What would happen if you had to go get new freelancers?
    You might get freelancers who DO turn stuff in on time, and think how much easier your job would be.

    There’s a saying, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” but there’s a problem with that, when the bird you have doesn’t produce enough eggs to feed the family.

    Maybe you should go hunting for birds that produce bigger eggs more reliably.
    After all, there are other fish in the sea!

    You can also tell the nonproducing birds that you’re going to start looking for other producers; that might get them prioritizing you.

    You might also consider that if you are such a low priority, it’s because you don’t add much value to their lives–maybe you need to ask MORE of these people, so that you monopolize more of their time, AND you produce more money for them.
    That’s the counterintuitive approach, and it often works (sort of, if your children aren’t listening, don’t yell–whisper).

    So there’s the carrot-and-stick approach: “I want to recruit someone who will have a bigger role and a bigger paycheck–but I need them to be more reliable that you are. Can you be more reliable? If so, I can increase your income in exchange for a more reliable commitment, and more time and effort, from you.”

  6. TJ*

    I totally empathize with the OP, because it can be really hard to find good freelancers, and when you find people that do good work, you don’t want to cut them loose just because they’re not meeting deadlines.

    But if you slowly add new freelancers, and you’re firm about deadlines with them from the start, you may eventually find that you have enough good, reliable freelancers that you could afford to lose some of the less-reliable people. That makes it much easier to enforce deadlines, and just in general it’s nice to have the flexibility to lose a couple of freelancers for whatever reason.

    1. Dizzy Steinway*

      If they can’t meet deadlines, they’re not good freelancers – even if they’re good writers.

      1. Maxwell Edison*

        This. I’m a full-time freelance editor, and I’m either given deadlines (for work I get through agencies) or set them myself (for direct clients). I work as hard as I can to meet them, and on the rare occasions when I haven’t been able to (usually resulting from a delay on the client’s end or something like nasty illness on my end), I’ve reached out to the client to let him or her know and ensure that’s OK. Timeliness is part of the package.

        1. Vin Packer*

          Yeah this. I’m a freelancer and I’m gobsmacked at all the comments by people who say their freelancers routinely miss deadlines. What?!?! Being on time is the job! (And are any/all of you guys hiring? Because sheesh, I can do that for you.)

      2. Falling Diphthong*

        If the pay is low–and not something OP can mend–then it might make sense that flexibility is the only part of the (good writer)-(willing to take the job)-(willing to prioritize the job) triangle that moves to fit.

        1. MegaMoose, Esq*

          That triangle is brillant. While not technically a freelancer, I’m doing work with what seems to be a similar dynamic, and it is really, really hard to find people with all three of those characteristics. The only reason I haven’t left my paying-below-market-rate employer is because I’ve basically been guaranteed more interesting work and I’m not my household’s primary breadwinner. A vast majority of the people I work with (1) are only doing this because they’re not competent enough to do other work, or (2) are doing this for shits and giggles and don’t treat it as a priority, or (3) do good work but get bored or demoralized pretty quick so certainly aren’t giving 100% (YO!). This might just be impossible to avoid depending on the circumstances.

    2. OP*

      OP here – thanks. Somehow I find the worst schedule offenders are often the best writers, and the people who are super diligent and really into the gig are doing work that’s only just good enough. We don’t pay enough, frankly. But that’s not something I can change, that’s set by the end client. So since we don’t pay that well, the people who are good use this as a gig to pad their schedules, and the people who are crummy are on top of it. So I really do prefer to get my good people to keep a rhythm than to phase them out…

      1. Dizzy Steinway*

        Unfortunately good writers can sometimes develop a bad attitude. There ARE ones who can write well and meet deadlines but not enough!

      2. NEW YEAR, NEW ME*

        If you look for a Facebook group for writers called The Working Binder that can get you in touch with really professional writers who are quite capable and have related experience. (There’s a sub binder just for food writing too).

  7. Chickaletta*

    As a freelancer, I learn quickly when clients take their deadlines seriously or not. I have lots of people say “I need to submit the final version of this by Wednesday!”, so I turn it in on Monday, and then on Thursday morning they ask for revisions and it goes on and on like this until the final version is turned in a week later. That to me signals that the client wasn’t serious about their deadline, and I have less incentive in the future to put other projects aside and work quickly on their project. So I agree that if all your freelancers are turning in late work, don’t just look at the wording that you use when you communicate with them, but also be honest about your own actions, and if you’re doing anything on your end to signal that the deadline is soft then revise that.

    1. Dizzy Steinway*

      Not everyone operates like this though and it’s not great to try to second guess a client deadline. I honestly don’t see how I could have survived as a freelancer if I had assumed that clients’ rules for their own processes also applied to me.

    2. OP*

      OP: Yes, you are correct, this is part of the problem. The deadlines *aren’t* serious. When someone’s work is due on the 15th, and they email me on the 13th and say that it will be done on the 17th, there’s no reason for me to say no to that because that’s fine. The problem is when they email me on the 16th to say it will be done on the 25th. I am really struggling to finesse the difference between “sure, we know we aren’t the best paid gig in the world so we can be flexible and let you schedule us around your full-time work” and “but actually you do need to at least be reasonable about when you get stuff done.”

      1. ZTwo*

        I think the major differences in your two examples are:

        1) When the person notifies you (ahead of the deadline vs. after)
        2) How much extra time they need (four days vs. nine days)

        I think you can absolutely create policies around both. It’s reasonable to say that if someone needs to extend their deadline they have to tell you before the deadline. It’s also reasonable to say deadlines can be extended up to a point–giving someone five extra days is fine, but you can’t give someone a whole week. Figure out what your personal limit is for flexibility is and just enforce that. Flexibility shouldn’t mean you end up bending over backwards and still losing out.

        1. ZTwo*

          Also I would only bring up #2 when someone’s late, not something that everyone is aware of (or else they’ll see every deadline as +5 days). So a script like this: “I can extend your deadline to the 20th. Let me know if you can’t make that so I can [make this your piece for next month / offer it to someone else / whatever consequence you can do].”

