are my clients hiring me to do work their companies believe they’re doing on their own?

A reader writes:

I’m a somewhat newish, full-time freelancer (data visualization and reporting). Previously, I was an employee for many, many years at huge financial institutions, so that’s my “level-set” in terms of business norms (conservative, process-driven, high awareness of confidentiality).

It has happened twice (among 20ish contracts) that I find out some time after I’ve started a contract that the client is personally paying me for work for their company (where they are an employee, not founder/owner). Significant work, not just an hour or two helping to figure out some calculation or technical work-around.

This makes me uncomfortable. I feel like I am potentially being engaged in something sneaky (the client sharing company data outside the company, or using unvetted resources), but given the set-up of how projects happen, I don’t have enough info to really know if something is off. I do ask questions before taking a job, but I’m not going to preemptively ask all potential clients if they have the authority to hire me. Also, even if the client has the blessing of their employer to hire me, it goes against everything in me that the employee is paying me their own money for their company’s work. But again, I don’t know the whole situation – maybe they’re making more than enough to sub-contract and still come out ahead, but I worry that maybe an employee is so afraid of losing their job they would pay their own money to keep it – a situation I don’t want to somehow condone or contribute to.

What do you think about this? If I find out an employee of a corporation has hired me with their own money to work on their company’s data, do I have some responsibility to push back or ask questions? Is the ball in my court in any way? After all, if I see a job that is clearly a student trying to hire someone to complete an assignment, that is fraud and clearly not okay. Is there a clearly drawn line when an employee hires someone to help them do their job? I suspect norms could vary in different companies and even industries (and I do work in a wide variety of industries and types of companies).

About my work set-up: I find and connect with clients through a third party online service, who also handles invoicing and payments (they are not my employer in any way — I set my own rates, choose my own jobs, and then negotiate the terms of my own contracts). So I don’t personally write invoices to my clients or have their payment information, which is why I don’t know I’m begin paid personally rather than through their company.

The way the service works is that a person posts a project/job description and can either invite freelancers to apply, or freelancers can find the job and submit a proposal. The client can post a job under their own name or a company name, but it’s usually their own name. The potential client and freelancer have a conversation, decide whether to move forward, agree to terms, and a contract is issued through the third party service (with standard boilerplate terms including data confidentiality, so I am under contract to keep the data confidential). Because I work with data, clients will often, but not always, also ask me to sign their own company’s confidentiality agreement, which I am happy to do. As a side note, I do google potential clients before engaging with them. I like to see that they are affiliated with the company they say they are (LinkedIn or their company website) and get an overview of the company.

The first client this happened with, let’s say Fergus, is a mid-level manager in a huge corporation. He was one of my very first clients, and over time I had small suspicions he may have hired me directly. Fergus told me some months later that this was the case. He had a change of manager, and my existence somehow came out. He asked me to help him document the work I had done so formal company paperwork could be written out and said the company wanted to get my third party online service on their vendor list. So, he did okay with the fallout, and it was really his choice and situation to deal with. But from what I gather, his company wasn’t happy that he hired me unofficially. On the other hand, they were happy with the results of my work, and my client made that happen.

Have I been made part of dishonesty toward a client’s employer? I wouldn’t know without explicitly asking, which feels … presumptuously distrustful?

I cannot imagine a situation where I’d be okay with an employee hiring an outside freelancer to complete work I’d assigned to them and believed they were doing, unless (a) they disclosed it to me up-front and I okayed it, (b) they were senior enough that they had the authority to make those decisions on their own, or (c) it was the norm in their field (like an event planner hiring day-of assistants).

It’s hard to know exactly what’s been happening. It’s possible that it’s (b) — the people you worked with had the authority to bring in outside help, or at least reasonably believed they did. But the fact that at least one company wasn’t happy when they found out indicates that might not be the case. On the other hand, if it’s people hiring outside help to complete an assignment their boss thinks they’re doing on their own, that’s not really okay.

The problem you’re facing is, how can you know which situations are which?

If you really want to explore this, I’d talk to people who work in the field those two clients were in — run it by them and see what they think.

But my thought is that there are lots of other reasons you shouldn’t contract with individual employees, even aside from the ones you laid out in your letter. What happens to the work if the person leaves their job while your project is only partway done? How will you track down payment if the person disappears? And if you need assistance in enforcing the terms of the contract, you want the company to be the liable party, not an individual.

Given that, I’d think the easiest approach is to make it your policy that when the work is ultimately for a company, you’ll only contract with the company, not with individual employees.

You could explicitly ask when the contract is being put together, “Am I contracting with you as an individual or with the Savory Pies Center as a company?” And if they say you’re contracting with them as an individual, you could then say, “For legal reasons, I only contract with the company directly.” If asked why, you can explain it protects you down the road around things like payment and liability.

If the contract does end up being with the company, at that point I think you’ve done your due diligence.

But if someone balks at you not contracting with them individually, at that point the door is open for you to ask for more information — as in, “Can you tell me about the context? Has your company approved outside work on the project?” … and you could then explain that you can’t do work for a company that hasn’t been okayed by the company itself, unless you get information that changes your thinking on it.

{ 225 comments… read them below }

  1. Lost academic*

    There’s no way this is okay.

    Maybe you can ask for written verification of their authority from a company representative.

    1. Lance*

      I’d go a bit further and ask to speak to someone else in the company as well, even just as a matter of having a backup contact in case something happened, or additional context/direction for work being done. Admittedly, I’m not nor have I ever been a freelancer, so I’m not sure if that sort of thing would be ordinary, but it may be a good way to avoid anything subversive that might be happening.

      1. valentine*

        written verification of their authority from a company representative
        How would OP vet them? Fergus might lie or have a colleague willing to back him just to get OP to do the work. (Legally, wasn’t Fergus representing the company when contracting work for same and using (confidential!) client data, even if he paid OP out-of-pocket and was never reimbursed?)

        OP, is there a way for the site to only connect you with jobs where the company’s paying?

        1. Miss Fisher*

          She could create some kind of secretary’s certificate or cert of written authority that has to be signed by the secretary or president or something. These companies have organization docs that typically spell out who at the company has the authority to do business. 3rd Party Vendors might not fall under that, but there are typically resolutions that have to be signed by the board etc that allow individuals to work with vendors, etc.

          1. Working Mom Having It All*

            Yup, Certificate of Authority is usually what this document is called, in my experience. It’s a common question to have come up in businesses that work with a lot of vendors and outside contractors.

        2. Lucky*

          Simply adding a statement in the contract that the signer has authority to bind the company should be sufficient, so long as OP requires that the contract be entered in the company’s name and only accepts payment from the company. Even if Fergus lies and does not have authority, so long as it can reasonably be expected that he has authority, by way of his position, he can bind the company. It’s reasonable to expect that a Director or even Manager can bind a company to contracts within their area of work. Unreasonable would be expecting a mail clerk had authority to bind the company to, say, a financial services obligation.

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            I wouldn’t do this unless you’re ready for a legal battle at some point regarding payment.

            Just about every AP team will reject something that has been purchased by someone without authority. They’ll let you go ahead and take it to the court level because in the end, most people working freelance or even a small business isn’t going that far.

            I just had to deal with this nonsense recently with a company that sent us an order, we filled it and billed it out. Only to have it rot in AP because it wasn’t authorized due to some internal contractual stuff on their side, something completely out of our hands. Despite having a PO, they told us to wait for them to maybe figure it out or sit and spin. Then got mad when I questioned their ethics. Oop. It boiled down to “Sue us and try that out if you want paid.”

            1. Kimberlee, No Longer Esq.*

              Yeah I agree. If you want to be able to hold the company liable, the contract needs to be with the company; trying to bind the company any other way is just asking for Fergus to quit and both parties to leave you high and dry. At least if you contract directly with Fergus, you can collect directly from Fergus.

              1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

                Yep and even if it’s directly linked to Fergus, you’re still going to have to drag him to small claims court for the money in the end.

                I seriously want to hire a weekly skywriter to go over and spell out “Do not extend more credit than you can afford to lose.” It goes for personal “loans” and business “loans”, since credit terms and “pay after product is produced” is a liability and you may or may not actually see the money. Lots of people aren’t afraid of lawsuits and will just let you do your best to try to get them. [Also remember you cannot bleed a turnip, if Fergus is broke, Fergus is broke!]

          2. AnnaBananna*

            I think this would work in Academia since there’s a blanket ‘we own absolutely everything that you do here until you depart our employment’, but I can’t think of any other where the request would have actual value to the OP, legally.

            1. Asenath*

              In my experience, academia can be extremely restrictive on who can authorize work to be done for the university. If you don’t have a pre-approval to spend that money, you won’t be able to claim it back from the university. Processes for hiring outside contractors are…arcane. And I think the other possibility – that the employee is paying someone else to do part of his work, and paying for it himself, would go down even worse if it ever came out. No bloody way the university would pay for it, and they’d probably get rid of their employee for ethics violations.

