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My client, Widgets Inc, hires a freelance designer, Bob, to do flyers and such. He's good at it. Bob figured out how to install Wordpress and is now calling himself a web designer. I tried to talk to him about CSS and he didn't know what it was.

Widgets Inc has hired Bob to build a customized e-commerce solution for them, which happens to be my specialty. Bob has outsourced this work to me at what appears to be a fraction of the pay. He told Widgets Inc that I am "helping him" with the project. I don't want to turn this down because Widgets Inc is a great client.

I don't mind the pay cut so much as the fact that Bob is now my boss on the project. All my questions have to be directed to Bob instead of Widgets Inc, and he seems to be making up answers (for example what currencies, payment methods to support). I tried to talk to Widgets Inc directly about this and they told me to just talk to Bob. He is also trying to tell me how to do the work when he doesn't know what he is talking about. I don't think he's doing it on purpose, he just doesn't realize that web development is more complicated than a Wordpress install.

How can I explain what's wrong to Widgets Inc without being a jerk?

  • Are you still in the planning stage, or are you in development? Furthermore, do you have a contract with Bob? – Chris Forrence Aug 18 '14 at 17:27
  • @ChrisForrence My contract is with Widgets Inc. Bob is telling me to start development, but I really want to do more planning with Widgets Inc first. Bob also has a contract with Widgets Inc for "his share" of the work even though I'm doing 100% of it. – Ilana Aug 18 '14 at 18:51
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I agree with the others that it would be imprudent to say something overtly negative about Bob. Though you might be able to get the client to realize by asking "innocent" sounding questions "Why did you and Bob decide to skip XXX?" "Is there room in the budget for rebuilding XYZ because we went did ABC?" etc.

If you can get this over quickly, you might suck it up and do that. But if this is a long term project, I think I would keep going to Bob with project stalling questions that he can't answer. He wanted to be in charge and the client agreed to that - let them rue the day. I would force him to make every decision and I would not give him a free web development education in the process.

If you believe Bob's decisions are putting the project in jeopardy you might say something to the client (or Bob) like:

"I understand I work for Bob on this project, but as a professional, I cannot, in good conscience, proceed per current direction. You are a very important client to me and your success is crucial. As a business owner myself, I also have a reputation for competence that I've worked many years to build. I cannot put my name and reputation behind the current design. eCommerce is very complex. There are laws and security issues... XYZ could happen...(blah blah blah say something to scare them straight here). The last thing I want to do is become one more problem to you, but I am extremely concerned about this and feel an ethical obligation to bring it to your attention."

On a side note: The situation has changed. You had a direct client and now suddenly you are a sub contractor working for less money for Bob who doesn't know what he's doing. The message your client is getting is that you were over charging them in the past and you're desperate enough for work to lower your rates and give up your authority.

I don't know the details but I wonder if the fact that you accepted this project as Bob's contractor for less money than you normally charge lowers your value, and the value/importance of the work, in your client's eyes. You say the money doesn't matter, but I think it does. Maybe not to you personally, but it may affect how your client perceives you, or reveal how they saw you all along. Maybe something to think about...

I have learned that yes, it's good to be accommodating, but there is a line. I would never (now that I'm older and wiser) let a client turn me into a sub contractor for someone less competent than me and pay me less than they always have. You are where you are on this project but at the very least you can prepare yourself for how to handle things should this type of situation arise in the future, especially with this client.

Good luck!

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    Clever trick with the innocent questions! I'm going to give that a try. Re: your side note, I have another (Bob-free) project with Widgets Inc that is paying well above my standard rate, so I think they value me. I'm getting underpaid on this project because they think that Bob is doing most of the work. – Ilana Aug 19 '14 at 19:20
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    That's good. Did you compete with Bob for this project, or did they just pick him then he came to you? (just curious) I once had a larger company approach me to be their sub contractor on a training project for one of my own clients. I said "but my rate is as high as yours so how would that work?" I didn't hear from them again, but I also didn't get the project. – Emily Aug 19 '14 at 20:32
  • Emily, I think you missed something. The OP is not a subcontractor of Bob. – Xavier J Aug 20 '14 at 0:45
  • @Emily They've been working with Bob for years and with me less than a year, so they go to him first. They don't understand the difference between design and programming. It's all interchangeable "geek stuff" to them. – Ilana Aug 20 '14 at 13:51
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    @codenoire, the OP said elsewhere that his contract is with Widgets so I'm confused too. something about this situation is very twisted. I've been there... If nothing else I would analyze exactly how it happened and prepare to make sure there is no repeat. llana I am curious how it happened that you are doing the work but Bob has control and the lion's share of credit/money. I am guessing you were caught off guard and trying to be a nice guy to everyone when this was proposed. – Emily Aug 20 '14 at 22:10
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Short answer --- You can't.

There is a chain of command.

You may not like the chain of command. But it's been established.

I've been in this position. It is not pleasant. You essentially have 2 options:

  • Deal with it. Do what Bob tells you. Relay questions to Bob. Use what Bob tells you for answers. Do the work solely based on the information Bob has presented you. Express your concerns about the project to Bob and let Bob determine solutions to use, etc. Keep records. If things blow up, fail, or need to be redone, cite the records and charge accordingly.

  • Leave the project for whatever reason you want to use.

You never want to state anything negative about anyone else if you are a freelancer. Your comments, regardless of how true they may be, could be construed as slander or libel and end you in legal trouble due to any loss of work on the part of Bob.

There are many positions where a supervisor doesn't understand or know how to complete something. Bob not knowing something is not, in itself, an issue. It's your job to educate and inform Bob of what needs to be done since you are the expert who has been hired to complete it. If Bob fails to listen to your requirements or needs, then do what you can and if approached by the company, simply explain you needed X Y and Z and never received X and Z.

Realize that if you were an employee you could always go to your boss or above your boss' head to complain about something. But you aren't an employee. Bite your tongue and either do what you're asked to do, how you're asked to do it, or reject the project.

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Do you REALLY have to work for this client? Can't you tell him that you do not have time for this extra task?

To be frank, I would not try to disclose the other guy since you do not know their relations. If you have more jobs with this company, then you may jeopardize all of them.

I would simply try to withdraw from the project by telling him that this job is causing you to lose focus from other jobs and let Bob spoils the project. When the client realizes that something is odd, he will be angry with Bob. If you two blow up the project together, do you really think that the client will be angry with Bob only and that your explanations will be listened?!

  • Unfortunately, it will also look bad if I pull out of this project. Besides, this project will go swimmingly if they just let me report directly to Widgets Inc instead of Bob. – Ilana Aug 18 '14 at 15:35
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    As I said, I would do ANYTHING to get out of the project. Otherwise, be prepared to do the work for both of you to get the unpredicted result. And try to be hard ass and don't let anyone giving you advises. Have you opinion and maybe Bob will complain that he cannot work with you :). Again, you're on the ship on the course to the iceberg. Find a way to get out of it. – Peter MV Aug 18 '14 at 15:39
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Here's what you can do:

Make sure EVERY meeting and phone call you schedule has both Bob and the client. Make sure EVERY e-mail you send gets under the client's nose. Bob is optional, whether he knows it or not. For best results, it's your task to stealthily get the client to realize that, but you must not state it directly. That preserves Bob's reputation. Eventually, the client will figure it out. What the client does with Bob after that is not your concern.

Maybe Bob ends up working for you if you pull it off correctly.

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