        2. OP*

          Yeah, but when someone asks for too much time, or does so after the deadline, then what? Say “thanks but no thanks” and reject their work if it isn’t on time? I guess I could then accept the work whenever it does come in and not give them any more work after that.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            That’s where the part of my answer about creating accountability comes in:

            And when someone is late, that’s a prime opportunity to reset expectations — meaning that you’d call them and say, “hey, this was late, what happened?” and “Going forward, I need to get these no later than the 20th of each month. Can you commit to that?”

            … “If you think you’ll be late one month, I need to know about it at least a week before your due date” or “If you don’t think you can commit to that, let’s talk about whether there’s another schedule that would work for both of us.”

            1. TJ*

              Yeah, so basically you’re saying that you’ll accept the work this time, but it’s inconvenient and can’t happen again. It’s an idea that’s useful with freelancers in general, since you can use it to help them improve in other ways too. (Like if you need them to be more careful about accuracy, or use particular ingredients in their recipes, or whatever.)

          2. ZTwo*

            I would say that depends on the writer and how often they’ve missed deadlines, as well as if this is someone new vs. someone who’s been with you a while. But I think there’s a few options: you could kill the piece, you could give it to someone else (maybe someone who meets deadlines as a way to give them additional work/reward them), you could publish it late but not give them assignment the next month, or you could make it their last recipe.

            Enforcing the consequences is going to suck initially and, because of how you’re paid, will affect your take home. But not having any consequences is also affecting your take home, so while it’s going to be not fun it should (hopefully) end with you in a better, less frustrated spot.

          3. Chickaletta*

            “Say “thanks but no thanks” and reject their work if it isn’t on time?”

            Yes, exactly. But it sounds like you can still take work whenever it comes in. If that’s true, then why have a deadline in the first place? Why not just have rolling submissions? If there’s a real deadline each month, then there’s a real deadline and you don’t accept their work after that date. It’s possible to be polite about it too, just say, “I’m so sorry but the deadline has already passed for this month and the recipes are at the printers. You’re welcome to try again for next month, the deadline is on the 20th”. I bet they make the next deadline.

            (And for the record, just so everyone here knows, I do always turn in my work by my client’s deadline. But, like I mentioned above, I can tell when they’re serious or not and if I have two projects due at the same time, one for a client with a hard deadline and another with some wiggle room, guess which will get worked on first…, it’s all part of project management when you’re a freelancer juggling several priorities at once.)

      2. Alli525*

        It shouldn’t matter that the job doesn’t pay well – the freelancers each agreed to the rate you proposed! They always had the option to turn it down. “I don’t get paid enough for this” is not a valid excuse, no matter if it comes from a permanent FT employee or a freelancer.

      3. Dizzy Steinway*

        You might have to just start cracking down and saying no, it’s not fine – they do it on time or not at all.

      4. Joe X*

        This is why you need to be firm with your deadlines regardless of how firm the client’s deadline are. You can’t be trying to differentiate between acceptable lateness and unacceptable lateness. Late is late.

    3. TJ*

      Just to give you the other side’s perspective on this, as someone who works with and manages freelancers: We don’t always end up needing to review their projects the day of the deadline — but sometimes we do. That’s because things change pretty quickly, so we might have to switch gears and prioritize a different project for a couple of days after the deadline. If a freelancer saw that and assumed our deadlines weren’t really firm, we’d first ask them to stick to deadlines, but if it became a pattern, we’d stop working with them entirely.

    4. oranges & lemons*

      Yeah, from someone on the other side, I work for a company that works with a lot of regular freelancers and they know that we won’t penalize them for lateness. I strongly suspect some of them de-prioritize their work for us in favour of other companies that take punctuality more seriously.

  8. Cambridge Comma*

    If each recipe takes 20 hours to develop, I wonder if you would have better results with 4-5 freelancers who mostly work for you rather than 15-20 who perform one task for you per month. Choose those people wisely though!

  9. MK*

    Also, OP, there is a difference between people who do this as a side-gig and people who do this as a hobby. Are you sure you don’t have a bunch of amateurs at your hands?

    1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

      This is a good point. It matters how they think about the gig. Is it “I’m a freelancer who specializes in recipes” or is it “I’m a cat owner and widget developer who writes recipes in her free time for fun?” Because my guess is the latter is not going to tend to think about this in a professional way.

      1. animaniactoo*

        But they might still be awesome at it and worth keeping around. Back when typesetting was a thing, a high number of the freelance typesetters in NYC were actually actors and other aspirants who did typesetting on the job for extra money but would ditch an assignment in a heartbeat for an audition and were otherwise not so-professionally-reliable. My dad said the best guy he had was somebody he’d hire to come in 2 hours before he actually needed him to start working so he’d have time to sober up. The guy was that good once he was on his game, that it made the cost worth it over somebody who would come in not-drunk to begin with.

    2. OP*

      OP: it’s not actually recipe-writing, so no, this is not something one would do as an amateur. But to extend my metaphor, imagine it’s the type of recipe-writing work that is best done by people who are line cooks in their day job.

      1. Dizzy Steinway*

        Okay, this changes things a bit if they’re not primarily writers. Some people get really freaked out by writing and put it off as they’re not super experienced with the process and can psyche themselves out – so I wonder if it might help to do any of the following:

        – Ask if they’re late because they think the deadlines are flexible or if they’re finding the work hard.

        – Check in with them more proactively to confirm they’re on track.

        – Set a deadline for an earlier part of the process, e.g. a basic outline / plan.

        – Put together some writers’ guidelines, or add to the ones you have, and include tips on getting started, how long to allow for each part of the project, common pitfalls and what helps overcome these, etc.

        Also if they are actually not writers, you may find it easier to just stop paying for the content in this way and adopt a new model: hire a few writers who don’t need to be professionals in that field – have them interview the actual experts about how to do the thing, write up what they said and have them approve it.