              1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

                I’ve done a lot of sales to higher ed over the years and yes, there are strict policies. They either have to have a purchase card or they have to have a PO through their systems.

                We’ve been burned by a couple “favors” over the years where you get the “I can’t issue the PO right now but can you get this started for us, it’s important?!” Then it’s out of here before the paperwork comes through [which I’ve now been able to put a guard in place so this won’t happen, so at very least we’re out material since we made it…you can have it when we get the paperwork…oh darn you couldn’t get it authorized? Looks like your project just took a swerve and we cannot help you unless you can get us paid somehow.]

                We’ve had to freeze accounts because of bad choices that some people using their account has made prior as well, that’s always a fun one when other people have to suffer because someone did an unauthorized purchase or incorrect PO is more likely the story…the PO is halfassed and therefore the invoice didn’t match and AP just flushes the invoice without alerting the vendor. That’s fun.

        3. Working Mom Having It All*

          If you’re in an area where hiring a freelancer is common, there are specific documents for this.

          If the person contracting with you either can’t furnish something like that or sends something that looks cooked up on the fly, it’s bogus.

    2. Amber T*

      I swear I read a business/”self help” book that encouraged a lot of… less than ethical behavior shall we say, in order to get ahead, including this kind of thing. If you’re being paid the equivalent of $25/hr in a salary and can pay someone $10 to do your work, then why not? You’re still coming out ahead and then you use that time to make more money in some other way. Was it the 4 Hour Workweek? Whatever book it was, there was a lot of me going “ehhh but no?” over how not-right it felt, even if legally it was fine. (And also coming from a financial institution, where data we have is super sensitive, there would be no way this would be “legally fine.”)

      Ethically, OP, I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong. You’re accepting a job in good faith that it’s all good. But yeah, this is all sketchy.

      1. Devil Fish*

        I don’t remember if that was in the 4 Hour Workweek but that is an awful book and the author is an awful person with a poor grasp of ethics, so I don’t doubt it may have been suggested as one of his “time-optimization strategies” or some other nonsense.

        There was that thing that happened like 5 years ago with the executive who was freelancing all his projects to overseas contractors so he could put in about 10 hours of work during the week to get his face in front of higher ups and then just screw off for the rest of the time and still collect six figures. I’ve noticed a lot more new hire paperwork specifically prohibiting subcontracting, so there’s a good chance it isn’t legal in a lot of jobs.

        1. RUKiddingMe*

          Even if it’s legal, it’s sketchy. I’m paying *you* for *your* expertise/work. If I wanted it outsourced I could do that myself, never hire *you* in the first place, and cut out the middle-person.

          *The general you/your/you’re/etc.

        2. Gazebo Slayer*

          It was in the 4-Hour Workweek. And yes, that book is one of the most ethically abhorrent things I have ever read and the author is an awful person. (He also suggested that you use the time to run an online business selling “supplements” that you claim will make people smarter, if I recall correctly.) I’m glad to see someone else who’s vocal about this!

      2. Antilles*

        That seems like the kind of system that works only as long as everything is perfect. Are you checking every step of the subcontractor’s work? Are you sure they’re going to deliver on time and not flake out?
        Because the instant something goes wrong, it’s on your head because your boss/client believes you were the one who did the work.

        1. Beth Jacobs*

          Exactly! Also, I don’t think most professional jobs can just be done by a freelancer. Even if you’re a great lawyer/designer/analytic, you probably can’t just jump into projects straight away. That’s why companies do training and strive for low-employee turn over. It takes months, if not years, to get a new person up to speed.

          1. Beth Jacobs*

            Reading my comment back, I hope it didn’t sound deragotory to freelancers! What I’m trying to say is that if the company could outsource that work for cheaper without sacrificing quality, they’d be doing it. Some types of work are suited for outsourcing. Others are not. My job duties were usually in the second category – I figure that’s why my position existed.

            1. Avasarala*

              I think it made perfect sense! It’s not that freelancers can’t do a good job. It’s that an outside person can’t do this part as well, that’s why they hired someone internal to do it.

    3. Noah*

      Having the person sign on behalf of the company, if they are willing to represent that they have the authority to do so, should be enough to protect OP.

    4. JSPA*

      IANAL nor an accountant. That said:

      Companies may turn a blind eye to the hiring of the same sub by different, internal personal contacts, because it allows them to not know if the person is working more hours (or for more total pay) than they could otherwise justify with the IRS.

      For that same reason, it’s highly dubious that it’s legal for the company, or wise for OP, to accept that sort of work-around!

      Uber is not the first example of the un-gigging of the gig economy, and it almost certainly won’t be the last. If you’re good enough to be made legit at one or more companies, push for exactly that, and get your fair due. In the long run, it’ll be safer and cheaper for all concerned.

  2. The Cosmic Avenger*

    OP, have you established yourself enough that you can stop using this third-party service, and start doing your own contracts and invoices, so you know you’re working for the company, not the employee? That would fix everything, and you’d probably get paid more, as the website has to be taking a commission, they’re not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts.

    1. iceclown*

      If this is the third-party website I think it is, they take a 20% cut (that they tell you about upfront) and if they find out you’re taking your clients off the platform to avoid paying the fee, they’ll kick you off entirely. I freelance for them too on occasion and that 20% hurts every time.

      1. Jamie*

        I had the same thought – this sounds exactly like the set up of a website I used for freelance work when I was between jobs.

      2. Devil Fish*

        Upwork? I’ve taken offers from several clients to go off-platform but I always wait for them to ask first and only if it’s a well-established relationship so they’re less likely to try to screw me.

        The 20% is way too much for what Upwork provides (a profile page and list of available projects), especially since they started charging freelancers to submit applications.

    2. Odetta*

      Yeah, I second this. Most companies that are subcontracting out work probably have a workable Purchase Order template that would suit. But also, don’t you see the contract once it is drawn up? At that point you could see that it is an individual and not start working (my rule as an occasional consultant is that I do not start work under any circumstances without a fully executed agreement in place).

      1. SuperBB*

        I use these platforms frequently. If I tried to use a PO/contract system for every project, it would add weeks of processing time. Instead, I send an email, then Finance submits the payment to the account, which is in my name (using my company email address.)

        There is no formal contract with these platforms, except for clicking boxes. Once the payment is in escrow, work begins.

    3. Mary*

      Yeah, it seems weird to me that the third-party site doesn’t allow you to specify that you’ll only contract with companies rather than private individual—is it actually designed for lower-level, more personal-assistant type work than you’re using it for? It seems really odd to me that you’re getting boilerplate contracts that include details on data protection, but the site doesn’t protect you from random Joe Bloggs deciding to hand you a bunch of confidential data because he doesn’t feel like doing it himself.

      It also makes me wonder whether if it’s the wrong site for you *because* it’s attracting individuals as clients, rather than organisations. What if the reason this is happening is because organisations don’t use this site to subcontract work, and you need to start doing your own business development and following up leads directly with organisations and becoming their preferred supplier, rather than these piecemeal jobs?

      Can you really scrutinise what level of service and protection you’re getting from using this website, and whether you’d be better going through more traditional business routes?

    4. From That Guy*

      My first response is run as fast as you can. However that really does not solve the problem entirely. I agree with The Cosmic Avenger – are you now established enough to go out on your own? If so by all means proceed. And NEVER do any work for an individual, it will come back and bite you. Best of luck.

  3. Sam*

    That unhappiness (from Fergus’ company) might not be caused by the outside contract; I can imagine that the complexity of paying *anyone* outside of their approved vendor list would be frustrating. At my place of work, it’s relatively common for us to start working with a company, and then have to do a bunch of running around to get the correct payment set up.

    Still an uncomfortable position for the contractor, though!

    1. Arctic*

      Yeah, Fergus’s company seemed OK with the outside work being done (Fergus wasn’t fired on the spot, it seems, and he just had to provide outline of work performed). It was that the contractor was being handled outside their established procurement process.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I’m twitching because of how real this statement is. This setup isn’t that uncommon, I just removed someone’s terms who continued to have this same “set up” issue for multiple orders. Nope. Give me a credit card or get another vendor.

      Uncomfortable is a very light way to put it. Since the contractor is depending on their payment a lot more than a company as a whole.

    3. Pilcrow*

      I was wondering if the issue was more *how* Fergus hired the contractor, not necessarily that a contractor was hired. That is, the company instructed Fergus to contract the work but he didn’t go through their procedure, or didn’t cut a PO, or didn’t pick from a preferred vendor list, etc.

    4. zora*

      Yeah, this is what I’m assuming happened, the company was upset about *how* Fergus was paying the contractor, not about them having done the work itself.

      We have had some issues in our company, where they wanted to change how we hired outside consultants for project work, and it caused a lot of confusion, and major delays in getting some projects started while it was all figured it out. I can *almost* see, if I squint reeaallyyyyy hard, an individual being confused or just frustrated with trying to figure out the whole paperwork issue, and just skipping all of it by filling out the contract and doing it on their own company credit card or submitting it for reimbursement later. Knowing that the work itself was approved, and they were told to engage a contractor. But just not jumping through all the hoops of setting that person up as a vendor.