  10. Delta Delta*

    The idea about deadlines is a good one. I think it’s probably easy to let things slip to the back burner if there’s no real urgency to them. I also write as a freelancer for a publication, and I have some minor editorial duties, as well. We have a core of X writers who contribute fairly frequently and get things done. We have Y number of writers who enjoy having their names on the masthead, but who haven’t contributed in a year or so. Since there’s no real deadline, they feel no pressure to get things done. The editor can’t really remove them since they haven’t technically done anything wrong. It’s no skin off my back to keep contributing, but it is a little grating when someone else takes credit for being part of the publication when I know they haven’t done anything in a year. I suppose if we had deadlines they’d either get things done or get cut.

  11. animaniactoo*

    I think that to a large extent, you’re thinking about freelancers for this kind of thing all wrong.

    When you’re looking for regular submissions from people for whom there is so little work involved that it’s a side gig for them rather than a specific one-and-done job, you can’t stop at having developed a “stable” of freelancers. You have to keep developing new ones all the time, expecting that some will be unavailable every month for whatever reason, and some will become permanently unavailable. You should expect to have some constant minimal turnover and setup your hiring and reliance on that basis. Based on what you’ve written here, I think developing 2-3 new people every couple of months, in addition to Alison’s suggestions sounds like a good target.

    Some of the things this allows you to do:

    • Accept content as being for “next month” when it’s late.
    • Put out a call asking for who is interested in doing for “this month”, knowing that they will not all sign up for this month, but that you should have enough people to cover this month.
    • Keep people who can’t really do this every single month but are good valuable contributors available.
    • Purge those who aren’t so interested anymore from your list. Generally you can do that with a direct e-mail “Hi, you haven’t contributed in a while/are regularly behind. Is this something that you’re no longer interested in doing?” “No, I want to!” gets “Okay, I really need to see (on-time) submissions from you in the next few months to keep you on the list.” and “Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to really be working with my schedule/etc.” gets “I’m sorry to hear it, I’ll take you off the list and if things change please let me know. Your [____] recipe was great.”

    By approaching how you think about having freelancers differently in your supply chain, you should be able to correct a lot of your “flow” issues.

    1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

      “you can’t stop at having developed a “stable” of freelancers. You have to keep developing new ones all the time, ”

      All of this.

    2. hbc*

      I agree. Maybe there are fields/focuses where you can have 20 freelancers submitting 20 doohickeys every cycle, but it sounds like this isn’t one of them. Instead of fighting that, accept an 80% or 50% or whatever yield as the average, and increase the number of people so that you get them when you need them. At what point you “fire” people really depends on how much work it takes to keep them on board, and whether it holds up other work if they don’t do their assignment for six months.

    3. animaniactoo*

      A subset of putting out a call for contributions for “this month” – if you end up with more interest than you really want for the content some months, you can start building on giving priority for that month’s assignment to those who have a better record of on-time submissions.

    4. TootsNYC*

      I agree with all of this.

      And, “for whom there is so little work involved that it’s a side gig for them”

      People for whom it’s not a side gig will work harder and more reliably.
      Can you group the work, so that it IS a “steady, sizable gig”?

      You may find it easier to get more dedication from just a few freelancers who do a lot (and earn a lot) than it is to command that from a bigger groups that individually don’t do much, or earn much.

    5. OP*

      OP: thanks, this is good advice. I generally hire seasonally (I lose a lot of people during the busy months for, err, line cooks). The downside of keeping applications always open is that I get SWAMPED with applicants. Any time I open the gig for new writers, I get two hundred applications. But I’ll think about how I can find new people regularly without publicly advertising the gig, so that I don’t get overwhelmed.

      1. animaniactoo*

        If you’re regularly hiring, you can open applications 3 or 4 times a year and then allow the process of development to take longer for some than others. You can give varying start dates for contributions/training and get yourself on a schedule so that you have a steady flow of a couple of newbies here and there onboarding.

        Also: Where else to find contributors: Referral bonus for your current contributors who bring in somebody you end up hiring.

        1. animaniactoo*

          fyi: on funding a referral bonus – think how much you *save* in reviewing fewer resumes of people who are eager but not right, when you are able to get a higher proportion of probably-right-for-the-job resumes. ;)

      2. Meg Murry*

        Can you ask your current people for referrals to others they’ve worked with? So not putting an open posting out there, but rather saying “if you know someone who is qualified, please have them fill out [this application material] along with a statement as to how well you know the person or if you’ve worked with them before in what capacity”.

        If you know you lose a lot of people during the busy season, instead of expecting one submission a month, can you increase the number of people you have submitting 9 months a year, to front load on that slow period?

      3. animaniactoo*

        Ohhhhhhhhh. I just realized, reading through some of your other responses…

        Yeah, I really think you need to revise your model for “who is available/interested in contributing this month”, because it will vastly help your flexibility cred AND help you long-term retain the line-cooks who are going to want work again when the busy season is over. They’re dropping you because you’re a monthly commitment and it feels flaky to drop a monthly commitment and then come back and ask to do it for another 8 months and then drop you again. But I get the sense that you would be more or less ecstatic with getting reliable *good* work from previous contributers again if you can get them to come back after the busy season is over. That will be much easier if it’s already understood that they may not be available some months.

        Question: Possible to submit stuff in advance for you? To tie in with the suggestion you liked below about some being able to submit more than one in a month? So then you have some backlog for those busy months and you’re not as pressed for current submissions?

        1. OP*

          Yes you’re correct about all that re busy season and my preferences. I’ll think about how I can phrase things when people start backing away to make it clear that they’re welcome back when they are available again.

          Advance submissions are maybe useful? I don’t have a quota from the client, so that’s not really an issue — one month *I* dropped the ball entirely and we published nothing, and no one noticed until there was a huge amount of content published the following month — but it would be nice to have some back burner assignments on hand for the recipe testers when other projects get dropped. On the other hand, there’s no incentive to the writer to do work in advance, since they still won’t be paid until the tester gets to it.

          1. animaniactoo*

            I strongly suggest that you don’t wait until they’re backing away, that you revise the entire setup so that you are putting out a call monthly for submissions, and allowing them to opt-in every month. That will allow them to never really have “gone away” and it will likely also help with the deadline issue because people who have are confirming a deadline again, rather than being on repeating deadline, are more likely to stick to a “fresh” commitment.

            Let’s say your due-date is the 15th. So the 3rd week of the previous month, you do sign-up, accept all the people you want to accept (your strong writers plus some of your regular go-tos/middlin writers) in the 4th week, and then they have 2-3 weeks to put it together for the next month.

            If that really won’t work for you or you don’t want to work that way, I still would not wait until they’re backing away – by that time, they have already pushed themselves to keep doing it even though they’re kinda burned out/burning out and are probably beyond “just want/need a break”. You want to be clear about the flexibility up front to write for 3 months, take a 1 month break, write for another 3 or 4, break for 2, etc – in return, you’d like them to give you a head’s up for when they won’t be available so you can source the writing elsewhere.

            On advance submissions – money is money whenever it comes in. If they have extra time on their hands during their not busy months, it’s likely worth the time and effort to do stuff then and have checks coming in a month or 2 later when they are busy but don’t have time to write. Might be worth floating and seeing if there’s interest there.

          2. animaniactoo*

            Fwiw, in terms of getting more writers in the near future? It sounds like you have an opening here to e-mail people who used to be writers for you and say “Hey, any interest in working with us again on an open-ended basis? We’re looking at adjusting things so we don’t keep losing great writers like you to a busy period. We understand there may be some months that you can’t contribute, but we’d love to discuss ways to keep working with you outside of those busy periods.”

  12. Dizzy Steinway*

    I used to freelance and would never have behaved like this. How clearly are you setting the deadlines? Are these new or experienced writers? Are you paying good rates?

    If you’re paying decently I’d be looking for more writers.

    1. Dizzy Steinway*

      Totally rethinking this now I’ve seen they’re primarily line cooks and not full-time food writers (or whatever the actual equivalent is).

      Some people find writing really daunting and psyche themselves out. Or they just don’t get schedules.

  13. FullTimeFreelancer*

    I am putting myself through graduate school working as a freelance writer. I am tead lead for my current client, and we’ve been working together almost a year and a half. What has worked for my client is telling the writer “You need to have the assignment turned in by X day of the month (e.g. August). Payments are issued on Y day of the month. If the assignment is turned in after X day, your payment for August will be paid on Y day of September because of the delay in processing payments.”

    Does that make sense? Money talks, and you aren’t refusing to pay them. What you are doing is saying we have strict deadlines for this assignment, and if you want to be paid on time, you need to turn in your work on time or else we’ll pay you during the next pay period. If any of your writers are like me, you need your income in a timely manner.

    1. OP*

      This is in fact the set up that we use. The main problem with it is that the recipe-tester also gets her work bumped to the next month (as well as my own fee!) when someone’s like “okay cool I’ll just take a whole extra week then and have this be an August assignment.” Maybe I need to hire hungrier folks. :)

      1. Meg Murry*

        Can you offer some kind of incentive payment instead? Like, for your established group of “best” frelancers, assignments turned around in 2 weeks pay 1.5X, and assignments turned around under 4 weeks pay X, etc?

        Or just have an understanding that you have people in different buckets – the 12 submissions a year bucket people vs the 6 submissions a year people – and the pay rate once people have hit (and maintained) that 12 submissions a year level is higher than the every other month people?

  14. AdAgencyChick*

    Hi OP! Are you me? Because although I didn’t write this post, I feel like I could have (the freelance work I do is not recipe writing, but that’s exactly how I would fictionalize it to keep from being identified).

    I think building a bigger stable of writers in is the single best thing you can do, especially if, like me, you have constraints on being able to fire writers (in my case, several are friends of the owner of the company) and/or you have budget constraints that don’t allow you to offer much of an incentive to be on time. This takes time, but eventually produces a bigger stream of work so that if you line up a tester and Wakeen is late, hopefully Fergus has submitted a different recipe that you can then have the tester work on instead.

    I totally get that it’s hard to think about firing your entire team, especially if you have specialized content and it wouldn’t be easy to replace them. (The budget I’m allotted to pay writers is pretty small, which means the pool of writers who are both able to do what I need and willing to do it for peanuts is limited.) I know others are talking about the cost of dealing with a bad team but I’m totally on your wavelength here that the thought of cutting them all at once (which in my case would mean I’d just have to do all the writing myself, and I can’t do that and still work my far-better-paying day job) is frightening. I’m in a way better place than I was a year ago in a situation similar to yours, but only because we slowly built up a larger team of writers to generate a larger and more reliable stream of work.

    1. OP*

      Hi, I think maybe I am you! :) Yeah, our specialized content is such that it’s not rocket science but it does require some training to get someone up to speed on our house style; usually a new writer takes a few rounds of revisions to submit publishable work, and I’m the one working on those revisions with them, so I have a real incentive to hold on to people once I’ve gotten them to the point where they are consistently doing publishable work without hand-holding.

      And yep, if I could pay people more then it would be easier to hold on to them! But it ain’t my company.

  15. Liane*

    The game blog I write/edit for, requires the Staff Writers–those of us who have agreed to provide 1 article/week in exchange for $x/month stipend and our own titled “column”–to have at least 1 and preferably more completed articles on Reserve. That way if something comes up at the last minute, or have something planned, I or Editor can schedule one of my reserves. Later, I can write a new reserve.

    I am not sure this would work for OP, but it might be helpful to someone else.