      And then later, finance finding out and being frustrated Fergus ignored the process, and didn’t do all the proper paperwork for a vendor.

    5. Buona Forchetta*

      Exactly my thought. The vendor add process is tedious and can take weeks, so I can see how someone could want to pay out of pocket or via company credit card then submit for reimbursement, especially if the work is time sensitive.

  4. Oh, the bureaucracy!*

    When I worked for a Fortune 500 company with an onerous procurement process, it was occasionally more expedient for me to to hire a contractor outside the process and expense it rather than going through the full procurement process. As long as the amount was below my discretionary limit, my boss approved my expenses and there were no issues. What the letter writer describes definitely would have fallen into this gray area since it is project-based and likely time-sensitive.

    1. sacados*

      That’s really interesting. Not something I would have thought of, but it’s definitely another possible (and entirely above-board) explanation for why OP is running into these types of things.

    2. MMB*

      I occasionally run into this as well. Also, emergency situations where we need something NOW and I then have to go back and collect W-9’s and insurance info after the fact for accounting. It’s 100% legitimate and common in my admittedly niche field as long as I remain within my budget or get emergency authorization if it’s over budget.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      It also reminds me of contractors from within the company contracting other aspects of their projects.

      We have lots of intertwined clients here. We sell directly to XYZ and then we have James Spader, who works on projects for XYZ but he’s an independent contractor of his own, who will purchase items for projects for both XYZ and also another company he’s contracted out with.

      I can absolutely seeing some of our larger customers having a procurement setup that makes it easier to expense in the end as well.

      We’ve invoiced wrong before so many times because of all this stuff but it’s pretty straight forward in terms of “this is a contractor of ours, send it to them directly for payment.”

    4. Buyernonymous*


      I work in procurement and sometimes we tell end users to do this. Trust me: we hate the processes too…

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Oh, there’s plenty of folks in procurement singing like canaries, I’ve had them call me personally to go on and on about some of the awful processes you have to deal with and snags in the road.

        The agents who open up at least with sympathies and acknowledgement of the issues we are all dealing with get a lot more leeway than the ones who run and hide when we have to start barking up the “where’s the money, tree.” after being dumped by your accounting department people.

    5. Working Mom Having It All*

      But you… can’t expense subcontracted services.

      Not at my company or any other company I’ve worked for, at least. An expense report with something like this on it would get kicked back immediately. (Note that at least at larger companies that do any kind of auditing, “your boss” isn’t actually the final say for stuff like this. The expense reports I submit actually get at least 2 levels of audits once they leave my desk.)

      1. noahwynn*

        I’ve expensed things like Fiveer before and never had an issue. I work in safety and we often have to create promotion materials, and if the corporate communications team is busy I’ll go off on my own to accomplish the task within my set spending limit. I’ll usually send over the single page that has the brand colors and logo guidelines, so at least it is somewhat consistent with branding.

        1. RUKiddingMe*

          Husband’s company is like this. He has $XXXX in his budget to spend however he sees fit (within very broad limitations) and they always reimburse *pretty much immediately.

          They’ve never questioned a single expense. Of course he’s never submitted an invoice for entertainment at Minsky’s, so there’s that.

          1. RUKiddingMe*


            *I know it’s pretty much immediately because I monitor/curate that DD account. Well actually I di the financials fir *all* our personal accounts anyway… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      2. zora*

        It depends on the company policy, it’s not a blanket prescription. Some companies are pretty liberal with approving expenses.

      3. AnnaBananna*

        I think it depends on whether you’re using a corporate card or a purchasing (p)card. One is for travel related expenses and one is operational and both are expensed using difference systems (at least at my employer). So I could totally expense labor if I had to.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          THANK YOU. For not meaning to but for teaching me the frigging difference between P card and regular credit card…and also this makes a whole lot more sense given a few conversations with people before about issues with their cards being declined for quirky reasons. Now it’s crystal clear to someone who has only ever dealt with a world where there are credit cards and how they put so many weird restrictions on them was playing some funky mind tricks on me. I thought “P Card” was just jargon for the longest time and it gave me a bit of bad reflex when it was said to me, since it’s always said in a tone like I should know better [hint to everyone out there, we all work at different organizations that have different ways of doing things, different things and different lingo, just in case you forget! *face palm*]

          1. KarenK*

            Me, too. I’ve had a pcard for years and never knew what it meant. I just knew I could buy stuff without getting a PO. Made my life so much easier!

    6. Ree*

      This is what I came here to say, too. If the service was really small and within what I could cover, I’d try to do it FOR the vendor. Getting set up as an official vendor is quite painful for a small, one-off contract for us and would SIGNIFICANTLY delay payment. Like someone else added, paying a one-off sub-contractor is a grey area. I would much rather is be a full-on vendor. For a large business, it is likely far, far less nefarious than it sounds and was designed to save everyone a world of trouble.

    7. zora*

      Yeah, I could see someone charging something like this to their corporate credit card instead of going through getting an invoice/PO, etc. It might look like I am personally paying for it if I do that, because I only have to enter my name in the CC form, not the company’s name necessarily.

      The contract thing is a little weirder, bc I’m sure everyone I work with would put the Company’s name there, not just their own.

      But our check/EFT process takes forever bc we are understaffed, and our AP people often tell us to just put it on our credit cards because they don’t want to deal.

    8. risk manager*

      It sounds like a real problem that the bureaucracy is slowing down business, but circumventing the normal processes and hiring contractors without the appropriate screening could result in a really major problem for the company if an anti-bribery/corruption issue arose. The penalties are public and severe.

    9. Anon for this one*

      My company recently loosened up its idiotically bureaucratic purchasing process after a key vendor cut us off due to unpaid invoices and almost stopped our plant from operating. We’re a division of a bigger company, so I feel like I’m in the worst of both worlds – the resources of a small company combined with the bureaucracy and red tape of a huge one!

      I came from a company where I had a purchasing card and could stop at the hardware store to pick up supplies, so now that I need a big, complicated PO, I’ve learned that it’s often less hassle to make do without something I need. Penny-wise and dollar-foolish.

  5. DataDiva*

    Maybe off topic, but can anybody share the name of third party contracting sites like these? I’m also a data viz/reporting person and may want to get into freelancing at some point.

    1. DaniCalifornia*

      My guess would be Fiverr. But I cannot in good faith support that company. Just my personal opinion. At least for their graphic design work. I’m in school for a broader design field and it devalues so much of what I’m studying. I know it can work out well for both freelancers and people who need services though. But its a sore subject in many of my classes.

      1. Devil Fish*

        All of the freelancing boards devalue the work. It’s a race to price yourself as low as possible to get jobs that pay next to nothing and expect good work, fast, for way less than minimum wage—and this is as an IC, so you’re paying all the taxes on that and covering your own insurance, vacation, sick time, etc.

        Fiverr is particularly bad because the whole gimmick is “$5!” and then freelancers are pressured to do some weird mathematical contortions to fit that, like graphic design for $5 per 10 minutes plus additional fees for add-ons like different file formats or edits.

        1. Devil Fish*

          To clarify: I’m not anti-freelancer. I’m a freelancer. I’m anti-unnecessary middleman. There needs to be a better way to do this than through a company that encourages people to do more better work for less money and then takes a large cut of that money from the person being paid instead of front-loading it into the price of the service so clients have a better idea of how much the work they want really costs.

          Yes, I know if clients were charged the 20% they’d post the job at $32 instead of $40 but making the whole thing more transparent would help me out a lot since most clients I’ve talked to about why my hourly rate is way too high were surprised that 1) the platform charges me fees and 2) I pay taxes on my income.

          1. WellRed*

            I’m wondering if part of the problem is the site the letter writer is going through. It’s odd this keeps happening.

          2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            Mine goes deeper than anti-unnecessary middleman. It’s middlemen who are of course charging next to nothing for things, they’re not producing, they get a cut by just existing and having a “platform” they sooooooo graciously provide to freelancers.

            It’s a scheme where people are being taken advantage of. Freelancing is hard enough without people wanting to be your pimp in some sense of the word. Seriously. I say this as someone in the manufacturing world, where we still have middlemen and I like them, they bust their butts and they earn their markup. Then there are scummy ones. I had to shut down so many fly by night “oh I’m opening an ebay store, can I sell your products?!” requests. No. No, you cannot. It respects your brand as well in the end. Those ebay stores that flip things for pennies of profit because they didn’t have to do anything [they sign up as a distributor and then most have drop-ship options, so yeah, you get money just for listing the stuff and going off to sunbath for awhile. No.]

            These setups take advantage of people, is what it all boils down to.

    2. OP*

      Hi DataDiva, I use Upwork.