  16. Thebe*

    Have you considered how much you pay these freelancers? I’m a freelancer and while I don’t blow deadlines, I have a client who doesn’t pay very much. So I only accept an assignment from that clients when it’s easy/convenient/really interesting. That client is always scrambling for dependable freelancers and begging me to do things at the last minute. I can’t help but feel if that company paid more, it could maintain a more dependable stable of freelancers and the freelancers would take the deadlines more seriously. In your example, if the emergency assignment from another client pays a lot more, a freelancer may be tempted to prioritize that one and let the recipe slide.

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      YES, THIS.

      One of the things I have to accept as the editor of the company I freelance for is that I can’t ask too much of my freelancers. I get paid a pitifully small amount, and they get paid even less. So I know that if I ride them too much about deadlines, they’ll just quit writing for me.

      Another point in favor of enlarging the pool as much as possible.

    2. INTP*

      Agree with this. If the freelancers are deprioritizing you for other clients, that is likely because those clients pay better and/or offer more work. It sounds like the OP’s employer is offering about 5 hours of work/week, so if they also don’t pay really well, they might just be a client that the freelancers can afford to lose and therefore aren’t making a priority above better-paying or potential new clients.

      Increasing the pay might not be an option if the OP isn’t the one setting the budgets, but there are other ways to become a priority client. For example, hire less experienced recipe writers, for whom the same pay rate will be more competitive (and who are less likely to have enough other steady clients that they can afford to lose you). Alternatively, look into giving the most reliable recipe writers multiple assignments per month so that you form a much bigger proportion of their income.

      1. OP*

        Yeah, our pay is alright but not great, and I have no control over it. I do hire inexperienced people so that the pay is more competitive for them, and for more experienced folks I trumpet our flexibility and usefulness as a back-up gig as a reason to take work that may not pay as well as some of their other gigs. So I guess there isn’t a ton I can do about their lateness when I’ve straight-up told them that a benefit is our flexibility…. I just want them to be reasonable about it! :(

        I do like the idea of having some people do multiple concurrent assignments so that it’s a bigger share of their income. I’ll think about who might be interested in that.

        1. Newby*

          If you are selling the job based on flexibility and the fact that it is a good back-up, I’m not surprised that they don’t take the deadline seriously. It might help to be more explicit about how much flexibility you can offer them and be willing to let them go if they cannot commit to what you need from them.

        2. Falling Diphthong*

          If the key to attracting good writers is the job has flexibility and can be a reliable backup gig–and that makes sense! those are good things!–then it’s going to be hard to make deadlines stick. The multiple concurrent assignments is a good idea–if you can turn it into a *steady* backup gig with a reliable income stream, that’s going to appeal for similar reasons.

        3. Not So NewReader*

          I think one of your ways out of this trap is to stop promoting the flexibility of the job.

          Can you say reliable income instead or steady work?

          OTH, can you switch to saying some flexibility or moderate flexibility?

          You’re kind of painting yourself into a corner when you tell them it’s flexible.

  17. Maybe*

    A sliding remuneration scale may help.
    Put it in your contracts that you will pay ___ total fee for items completed within [reasonable time frame].
    After that time frame, they will be paid the fee, minus a slight percentage.
    Think 2-3% of the total for 1-5 days late, 4-5% for a week to a week and a half late, and 5-10% off if they’re over two weeks late.
    I know large corporations do something like this with suppliers to encourage them to meet deadlines, so it may be effective with freelancers as well.

    1. Parenthetically*

      Yep, there’s a major city in the US that apparently used to do this with their infrastructure construction contracts. They only got the full contracted amount (always generous) if they met or came in ahead of the deadline (with a bonus for finishing well ahead of schedule, IIRC), otherwise they’d be docked for every week they were late. It was amazing how basically all their contractors came in on time.

      1. saf*

        That’s how DC contracts are written. Some agencies are better at enforcing that than others.

      2. Candi*

        Our (West Coast) city council does that. There’s also a section that if they screw something up trying to make the deadline, they fix it on their own dime.

        (And they have to install sidewalks whenever they do a major fix to the roads. Makes for a rather funny-amusing patchwork.)

    2. Joshua*

      Alternatively, you could give a bonus if the recipe is provided “on-time.” I’ve read in many places that paying more for being early is more motivating than paying less for being late (even if the actual payments end up being the same). So for example say you’ll pay $100 for the recipe, but $110 before date X, instead of paying $110 for the recipe, but $100 after date X.

      Anecdotally, this is true for myself. I always get a little irritated if someone says they’re penalizing me for whatever reason. But if they’re rewarding me I feel more beholden to them. Brains are weird.

      1. INTP*

        I do agree that the bonus is probably better than the pay docking, if it’s possible. Both from a motivational perspective, and to minimize the freelancers who then claim they didn’t see the fine print or it isn’t their fault because OP didn’t answer an email quickly enough or whatever and argue that their pay agreement was violated. However, if the OP’s supervisors won’t approve a bonus, I think it’s worth asking about the possibility of docking pay for late delivery, and then quietly increasing rates to compensate. I know so many business types that would be averse to paying people bonuses for doing what they’re supposed to do but all for docking them for NOT doing what they’re supposed to do, regardless of what the numbers add up to in the end. It’s amazing what framing can do to mindsets on both sides!

        1. Newby*

          Another complication about making it a bonus is that the fee is already set. In order to give a “bonus” for being on time, they would either need to get an increased budget or they would have to decrease the amount that they are giving for the work itself in order for fee+bonus=original fee. I think that just as many people would be upset by a decrease in the base fee as would be upset by a penalty for being late.

          1. MegaMoose, Esq*

            The more I’m reading the OP’s comments on their situation, the more I think that trying to enforce deadlines with a decrease in base fee is only going to drive away the stronger writers that the OP wants. It sounds like instead of putting much more time into trying to enforce deadlines, the OP should focus on expanding the size of the team. It doesn’t sound like the OP’s best workers are doing this primarily for the money, so I don’t see them putting up with a lot of negative consequences.

            1. OP*

              That’s a useful summary, thanks MegaMoose. I think I’m headed towards the same conclusion, that I’m going to have to do more hiring more regularly. Darn.