      I hadn’t seen Fiverr before so went and checked it out. At first glance the rates of freelancers who do what I do look quite low to me.

      Another low-ball price place is I’d stay away from them for data viz stuff.

      I worked on a project for a Silicon Valley startup who creates the technology for self-driving vehicles. On that project, I worked with another phenomenal freelancer with MAD data skills, and she uses and recommends TopTal.

  6. Why isn't it Friday?*

    OP, following Alison’s advice and contracting directly with the company will protect you from liability. What if the employee contracts with you directly and transfers trade secrets or other confidential information related to the project without the company knowing? In that case, what if the company decides to sue you for unauthorized obtainment of trade secrets? Better to go through official channels.

    1. GreenDoor*

      I agree with making a policy of contracting only with the company itself. I’m thinking on the consumer side of things – I would be livid if I found out that my personal information was shared with a contractor who had not been properly vetted or who hadn’t necessarily signed proper confidentiality agreements!

    2. Sloan Kittering*

      Yeah as someone who works with lawyers, I would be mostly paranoid with my own exposure and liability here, rather than some ethical duty to the company. Might it look like you are stealing data or something? And like Alison says, how are you covered if for whatever reason you’re not getting paid by the individual?

      1. MommyMD*

        Yes. What if OP inadvertently got involved with espionage, trade secrets, tampering. The legal aspects are chilling. Or a disgruntled employee wanting to sabotage the company. I’d be fired immediately if I hired someone to do any work related thing at all behind my employer’s back.

  7. Hillary*

    I agree with Sam – as someone who works in global sourcing, part of my job is to slap the wrist of anyone who goes outside our preferred vendor lists. If it’s chronic the issue will be addressed seriously.

    If they don’t ask you to sign their confidentiality agreement, you can always bring it up. We do an NDA for pretty much anything that isn’t on our website, and not including one in any sourcing event would be a red flag.

  8. Massmatt*

    This is probably a sign that the process for adding vendors and official invoicing is dysfunctional at the places where you are hired directly.

    It is probably hard to turn down work towards the beginning of a freelance career, if you are not in the position to do that I would say you can only really know if someone is hiring you themselves by taking pretty extraordinary measures, given a middle party is handling the billing. And there is always the possibility that people are getting reimbursed, that seems unlikely for this type of work but it’s possible.

    1. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

      Or it might be a sign that someone is in over their head, and afraid to let their manager know that they need help with a project. Fergus might decide that’s worth it, even if it doesn’t leave him with much of a paycheck, to keep his job (and benefits).

      1. zora*

        But this scenario is such a huge stretch.
        I’ve worked multiple places where someone might use their company credit card to pay for a small subcontracting bill, but never worked anywhere where people were going through elaborate schemes to pretend like they were getting more work done than they actually were.

        I think this is likely more some confusion about how payment is getting to the OP, and that they are misunderstanding something, rather than that multiple people are creating a cover up for their jobs using the same website.

        1. AnnaBananna*

          Especially if it’s data viz/design. It would be incredibly obvious when the report/output isn’t even remotely in your aesthetic.

    2. Ree*

      Not necessarily dysfunctional. Just slow or designed for hundreds of thousands/millions of dollars vs. gig-based freelance work.

      1. only acting normal*

        I sense “gumption”: the proper process is slow or laborious so they’ve circumvented it by making a personal contract. Trouble is slow and laborious processes are usually there to protect all parties. (I can just picture our commercial staff having kittens over this!)

  9. Snarkus Aurelius*

    If nothing else, you want to avoid something like this happening:

    Granted the person in China probably didn’t get in trouble, but do note that this guy made well into the six figures and only paid less than one fifth of his salary for someone else to do all of his work. Not only that, but he’d done it before.

    I would have given anything to see this guy’s face when he got confronted.

    1. Goose Lavel*

      Reminds me of a thread posted on askamanager a while ago about software engineers who automated their jobs using their own code to complete what was previously 40 hours of work in about an hour by running their own automated script.

      Some did this for years and felt that their own inventiveness was key to their success and enjoyed all the free time at work, while others shared their automation knowledge with the company and went on to do other work for their employers.

  10. Hey Karma, Over here.*

    “What happens to the work if the person leaves their job while your project is only partway done? How will you track down payment if the person disappears? ”
    Because the client was so bogged down with work, so behind she was at risk of being fired. A very real possibility.
    OP, have you ever discovered yourself doing someone’s college coursework? Because that can happen, too. Definitely push back on individuals.

    1. Anon for this*

      “What happens to the work if the person leaves their job while your project is only partway done? How will you track down payment if the person disappears? ”

      Generally these sites outline procedures for these things, and often the client is charged and the payment held until the work is completed – and there are procedures for what happens if the works isn’t completed, the work is unsatisfactory, the client disappears etc – it’s the “service” portion of the 20% fee they take.

      1. Devil Fish*

        From my experience, it’s also heavily skewed in the client’s favor. (And keep in mind that the 20% is paid out of the freelancer’s side of the transaction: the clients pay nothing to advertise or fill their projects.)

        The client I had things go really sideways with was refusing to approve milestones but insisting I still meet deadlines for upcoming milestones without the previous milestones being approved. I refused to do the work until I’d been paid for previous work, client cancelled the contract because I wasn’t meeting deadlines, client stated they were unsatisfied with the completed work despite using it on their website, Upwork determined the client was right and I was paid nothing. I’ve also had it go the opposite way where I wasn’t paid for all the deadlines I’d met because the client disappeared after approving 2 of 5 but I’d done all 5 because of my experience with the previous client and being told to I need to meet all deadlines regardless of approval of the previous submitted work. (Neither of these projects were based on drafts, the milestones were small parts of a larger project but could be done in any order.)

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      When in the world of payments, it’s always better to get it in advance. However this is also the age of many transactions being done through the merchant services/credit card channels, which are very consumer friendly in just about every way. So even if you get it up front, if someone is not authorized for a purchase, you may still lose pay in the end given the chargeback options that continue to grow.

      Yet another reason to be very careful about how you do business with, on both a full scale business level and freelance independent circuit!

      Protect yourself, even if it means maybe pushing away clients if they’re setting off any of your gut check process. I’ve seen so many people screwed and the legal system is not one that helps with the small guy who needs that money so that they can pay rent next month sort of things. It’s ugly and I hate it.

  11. Meh*

    I think Alison has a good point about being cautious with working with individuals in regards to payments, but I think that it’s not really your moral responsibility if someone else tries to “cheat” by using you as a resource (assuming you are acting in good faith and not knowingly trying to help them cheat like the doing a student’s assignment example). But if it bothers you, Alison’s advice about only working with companies is your best bet.

    1. Kimberlee, No Longer Esq.*

      Yeah, honestly, outside of making sure that OP is protecting their own interests, I don’t see a moral or ethical obligation to prevent people from outsourcing their work. It might make them bad employees, but that’s emphatically not my problem!

      If you contract with the individual, they’re on the hook for any confidential info they gave you, and they’re on the hook for the bill. Certainly make sure you know where payment is coming from and, if you’re nervous, ask for some payment up-front and see where the check comes from. Make sure your contract is with that person/entity, and it doesn’t matter if they get canned, they are liable to you, and that’s who you collect from.

      I get that a manager would want to know if their report were contracting their work out, I just disagree that the contractor has any ethical obligation to prevent that from happening.

  12. AVP*

    I would also imagine this could be a problem if you need to show off your portfolio, or if your personal profile gets big enough where strangers are looking at your work – and a commissioning client doesn’t know they’ve commissioned you and raises an issue!

  13. Admin Warrior*

    Thid is the exact tactic touted in The 4 Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss. Convince your boss to let you work from home at least 2 rats a week. Do this by calling out and upping your productivity while you’re ooo. Hire a VA in the Philippines that can do your work for pennies on the dollar. Pay them the pennies without asking your boss. Utilize your newfound time to launch a side hustle. Hire a VA for that too. Replace your income. Quit.

    Skullduggerous in the extreme.

    1. cmcinnyc*

      I’m imagining trying this, and… I would be caught so fast! And no, no, it would not end well for me. My company would *not* be pleased.

    2. pleaset*

      Is there a way you and I can launch a start-up to offer an app to “empower” people to do example this sort of thing? An online outsourcing service to “disrupt” the business world?

      We’ll call it “Outsourcr” or “Shiftr” or something like that.

      Bro, great idea. You and I have to talk. I think I can get a big round of investment in this. I know some devs who can do a mock-up real quick and cheap. I found them on Fiverr.

      1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

        My nephew can do the mock up. He’s great with computers. He has an Instagram AND Twitter.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Most scams are.

        It’s why you have to be really invested in cheating the system to want to go down that path. Or if you’re really desperate of course but usually it’s someone who enjoys the thrill of the “game”.

    3. nnn*

      I can’t imagine being willing to put my name and my reputation on work done by some random internet stranger!

    4. NW Mossy*

      As someone who manages people and has worked with most of my colleagues for a decade, I’d be busted by the first conference call. “Wow, Mossy, do you have a head cold or something? You really sound… different.”

      1. Antilles*

        Especially since that conference call will probably include “just a quick follow-up question” or “why did you do X” or “can you clarify…”, which whoops no you can’t because you didn’t actually do the work yourself and probably didn’t even know some of those decisions were made in the report with your name on it.

      1. Arabella Flynn*

        I’ve kept rats as pets. They’re very cheap freelancers; they work for belly rubs and snacks. The down side is that no matter what you give them, it comes back with tooth marks all over it.

    5. Earthwalker*

      My first thought was of Tim Ferris. His book was so popular and he did make it look like you were a stupid stooge to the system if you did your own work rather than hiring it out to an assistant who would do it for pennies on the dollar. I agree with everyone else though: it risks corporate data security, so the employee could and should get in trouble. I imagine that the freelancer’s reputation could suffer even if it wasn’t their fault.

    6. One of the Spreadsheet Horde*

      And then what happens when your boss wants a quick update on that awesome report? Or people start expecting that level of skill from you all the time and then you obviously can’t meet those expectations? Had a former peer that I suspect did something like this. He got managed out of the business.

    7. Gazebo Slayer*

      There’s something extra gross about a white dude in a wealthy country advising, in a book aimed at other white dudes in wealthy countries, that you should palm off all your work on women of color in poor countries while you, White Bro, take all the credit and make almost all the money.

    1. Arctic*

      Ha, I never read the book and I thought maybe rats was like a points system or something. Give yourself two rats if you work two hours less!

      1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

        Since he was referencing a book, I thought it was a text specific term, like A Clockwork Orange obsessed fan wrote a guide to modern living.

        1. Devil Fish*

          If someone rewrote The 4 Hour Workweek in NadSat, maybe I’d be distracted by what a complete dumpster fire it advocates starting and actually be able to get through the whole thing.

    1. College Career Counselor*

      My rule of thumb is, generally: if it sounds like something George Costanza would think is a great idea, I pass.

  14. Arctic*

    I kind of love the idea of someone hiring a contractor to do their work. I don’t condone or encourage it but there is something so evil genius about it. It seems like a sitcom premise.
    But I agree with others that it is far, far more likely that the organizations just have a very byzantine procurement process and it is just easier to get reimbursed. I’ve had to do that, as well, never for anything like what the OP described but definitely things that shouldn’t have been out of pocket (with full permission, of course.)

    1. Arctic*

      And I’d note that this being a procurement issue fits with Fergus’s issues. The problem with the new manger wasn’t that Fergus wasn’t doing the work himself but that you weren’t on the approved vendor list.

    2. Lily in NYC*

      Oh man, I kind of love this! I know it’s shady but now I want to hire someone to do all of my craptastic work duties for me, like reviewing complicated insurance documents that I don’t understand. They’d probably do a better job at it than I do! I’d never get away with it considering all of the checks and balances we have here.

    3. Ama*

      I actually had a boss who did this (she ended up quitting with no notice when she realized an internal audit was about to expose this as well as some other questionable uses of employer funds). But she was actually paying the contractors legitimately through the company, she was just relying on the big loophole in our accounts payable processes where they were never familiar enough with the work individual departments were doing to think a high number of contractor invoices was suspicious as long as all the other documentation was in order and there was money in the budget. She had been brought in as a “savior” after a very unpopular admin director nearly destroyed the department and I think got overwhelmed by the pressure to always be able to accomplish anything the senior bosses wanted even when those expectations exceeded what any one admin director could reasonably do.

      The real problem was when she quit she destroyed some of her records in a futile attempt to cover her tracks, and so we didn’t know about some of the outstanding invoices until those contractors figured out she was never going to respond to their emails and figured out how to get in touch with us.

    4. MissDisplaced*

      In a way aren’t these people just being proactive?
      Companies outsource all kinds of work all the time. Essentially isn’t this just being the middle man?

  15. President Porpoise*

    Besides the issue of unauthorized disclosure of proprietary info belonging to the company or company’s clients, there is the possibility of disclosure of ITAR data to an unauthorized foreign national, even if you are a US citizen, if the online tools and systems you’re using are not secure. You might not be touching industries where this applies, or you might, no idea. Just an additional perspective.

    1. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

      Yep. Or you could run afoul of the EU’s data privacy laws if you’re in the US and doing work on data pertaining to EU citizens.

        1. Agent Diane*

          GDPR (the EU reg) applies to the company collecting and holding the data. An employee sharing the data “off the books” would be an automatic data breach as it means the company has failed to store it securely and it’s been shared with a third party (OP) without consent.

          INAL but I’m not sure OP would be in trouble but the company would be and it’d probably be a gross misconduct.

        2. Rainy*

          ITAR is Int’l Traffic in Arms Regulations. It’s a set of export and access controls for military and defense info, tech, what-have-you.

        3. President Porpoise*

          International Traffic in Arms Regulations – very stringent US reg, and it touches things you wouldn’t necessarily expect.

      1. Elspeth Mcgillicuddy*

        I’ve always wondered about this. If one don’t live or work in the EU, why is one obligated to follow EU laws? And if you did break the law, how would the EU enforce them? Obviously companies that want to serve the European market need to, but if Matilda’s Fresh Fruit Stand in Kentucky wants to have a website, surely the EU laws don’t apply?

          1. Devil Fish*

            The company, more or less. The privacy laws apply to the internet, so individuals aren’t really bound by that unless they host their own websites independently and run the sites themselves.

            Laws that are applied to the internet are generally based on the location of the users and the location of the servers, so things get kinda weird sometimes.

        1. Imprudence*

          No, but if I,in the UK, look at her website and it collects my IP address or puts cookies on my computer then it is covered. One way round this is to detect I am in the EU and not let me see the website.

          1. Elspeth Mcgillicuddy*

            But if Matilda collects data for a mailing list of free weekly smoothie recipes, how is the EU going to stop her? She’s not making a profit off her EU mailees, except for a bit of publicity, so they can’t take away access to her costumers. The EU can’t fine her, or knock on her door, or take away her business license, or impose tax penalties, right? So why should Matilda care what the EU thinks about her business practices?

            Is control done through the ISP or website host or something? I can see why they care about the EU. But not Matilda.

            Isn’t variable country laws exactly why all the pirate sites are hosted in small countries with lax enforcement?

            1. MsSolo*

              It depends if she’s deliberately targeting EU citizens. If an EU citizen just browses her site for a while, but finds she doesn’t deliver to the EU, she’s fine. If, however, she buys a list of emails to target with her mailing list, which links to her smoothie recipe blog where she’s also profiting from paid advertising, even though she’s not selling her fruit to them she’s still making money off them, and GDPR comes into play. Arguably, EU citizens should never have been included in that list in the first place, but if they have been, they have the right to be removed (which has to be as easy to do as it was to be added to the list, no “call a premium rate phone number between the hours of 5:00 and 5:01 and share large amounts of personal data” nonsense). If Matilda fails to comply, then, yes, the EU can force her to pay fines. Now, to my knowledge they’ve never done so yet, and there’s a bit of a question mark over how they’d enforce it, but if your business involves handling the data of EU citizens, you put yourself at risk by not complying.

              There was a thing a little while ago where an author shamed people who subscribed to her mailing list for a free book and unsubscribed, posting their emails on twitter, and there was a bit of gleeful handrubbing over whether any of the readers might be EU citizens, because that’s a very deliberate data breach, but my googlefu is failing me (I suspect the author yanked a lot of the info when she realised it could get her in a lot of trouble). Ultimately, GDPR is about the kind of best practice you’d like to hope businesses follow anyway, and nudging those that don’t into line.

        2. Liane*

          “If one don’t live or work in the EU, why is one obligated to follow EU laws?”
          GDPR would only come into play for US citizens *who are doing business with European companies.* So Matilda doesn’t have to follow GDPR on her fruit stand website unless she starts selling to European customers or maybe if it requires site registration and some of her fans are in Europe. (Not a lawyer or data protection officer in any nation.)

        3. Timothy (TRiG)*

          My understanding is that, for this law at least, the EU does not limit its jurisdiction: if you break the law, you’ve broken the law. Now, that doesn’t mean that anyone would be in any position to enforce that law. You couldn’t be punished for it (probably).

          If your country had a very similar law, though, you might just get in trouble. Look up “enforcement of foreign judgments”.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      But if they’re handling ITAR data, there’s even higher risks on the part of the person farming this kind of thing off to a freelancer. With even more severe consequences on their side. So I wouldn’t worry too much about that being a possibility.

      But in general, there are lot of protective laws out there that may be broken by doing business in a round about shady way. So the more strict you are about clients you take on, the better just so that you don’t ever fall into one of those weird sandpits out there!

  16. Kenzi Wood*

    I’m a freelance writer on UpWork, so I know how you feel, OP. I always make my new clients sign an agreement stating that they have authority to hire me (among other things). I haven’t run into this particular situation just because of the industry I work in, but a paper trail helps keep me covered.