              1. Sprinkled with Snark*

                You just might have to do that anyway, even if all your writers are excellent writers and turn in everything on time. Freelancing can be sort of a “temp” job anyway – – people graduate, have a baby, get a full-time job somewhere, get better paying gigs on a more regular basis, or even actually publish a book! I can assure you that the best writers who are committed to making it as a writer are doing everything thing they can to get their byline everywhere, and would NEVER tell a potential publisher (who could give them even more work), I am sooooooooooo sorry, but my cat is sick. I have friends who are trying to make it as writers who can breastfeed a baby while cleaning up cat gak while typing with one finger to meet that deadline and grab that byline (and that paycheck too).

            2. Not So NewReader*

              Agreeing with Mega.

              You could consider announcing to everyone that if people can’t commit to deadlines you are going to need to get a larger pool of writers. This will mean that you will have to implement hard cut off times because of having more people. You’d prefer not to go through this. You would like everyone to see what they can do to make sure they are meeting deadlines.

              Conclude with, “I will give it two months to see what everyone can do here, then I will decide.”

              At the end of two months you could decide to add one or two people and that would be fine.

    3. INTP*

      I came here to post the same suggestion.

      It’s basically the same thing as paying bonuses for on-time work, which is probably preferable from a freelancer relations standpoint, BUT if the OP needs approvals from higher-ups for the pay structure, “I want to pay them less for late delivery” might go over better than “I want to pay them more for early delivery” even if the resulting pay rates are exactly the same. Just based on my experience with certain business-y types, hah.

  18. Anon Anon*

    Some of it depends on your contract.

    But, with some of our contractors, we provide bonus payment for being on time so many projects in a row, and reduced payments for being excessively late. So for example, if a contractor provides five projects in a row on-time, they receive a one time bonus payment.

    The other option is to not use those people any more. I know it’s a pain to have to hire new people, but it will be clear that being on time has consequences.

  19. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

    OP, Alison is right. Be direct and to the point. Explain very clearly what you want and need. It’s their job to provide it and deliver on time.

    As a freelancer, I take deadlines very seriously. If I’m not given one, I’ll create one (e.g., if the client says ‘oh, I don’t know, sometime during April’, I’ll tell them that I’ll aim for the 15th. In the meantime, I will give them updates and remind them that the deadline is the 15th unless otherwise specified).

    I’m honestly stunned that freelancers would behave like this because my experience has been that there’s a lot of competition out there, and if you don’t provide exemplary customer service, you don’t get clients.

    1. MegaMoose, Esq*

      I suspect the issue here is the OP as middle-person. Her freelancers don’t care what the client wants, because as far as they’re concerned, she’s their client, and if she isn’t rewarding or punishing them for timeliness, they’ve got no incentive to provide better service than they’ve been providing.

      1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

        Yes, that makes sense. It can be very tough to be the middle person, so OP definitely has my sympathy. I guess it’s just really surprising to me because where I live, the intense competition for work is incentive enough! (The other thing is that I can’t work without a deadline. It makes it hard for me to focus on my work.)

  20. Falling Diphthong*

    Is there a reason to have a wide range of contributors when the hours needed each month from one person are fairly small? Sounds like freelance work that might better be handled by having a couple of good people whose job it is to write 6-8 recipes each month. That is, if this work was a full-time use of someone’s free-lance hours for the next 3 months, then they wouldn’t be shuffling it to the bottom of a pile under other things.

    Is the pay on the low side? And does that payment take a long time to arrive, possibly after each layer of intermediaries takes 8 weeks to pay? (This is why I now avoid “contracting for a contractor” deals.) If this project is a little bonus $200 now and then, then that’s why it’s getting filed to the bottom. If you could turn this into someone’s reliable half- or full-time gig, then they would be more likely to view sending you 1-2 projects/week like clockwork as the way to go.

    1. OP*

      The gig is best suited for someone who, let’s say, is a full-time line cook. Most of my writers have other full-time jobs and this is their secondary gig. I prefer the work I get from people who are working in the field in their day job and doing my assignments on the side, rather than what I get from people like me who are no longer full-time practitioners.

  21. MegaMoose, Esq*

    A lot of the comments are focused on what the freelancers are doing wrong, but I do think it’s worth noting that this has been happening with EVERYONE, which to me says that the problem is management-side. Maybe you’re hiring a lot of lazy, irresponsible people (in which case you should reexamine your hiring), but I think it’s important not to underestimate how much lack of rewards/consequences influences productivity.

    I work at a job where there are basically zero rewards for good work, and almost zero penalties for bad work (it is possible to get fired, but very, very rare). If you’ve never worked in a situation like that, it’s hard to understand how difficult it is to keep motivated under that combination of circumstances. Why on earth should I run myself ragged and still get treated exactly the same as the person who rolls in around noon and is both slow and inaccurate? In other jobs I’ve had there are benefits to doing good work besides money or not being fired, but this is truly a 100% dead end job (our supervisors aren’t even allowed to give references). My bosses get paid based on the number of hours we bill, so as long as we hit our cumulative goals, they don’t care what individuals are doing. I’ve got one guy whose output currently exceeds all 13 other people on the team.

    If the OP wants to replace their team, go ahead, but unless you set up some kind of reward or consequences (and preferably both), I think you’re going to just find yourself back in the same position as people realize that they might as well take their time.

    1. OP*

      OP here, and I totally agree, which is why I asked my question to a management blog! :) Unfortunately I don’t set the payment rates, so I can’t offer financial incentives / consequences, so I gotta rely on psychology.

      1. MegaMoose, Esq*

        The more I read your responses, the more I’m relating to your situation, OP. I’m not the mid-level person, but I do have some oversight responsibility (for no extra pay, of course, but it’s intellectual stimulation, so that’s something at least). We generally hire with an expectation that people will put in full-time hours, but have constant productivity and quality issues. Part of productivity is getting people to work instead of spend their time commenting on websites, another part is just showing up: we can work up to 48 hours in a week, and technically “require” 40, but a lot of people only show up 30-35 and no one does anything about it.

        I think without the ability to put rewards/consequences in place you’re never going to fully get rid of this problem (and I think replacing everyone will just kick the can down the line), but I do think a combo of other suggestions above might help some, including bringing more people on-board and putting some sort of reasonable screening in place to weed out your applicants. One of the funniest things I ever read on this website was from a person hiring file clerks. In their application materials, they required the applicant to answer a question along the lines of “would you be happy with a job that predominantly features filing?” Apparently a LOT of people said no.

        1. Candi*

          You know what always bugs me about that? I ran into an application back in early 200X something that had that and about four other questions of the ‘do you want to do boring office grunt work?’ type.

          No I didn’t really. But I wanted a paycheck. Of course I checked yes on all of them. And I would have done them too, if I’d gotten hired. Basic job duties and all that.

  22. Xarcady*

    I used to schedule freelancers for a company. About 95% of the first stage of the work on every job was done by freelancers, and once they sent in their part, we sometimes had as little as 8 hours to do the rest of the work and ship the job to the client. So deadlines mattered.

    One thing we did was keep our top, best, most accurate, freelancers as busy as possible, as we didn’t want them busy with jobs for other companies when we needed them. Our top freelances, who were admittedly freelancing full-time, probably billed 80% to 100% of their annual billable hours to our company.

    If we asked a freelancer to fit in a small rush job on top of their other work, they not only got paid rush rates, but would get a small bonus, usually about $25 for doing us a favor. $25 was about what most of them would charge for an hour’s work.

    We also paid them promptly, which was an issue in the industry as a whole at the time. Their checks were mailed out 25 days after we received their invoice, so that our promise of payment 30 days after getting their invoice was kept.

    All of this kept most of our freelancers wanting to work with us, which made our work so much easier.

    If they were late, I’d start calling them 15 minutes after the job was due, and get them to tell me when the job would arrive. If it didn’t show up on time, they’d get another call.

    For a couple of people who we had to use, but were frequently late, we’d give them fake due dates. If the job was needed in-house on Thursday, I’d tell them Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on how much work we still needed to do on the job. Then their job would show up on Thursday, and we’d be all set.

    One particularly habitual offender was given a due date of Monday for a job that had to ship on Wednesday. Anyone else, I would have given a due date of Wednesday. The job didn’t show up Monday, and I called. The job didn’t show up Tuesday and I called–at which point he admitted he was just starting work on it. We finally got the job on Friday. The owner of the company called him and told him he would only get half his usual payment for the job. (This was in their contracts.) He shaped up for a few months and went right back to always being late. We kept trying to replace him, but he had a particular skill set that was hard to match. We just had to keep giving him earlier and earlier due dates, and dock his pay when he was late.

    So there are things the OP can do to get the work in on time. She just needs to figure out what will work best with this group of people.

  23. Looking to freelance*

    This is slightly unrelated, but since there seem to be a lot of freelancers in the comments here, I’m wondering how does one go about breaking into freelance work? It’s something I’ve been casually interested in, but I’m not sure how to go about finding jobs. I know there are sites out there but it’s hard to tell what’s legit… any tips?

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      The usual path is to do in-house work, and then when you leave (retire, have baby #X, move for spouse’s job) switch to doing initially similar work freelance. At first for your old employer, and then through word of mouth for more people, and more diverse projects.

      You can sometimes get lucky sending a resume and cover letter to whoever hires teapot reviewers at given publishing groups–sometimes they want a stable on file just in case, and will try you on a small job–but this definitely runs into challenges of not understanding all the nuances of someone who came up doing the job.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        Just to add on because I thought of it while out and will probably forget–in a thread last week, maybe advice to new workers, someone noted that as a freelancer they didn’t ask questions, and as a new in-office person they had to change that mindset to ask for training. That’s a real difference that comes into my second paragraph above, and I think to OP’s preference for people working in the industry and doing her job on the side–clients expect freelancers to be fully up to speed on most aspects and jump in and work without supervision.

    2. AdAgencyChick*

      Way back in the day, I used to look for gigs on MediaBistro and Craigslist mostly. Most of the time I would be pouring my effort into a black hole, but occasionally I got a bite. At that point in my career, I didn’t have the experience or the relationships to make people come to me.

      These days, the low-paying freelance work I mention upthread came out of my being pretty well known in the “recipe-writing” community — I participate in online discussions and online/live competitions in the area, and have done similar work to what I get paid for now, on a volunteer basis. So when the person who owns the company needed someone to edit recipes, he thought of me first.

      Similarly, if I were to quit my day job, I could probably pick up freelance work for agencies that do the niche of advertising I specialize in, because I’ve been at it for quite some time now and I could just email a bunch of my past colleagues to see if they need freelance help.

      At this point in my career, I would absolutely not seek out freelance work. It finds me! If you’ve been working for a few years, what about your job are you expert at that you could do a version of in a self-employed capacity? That’s where I would start thinking about it.

    3. Isben Takes Tea*

      This sounds like an excellent question for the Friday open thread–it’s slightly off-topic here, and you’ll probably get a lot more responses on Friday!

  24. sstabeler*

    I can think of a couple of possibilities.
    1) are you actually paying enough per recipe? I ask because it’s not that difficult to accidentally underpay for something like a recipe- if it’s 20 hours work, minimum wage for that time is $145. If they aren’t getting at least that, it would explain why your stuff is not prioritized (I’m not saying it’s what is happening- or that it is necessarily your fault, since the amount paid is probably set by the end-client- but it’s a possible explanation.) since higher-paying stuff will naturally be prioritized.
    2) it might work better if you set a minimum of one recipe per month, and allow the freelancers to produce multiple recipes.(I am aware there are budget constraints, but you can always set a cap of say, 5 recipes per freelancer per month.) That way, since a freelancer doing 5 recipes would be earning $725 per month, that’s probably enough for your work to be a much higher priority.