    1. banzo_bean*

      Yeah, I don’t know if UpWork or Fiverr allow this but I would set up a vetting phone call prior to taking on the client. I would use that as a time to ask probing questions and develop a better sense of the person you’re doing business with.

      1. Devil Fish*

        Upwork doesn’t care how you communicate with clients or potential clients, as long as you don’t communicate about going off-platform and cutting Upwork out of their 20%. Vetting is a good idea for larger projects but you’re competing with hundreds of other applicants for each job and that can mean you won’t have a lot of time to talk before the client chooses someone.

        That said, I’ve had nothing but bad luck speaking with clients in real time, including the ones who wanted to “go over a few edits” on Skype and then pulled my contract when I refused to take off my clothes (after I’d already done the work they contracted for—hat tip to Upwork for siding with the client being “dissatisfied with my performance on the project” and not making them pay for the work I did jfc I can’t make this shit up).

        1. Gazebo Slayer*


          There ought to be a #metoo expose on clients who do that to freelancers. Or at the very least a way to publicly shame them.

          Do sexual harassment/discrimination laws apply to independent contractors? Or to freelance job-brokerage platforms?

  17. designbot*

    I’ve done this in a way that was above board before, and still wound up having issues due to some of the pitfalls Allison outlines. I did virtual meetings with multiple parties in the company at once, so I knew I was not some guy’s secret to how he gets his work done. But he was still my only contact at the company, which in retrospect should have made me slightly nervous. The first contract went fine and I was paid promptly. The second one, he stopped answering my calls at the end of the project. Then no payment. Still not answering my calls. I called the office and asked to speak to accounting, they didn’t pick up. Out of desperation I even tried to use the email “formula” of the company to reach out to folks I’d been on calls with, super gingerly like “hey I know we haven’t spoken about this aspect of the project before but I haven’t been able to get a response from Ned and I’m not sure who I should talk to at Stark Industries to get this resolved, could you point me in the right direction?” Nothing. I never did wind up getting paid for that job. The company went bankrupt, and New was ghosting me because he’d been laid off, and the last thing any of the remaining employees wanted to bring up to their bosses was outstanding bills.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      This story makes me so sick but thank you for sharing it.

      I’ve seen this over and over again, I’m more likely to being involved in accounting for small businesses. It often does end in “company went out of business” but there are also a lot of scammers out there who will use your services just one and then basically play the “yeah, sell us to collections, we don’t even care.” [I have seen some credit reports for businesses that have made me physically sick, that’s how bad they are, that’s how much they don’t pay their bills but yet still are out there, running their shell games.]

      I appreciate that you can boil it down to “they didn’t want to bring up outstanding bills to their bosses”. I assume the bosses know. The bosses always know. They know before anyone is laid off. They know before anyone else even gets a whiff of the bad times that are being had financially. In the end most of the time, they only care about trying to keep the place afloat and if that means purchasing more things they can’t actually pay for, so be it.

      1. designbot*

        I guess I’m assuming the bosses knew this guy had projects in the works that they didn’t know the details of, but did not know the specifics of him having a freelancer doing this set of tasks for this project at this rate. He was a Vice President.
        And looking back and putting myself in the other employees shoes, if I got an email like the one I sent, it would sound really shady. Like, it might even get picked up by my spam filter so I might never even see it shady.
        The long and short of it is, when you only have one person’s contact info, it’s 1000x easier for the company to skip out on your contract. Fortunately this one was only a couple of thousand bucks, but it was at a time in my life when I really could’ve used it.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          I have verified invoices for almost 20 years. Believe me, we can figure out if something is legit enough. It’s not sketchy to have someone reach out with a bill for something we may not have been aware of. We can still trace it. I can ask for the contract you signed or the correspondence you had with Former VP and look in his old email if necessary.

          But you’re completely right, I start freaking out when I only have one or two contacts for some place.

          Sadly I know many of them that even if you have the contact information for the entire darn place, you won’t get a response unless they really want to respond.

    1. Goose Lavel*

      Third time this has been posted and it still makes me wonder how many software Engineers have automated their jobs through their own code work?

        1. Devil Fish*

          That was also Goose Lavel and I’m still failing to make the connection between automating your own job so it doesn’t have to be done by a person at all vs paying another person a percentage of your salary to do your job for you. There’s a difference between getting a Roomba and hiring a housekeeper, you know?

          1. Oh No She Di'int*

            I think the connection is at the level of “Boss thinks I’m slaving away to produce this, when really I found a shortcut I’m not revealing.” So I think it’s like either getting a Roomba or hiring a housekeeper, but either way you let your spouse remain under the impression that you pull out the broom and spend all day sweeping. Not saying that I agree the two cases are moral equivalents; just saying I think that is the connection being made.

  18. MoopySwarpet*

    I could see this for projects that are one offs. As an example, we absolutely do not use PayPal as a company. When we encounter vendors (mostly things like membership dues) who will only take PayPal, an employee who has a PayPal account pays the bill and submits it for reimbursement.

    I think on a 3rd party site, it might be the similar. You have to have an account to hire people, but maybe the company doesn’t have one or doesn’t want a general one that too many people have access to. Without knowing which site it is, it’s hard to say if that’s the case or not.

    As another example, a co-worker keeps suggesting Fiverr as a viable option for certain projects. I personally do not like that particular site and concept and would not sign off on using it as a company. However, if the co-worker contracted someone from there for an approved project, we would pay the expense.

    I think sometimes there’s a job to be done and a deadline to have it done by, while the tool to get the project done has an approval process that has so much red tape it would take too long to get it pushed through “regular” channels. Then, once it’s set up the work-around way, it gets used that way and everyone forgets there’s a more efficient way to get it set up.

    It’s definitely less than ideal.

    1. designbot*

      that’s an excellent point. I’ve purchased stock photography from a European artist, and his options were paypal and bank transfer. The approvals I’d have to go through to get a bank transfer were ten times the work of using my personal paypal and submitting an expense report, so guess which one I did?

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      But don’t you have corporate cards available?

      You can use one to use Paypal without an account. We don’t have a Paypal account either, which stinks for the people who’d like to use it as a payment method but we can still pay using a PayPal link with a card.

    3. Liane*

      “However, if the co-worker contracted someone from there for an approved project, we would pay the expense.”
      I guess it would be similar to someone working unauthorized overtime? The company would still pay the OT wages, but at the same discipline the employee who did so?

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Not necessarily the same.

        OT is required by law to be paid. That’s on the employer no matter how you shake it.

        However an unauthorized charge? You can get out of those, you are not legally responsible for it if someone lies and says they’re authorized when they’re not. You can shift the blame easily and there’s not much the person can do.

        However a lot of companies will pay it because it’s about their reputation in the end. Depending on how much they care about that, some don’t, some will take the hit, others don’t want their name to be tied into “doesn’t pay their freelancers”.

        Many places will not pay, no way, no how.

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Employment laws are governed by not just lawyers but the state’s department of labor and industries.

        BOLI gets a cut of those fines, they love them, they bankroll their department in the end. However when you break a contract and don’t pay a customer, it’s a different ball of wax. It can be theft of goods or services but it’s a civil case. Civil cases are only dealt with lawyers, who are expensive and most people aren’t able to access them without a lot of hoops and retainers involved =(

        Something to keep in mind. We lots of times want to say “it’s against the law! so we’re safe! people don’t like breaking the laws!” it’s not at all enough to keep people in line.

      3. Devil Fish*

        It doesn’t sound like they’d be disciplined for it. It sounds like this coworker has the autonomy to choose to use underpaid freelancers via Fiverr if that’s how they want to get their projects done but MoopySwarpet is (rightly) opposed to exploiting freelancers from that platform as a go-to solution for completing projects.

  19. Tequila Mockingbird*

    This reminds me of professional “essay writers” who are hired to write papers for college students! Yikes!

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Well hiring someone to do your coursework is also how you get kicked out of school if found out. So I wouldn’t say that it’s “much” worse, there’s still high stakes.

      2. pleaset*

        What laws?

        I guess “potentially” it could be lot of things, but what laws are in any way likely being broken.

        1. Devil Fish*

          I’m all in favor of calling out MommyMD for making bizarre comments that border on delusion but this one is legit if the company has anything to do with data privacy regulations, especially if they’re in finance or healthcare or another industry that’s similarly governed. The OP seemed to have some concerns about this.

        2. MommyMD*

          The list of legislated businesses is long. Law, finance, banking, health care, law enforcement and more.

    1. President Porpoise*

      Not just college students. Also applications, cover letters, etc, for executives and wealthy people.

  20. Jamie*

    I’m assuming you have business insurance covering your work, what does your contract with them say? Either way it’s a nice way of being good cop and verifying you’re contracting for a company – tell them you check to make sure your insurance is valid.

      1. Jamie*

        For IT work I wouldn’t touch someone’s data without it.

        One boss I had asked me to fix a personal computer of one of the engineers as he used it for working from home even for a simple fix I made my boss put it in writing that if something went wrong they were liable, not me.

        My state of paranoia serves me well at times.

          1. Bleeping computer*

            Well now I agree with Devil Fish. An IT person working on someone’s personal computer is something that happens all the time.

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Yeah sadly a lot of freelancers don’t spring for insurance and can be caught in an awful spot.

        I hope they’ve done business with enough reputable companies that it’s not an option. I’m not hiring anyone for anything, even to come clean the toilets without having proof of insurance. But that’s also been drilled into my head by numerous business professionals who are like “If someone is touching your stuff, they need to be insured on top of the fact you’re insured.” Part of that mindset is so that you can hit their insurance before you hit your own, which you of course have more interest in keeping lower rates and all that.

  21. Dasein9*

    Every now and again, I have a student who tries to write an ethical argument that plagiarism and cheating should be ethically permissible.

    Part (only part!) of the explanation I give them why this is a bad idea is the sheer cost. They pay:
    1. For the opportunity to learn x,
    2. Someone else to do x for them as a grade,
    3. Someone to do x for them for the rest of their lives, however many times they may need x.

    It sounds like some are prepared to do that, alas.

      1. Dasein9*

        Well, yes.

        To be fair, the ones who try this are generally not the sort to cheat; they are just being playful with the work, which I don’t mind.

    1. Devil Fish*

      Are you teaching ethics? If you are, there are several ethical theories that would back this argument and I hope at least a few of the students have had some fun with expanding on those theories.

      The cost/benefit can shake out if it’s something like a required course that doesn’t relate to your major or career path—like a student who plans to go into medicine but has to take some history credits, or a lit major who flat out sucks at math—because our nation is obsessed with giving college students a “well-rounded” education that’s definitely not just about getting the colleges paid by bloating the course load beyond what’s reasonably necessary.

      1. Agnes*

        Yes, you’re right, it’s not about the colleges getting paid. People who set up colleges tend to believe in the value of education for its own sake, believe it or not.

        1. MommyMD*

          Yes. Some people don’t understand that courses outside your major do in fact pertain to knowledge and intelligence and Universities are testing you to make sure you reach a certain standard. Not just in your own narrow area of the world.

      2. Dasein9*

        Yes, I teach Philosophy, sometimes Ethics. Note, I said this was only part of the explanation I give of why it’s a bad idea.

    2. Oh No She Di'int*

      Putting cheating aside, plagiarism does have some legitimately fuzzy edges. For example, if you write a book for Publisher X and then borrow bits of your own writing for your new book for Publisher Y, that can be plagiarism depending on who owns what rights. It is certainly illegal, but there’s an argument to be made that it’s not unethical.

      Also, different cultures draw different boundaries around plagiarism, something we have to be very aware of in my business with an international clientele. In some cultures, it is expected that you will borrow words, ideas, and arguments from other, more learned people directly and not necessarily with attribution. This is not only tolerated but encouraged as a sign of having learned one’s lessons well.

    3. Rusty Shackelford*

      3. Someone to do x for them for the rest of their lives, however many times they may need x.

      Ah, you’d lose me here, because there are things I had to do in college that I will never do again in my entire life.

    4. Wintermute*

      The only valid argument I could see is if 1 and 3 aren’t true, colleges inflate requirements to funnel students to unpopular programs or for ideological reasons all the time. The argument then is “I’m not paying for the opportunity to learn X, I am paying for the opportunity to learn Y, but most of all I’m paying for the required credentials to become professionally licensed in Y-related fields. X is not related to my goals. I will pay someone else to do X for me as a grade, but I will never pay someone to do X again in my life, because I don’t anticipate ever NEEDING to do X in my life, and if that situation comes up then the cost of paying for X again is trivial compared to the opportunity cost involved in not focusing my academic efforts on Y and improving my in-major GPA, which has more tangible benefits (internships, honors societies, etc) than a basic knowledge of X ever will”.

      That said I can’t imagine the students that would implement such a scheme are the sorts who would actually take the extra time to double-down on their in-major fields or a double major rather than goof around.

      1. Dasein9*

        It tends to turn out that X is needed, though. If not for the specific skill, then for the broader application of knowledge application interrelationship of fields. Therein lies the difference between education, which is broad and non-specific, and training, which is narrower and specific.

  22. MommyMD*

    Not ok if it truly is an individual and company has no knowledge. In some cases may even be illegal. Do your diligence. If someone seems sketchy or not ok with that, walk away. Can you imagine if someone in a governmental agency did this to cover their own azz? You could be on the hook legally. Or any business that is legislated regarding confidentiality.

      1. pleaset*

        Just adding that we know robbery is illegal, but that doesn’t mean all parties to a robber (the robber and the robbee) broke the law.

        1. Bleeping computer*

          This is awfully vague. Yes, of course there are circumstances where this practice could be illegal (sharing classified materials, for instance) but it does not follow that it is illegal under all, or even most, circumstances.

          1. pleaset*

            Yeah. I guess anything could be anything and that anything could be illegal. Depending on the circumstances. So the OP better watch!

    1. Wintermute*

      It would take some PRETTY extreme circumstances for this to be illegal. Doesn’t change the fact it’s a bad idea though.

  23. Hydrangea*

    I used to oversee the contracting process for my organization. Our requirement was that the contract signer be “able to enter into legally binding contracts on behalf of the company” If the contract signer was anyone other than a President/VP/Csuite exec we would send a request for clarification about whether or not the signer was able to do so.

    Could you try a similar policy? That might solve some of your problems (and if they lie means you have greater protections)

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Some places require an executive signature to confirm that someone else is authorized as well.

      I’ve ran into that.

      There are a few places where we’ve had to list authorized individuals out and if someone leaves and a replacement comes in, we will get their orders kicked back because they’re not on the authorized purchaser list! And they’ll have to have another authorization put into place.

  24. Working Mom Having It All*

    My first question here is what the nature of the third party service (which sounds like a web platform of some kind, like Fiverr?) and whether it is a venue where people typically find freelancers to do work in your field. Is the freelance service you offer typical of that type of platform? Are the services you provide typical freelance services in your field, or an area where typically that service would be handled in-house by a company? Is the work you do generally contracted out by small businesses or individuals in other contexts? If all of this is SOP in your field, who would your typical point of contact be? HR? A temp agency? Someone reaching out on behalf of their company who would typically be authorized to work with outside vendors in this capacity? Or just, like… some guy throwing you $50 to do a random task?

    I work in a field where hiring freelancers, temps, or outside vendors is common, but where the tasks I perform would almost certainly be performed by an employee of the company or perhaps a temp hired through an agency and contracted through HR. It would be highly unusual if I was outsourcing some of my work to a freelancer I’d found online, on my own dime (or worse, on a company credit card). Whereas, yeah, when I used to work on film shoots, we’d bring in “day player” PAs all the time as needed or farm out work to freelancers. Then again, even in that setup those people got paid either via crew payroll or an invoice submitted to our accounting department after getting set up as a vendor.

    Either way, this sort of thing should be very easy to figure out just based on what norms in your field are. And if there aren’t norms in your field related to this, chances are you or the people hiring you are doing something that is not OK.

  25. Blue Horizon*

    I think Alison’s answer is the right one here. You have a right to know who you are working for, or who the ultimate client is if you are in a subcontracting situation. You also have a right to confirm that they know about the work and are OK with it.

    As noted above, there are some situations where this might happen semi-legitimately – the official process is prohibitive for the work involved, something just needs to get done, and there is an unofficial but well established workaround. But in that situation you’re relying on goodwill from everybody involved so that things don’t go bad, and if you even suspect that the client might be passing your work off as their own then you have no guarantee of that. You can, and should, rule out that scenario as a precondition of doing the work.

  26. Sansa*

    Tangential story from kind of the opposite angle, but anyone who’s used these freelancing platforms has probably run into shady stuff. I worked for a person who accepted contracts but didn’t tell their clients that they were subcontracting work to us peons—the clients thought they were getting the benefit of some MBA’s experience instead of desperate freelancers copy-pasting a bunch of boilerplate text. On the plus side, this experience helped me get an aboveboard job. But you never know who you’re dealing with either way!

    1. Anonymous for Obvious Reasons*

      Tangentially to your tangent… I work in an industry in which major companies routinely contract for services from firms in India. However, a couple of years ago Megacorp decided that the India work was subpar and made a company-wide policy that no further work was to be outsourced to India. Instead all contractors providing services to Megacorp had to be US or UK based. And they would accordingly pay 3 times as much for the work.