  25. NJ Anon*

    I have nothing to add. However, I would love to be a recipe writer! (and tester!) How does one get that type of job?

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      I was thinking the same thing, but I realized it was simply the LW’s example.

  26. Blue_eyes*

    It sounds like your pay is directly tied to how much content the freelancers under you produce. Do they know that? I think knowing that someone else won’t get paid until they complete their work might motivate people to get work in on time. You said you have told them it’s an inconvenience to the recipe-tester – but do they know that you’re not getting paid until they submit their work?

  27. Spex*

    The major problem I see here, not knowing about the reputation of OP’s specific company, is that for most publications (including for the major publishers, major national magazines – which I worked with once upon a time) is that more often then not, they play a game with freelancers of never paying them ontime, delaying reimbursement for expenses they agree to cover, and showing over and over and over again to freelancers that the fiscal wellbeing of their vendors is not a priority. I cannot tell you how many times that contracts agreeing I’d be paid in 30 days took 60 or 90 to be paid – for very well known and reputable national publications. I think freelancers get fatgued. There are never any consequences for the publications—except small claims court, if that. So, if your freelancers turn in work late, I would talk to them about how much difficulty they expereince with your company to get paid on time, how often they had to pay their bills late.

  28. Isben Takes Tea*

    Hi OP, you’ve said you get really overwhelmed trying to hire–perhaps try new limited avenues of finding new freelancers, other than an open job board? Other commenters have suggested referral bonuses, which I think is a great idea–also, maybe try doing some invitation-only recruitment? To follow your analogy, maybe reach out to baking bloggers you like? Send an email to the Student Baking Club at your college (where you normally post on the job board)?

  29. MsChanandlerBong*

    Alison is right. You need to have some consequences for late work. If you don’t, the freelancers never have to treat you as a priority client. I manage a team of about 300 freelancers, and we recently had to implement a tiered system of penalties for late work, low-quality work, and so forth. We give the writer two chances to improve, suspend for one week for the third offense, and then terminate the relationship if it happens again. I personally think we are being too lenient, especially with some writers, but we’re in our busy season, so my bosses are more interested in “warm bodies” right now than they are in having a small team of excellent writers.

  30. Sprinkled with Snark*

    When I was freelancing, on the days that I wasn’t writing, I was researching and sending out queries. I had a lot of success with my queries, over 75 percent, which I thought was very good for me. But I had a lot of “writer” friends who thought they should just be hired on the spot because they were “good”writers. I would refer them all the time, tell them this magazine was looking for an article on honeybees or something, work they could do with a small investment in research. Most of them wouldn’t even bother with writing a good query, just a quick email, then they’d be surprised they didn’t get hired. When they weren’t writing, they were in the bar telling women they were working on screen plays or a piece for a big magazine. Surprise, NONE of them are actually doing any writing now.

    OP, good writers are rare gems, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t mine those gems yourself! It sounds like you may need to commit yourself to taking more time in finding and hiring good writers that you can develop into the great writers that write what you are looking for. Maybe you are limiting yourself by thinking that only those people who already work full time in the field will be better at this gig than people committed to being good writers. Even the best writers don’t come fully qualified to give you what you want. You may have to do a little more work at your end to interview/research potential new hires who could be terrific if given the chance.

  31. ZucchiniBikini*

    This is a very interesting one for me, as I run a micro-business (ie – me, and occasionally I use subbies) as a freelance technical writer in Australia. At any given time I will be juggling between 3 and 8 projects for multiple clients (my biggest client base is in the tertiary education sector, and universities are big organisations, so often I will be doing more than one project for the same organisation at any given time).

    With my work, some things do indeed come with hard deadlines (“we need to submit this paperwork to the regulator by date X, so we need your components by date Y”) but the vast majority are more squishy than that – internally set aspirations, let’s say, rather than deadlines. And as someone mentioned upthread, it’s not uncommon for a client to say they want Document X by date Y, but then wibble about with it for weeks and weeks before actually doing anything with it. It’s their prerogative to set whatever due date they want, of course, but I won’t lie – if I have to pick between spending the day finishing an item for a client who I know is on a hard deadline (externally imposed), or progressing an item that’s for internal purposes, it’s not a difficult decision to make.

    It’s also absolutely true to say that, when client interests compete and I cannot resolve the conflict through using subbies, I do prioritise “better” clients – those that pay a higher rate, pay quickly, are pleasant to deal with, have a history of productive working relationship etc. I ended up firing two small clients last year because they were terrible payers (both rate and delay in payment), highly demanding, and difficult and abrasive.

    It doesn’t sound like this is the situation for the OP, but it is worth bearing in mind that for all freelancers, whether it’s a side hustle or their main gig, EVERY job is a balancing act and process of weighing up value vs cost. Imposing stricter deadlines on good writers may have the effect of changing that equation for some of them to the point that they naturally fall away. (This may not be a bad thing, I’m just noting it!)

  32. ZucchiniBikini*

    One further (slightly OT) comment – I notice a lot of people here referencing how freelancers often get payments hugely delayed. This also happens with private sector clients in Australia – both of my fired clients last year were companies – but happens very little, if at all, with government / university freelancing. Generally once freelancers are within the procurement system and have been through all the checks, payment occurs within 21 days of invoice (one of my universities takes pride in paying me within a week every time). It’s astonishing (or maybe not) how much that affects your sense of urgency as a freelancer! If you know that a) once you submit the work you can bill and b) within 21 days of billing, you’ll have your money, it incentivises hitting the deadline in a whole new way.

  33. SadieMae*

    I’m a freelance writer, and in three years of freelancing I’ve never missed a deadline. Not once. Of course there will be extraordinary situations, but they should be just that.

    There are SO many solid, responsible freelancers out there looking for work. I would let your current group of writers know you won’t be accepting late work any longer, and if they can’t meet the deadlines after that, cut them loose. Why let other people’s flakiness inconvenience you?

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