      My company has inherited many of these contracts. What do we do? We turn right around subcontract the work to India. Megacorp is not allowed to send work to India; but there is nothing in our contract with Megacorp that says anything one way or the other about subcontracting to India or anywhere else. We find work from India perfectly acceptable. And guess what? So does Megacorp when they think Americans have produced it. We pocket the difference between the US pay rate and the India rate, and in fact can afford to pay above-market wages in India. Our owner puts it as that extra money is Megacorp’s tax for being racist.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        Megacorp is not allowed to send work to India; but there is nothing in our contract with Megacorp that says anything one way or the other about subcontracting to India or anywhere else.

        That’s kind of surprising, honestly.

      2. Wintermute*

        Ah, but in this case they are getting a value-add from your company. Presumably your firm is vetting the work product to ensure that it meets their standards so you aren’t caught out, or your company’s expertise in outsourcing management allows you to select contract partners that provide work that is sufficient quality for Megacorp where their own in-house vendor management obviously struggled to do the same.

        It could also be a case where even in the first place the company was 95% of the way there but it wasn’t acceptable to have staffing only during day shift in India (an issue my company is running in to now with a contract partner, things go down in the middle of the day, we have to wait until late night to get any response from support), or they really needed that 5% vetted and signed off on by a native English speaker familiar with the local culture (a common issue with cheap outsourced translation services, for instance, they get it ALMOST there but you still need a polish pass from someone with native-level familiarity with slang, idioms and up-to-date on cultural and political matters to avoid accidental hilarity, or worse, offensiveness)

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I think it’s an important lesson everywhere in life to remember there are shady people in every place you may find yourself. Even when you’re surrounded by a lot of great, awesome, smart, decent people there’s a few lurkers out there that are shifty AF.

      I’ve ran into this just being a legit business operator and the weird dicey things you see from other “business owners”. Cut rate materials and questionable craftsmanship to say the least.

      We had someone jack our images and “sell” our items on Craigslist, claiming they were building them themselves, that was great fun flagging all that. Some of our grouchier partners tried to actually call that guy to see what the ef was up even. Oop. Burner cells ahoy.

    3. Blue Horizon*

      A guy I know decided to try out one of the outsourced coding markets for his private project as an experiment. He wrote up the details of a moderately complex, self-contained task, posted it, then contracted with the lowest bidder and examined the result once it was delivered.

      The code he received was perfectly serviceable, but on closer inspection turned out to have been largely lifted (large sections of it verbatim) from an open source project that was under GPL. If he had incorporated it into his own product, as the brief stated he intended to do, then it would have immediately put him in breach of GPL terms and possibly invalidated his own licensing arrangements.

      The contractor apologized profusely when it was pointed out and offered to redo it free of charge (and did so) but realistically, he was just really unlucky. Any customer that was able to easily spot this probably wouldn’t have needed to use the service in the first place.

      This was some time ago and it may be a bit more professional now, but I’d be amazed if the same kind of thing doesn’t happen with some regularity.

  27. OP*

    Thanks for your response, Alison. And I appreciate reading the input, perspectives, and stories of those in the comment section as well. Helps me sort through my thoughts on this.

    It does make sense to broach this in the pre-contract conversation if the work is for a company/organization not owned by the person hiring me, and especially if I’m not asked to sign a NDA. I would likely bring it up in the context of needing to ensure I have authorization to access proprietary data.

    I’m also mulling over the idea brought up by several folks to add language to the contract or ask for a signature for authority to hire. I might research this and maybe even get the advice of an attorney about making this a standard procedure.

    A few other responses:

    It was enlightening to read the perspectives from AP/vendor management folks. I hadn’t considered that an employee might legitimately pay and then expense outside work.

    There was a comment about the possibility that a company could be surprised to see their project in my portfolio if they were unaware their employee hired me. Pretty much all the work I do is with proprietary data not made available in the public domain, so none of my client work is able to be displayed. I’ve created data vizzes from public data sets for my portfolio.

    Someone wondered if there was a setting with the third party service site that would let me filter out individuals and only be connected with companies. I actually wouldn’t want to do that! There are a lot of legitimate and interesting reasons an individual would hire me. The majority of my work is not with huge corporations, but with owners of small businesses, sole proprietors, or folks who have a business idea and need a technical and/or design resource to prototype it. I love these projects. I’m not particularly looking for large companies as clients.

    There were a few comments wondering whether I was established enough to work without the third party service. Probably. But for now, I’m fine with the arrangement. It takes care of the aspects of being a business that I would be least efficient at, and which could make freelancing a miserable prospect rather than an enjoyable and adventuresome way to use my skills.

    P.S. Hello fellow data viz folks!

  28. Little Pig*

    I am late, but I didn’t see it mentioned anywhere else so I wanted to bring this up.

    Could this be a sign that you need to raise your rates? If someone finds it profitable to collect their salary and pay you to do the work, I would argue that your rates have quite a bit of headroom. I know that can be challenging with these websites, but maybe it’s a goal to work towards as you build relationships with good clients.

    1. OP*

      Good point. I strongly doubt that was the case with these two particular clients – that the motivation for doing this was financial, or to buy some free time for themselves to do other things.

      But yes, it’s certainly a thing that freelancers can undercharge when starting out, both because projects are harder to win with no track record and because they’re getting a feel for the market and how to do freelancing. At this point, new projects roll in fairly easily (knock on wood) and I can and do raise my rates regularly.

  29. Scarlet*

    Oof. I’m glad this letter came along as I’ve actually been thinking of hiring a freelancer to do some of my work. I work currently for a Fortune 100 company and let me tell you, I’m often slammed in administrative work. I’m not in a position where I can hire anyone nor is there anyone I could off-load the work to.

    Would I be willing to pay someone $10/hour to alphabetize non-proprietary data for me? You bet your ass. Would I be willing to pay that amount or even a bit more for some data entry work? Yep. Animating a presentation, filing my damn inbox – all of it.

    Is this really so wrong as long as company data remains confidential? Sometimes you gotta do stuff like this to get ahead and stay ahead, is my opinion on the subject. Really why not?

    1. OP*

      I’m so glad you commented! Ethics of it aside for a moment (though I’m interested to read the replies), I have to ask: I can see $10/hour, but would you or someone in your position pay $60-$80/hour, up to more than $15k of your own money to offload the work?

      1. Scarlet*

        Honestly it really depends on the work in my opinion. I think so many of us nowadays are just slammed with the work of 2-3 people. It’s like some companies just want to squeeze every last ounce out of you, work/life balance be damned. It’s not really about being lazy. For many, the choice is either: fall behind and possibly get fired, or stay on top of things and keep your career on track.

        Obviously that’s not the ideal situation and certain industries have that issue more than others, but for a lot of people that’s just the way the working world is.

    2. Not Rebee*

      (not a lawyer) If you don’t have the authority to share the confidential information with another party, then yes it’s wrong. If the information is solely belonging to your company, it may not cause an issue. But if it’s information that you got from another company? Your company is required to ensure that all sharing of the information is done with a requirement for confidentiality. Even though such a contract may exist between you and the freelancer, your company cannot verify that in any way, nor can they or the original discloser legally pursue anything if the information were to get out.

    3. KD*

      Can I ask, have you asked your company for an assistant or a temp? If you’re able to pay ~ $10/hr from your own salary, I presume your own salary is high and you’re in a high position, why is your company not willing to offer support to you for work that should be considered a waste of your time?

      And if they are so short sighted to not agree to an assistant for you, what’s the motivation to staying at that company and not trying to find a new job where you would have an assistant?

      I hope my tone is not coming off as snarky, I’m genuinely curious to the answers as there is probably something about your situation I’m missing.

    4. Wintermute*

      It really depends on context. If the data is truly non-proprietary and public then I don’t see much harm potential but most businesses don’t generate a lot of truly public information they need worked on.

      The biggest risk is that you’re trusting everything about this person, including their IT security, operational security (do they leave your data someplace someone could smash a car window and grab it, etc) and ethics, completely. If they’re a freelancer they MIGHT have good security but it’s unlikely they have an IT department behind them. A few windows patches behind, get themselves infected with something, send you an excel spreadsheet and suddenly you’re patient zero in a malware infection of your corporate network

      1. Scarlet*

        This is a good point and I did not think about the IT vulnerability, but still if the data is non proprietary I would hope that would mitigate any issues that might come up.

  30. Not Rebee*

    Not a lawyer, but even though you have a contract in place that covers confidentiality, the individual contracting with you might not have the authority to actually share with you what they’re sharing. It’s typically only allowed to company vendors, employees, or contractors that have a need to know the information. If you’re not a company vendor, the employee may have some issues because of this if it were to be discovered by the company or by another one of their vendors (in cases where the other vendor was the original discloser of the confidential information in question).

  31. Gazebo Slayer*

    Freelancer here. It’s worth noting that some freelancing apps only allow individual accounts on their platform, not ones belonging to a whole corporationor organization, so a company’s only option for using that app may be to set up an individual account in one specific employee’s name. I found my biggest client this way, and it’s totally aboveboard – his company knew he needed to outsource some of his work responsibilities to a freelancer and authorized the expense, and most of the work is done on-site so it would be awfully difficult to hide my involvement.

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