Good Advice #6: Dealing With Bullies
This week’s question is a tough one. Dealing with bullies is frustrating, emotionally draining, and when you work for yourself, sadly common. But that doesn’t mean you have to put up with it.
I worked with this client on a four week project to revise the copy on his website. When we first spoke, I could tell we had different political beliefs, but didn’t think much of it because it was work; I wasn’t looking to become best friends. Through out the project though, he’d send me super political emails that were pretty offensive. I told him I didn’t want to receive any political mail from him and asked that he remove me from the list. He did for a few days, but pretty soon it was back to normal.
I was glad when the project was over because I figured I wouldn’t have to deal with him ever again. But he’s refusing to pay my last invoice. I honestly can’t figure out why. Every time I press him to pay he comes up with some random reason as to why he shouldn’t have to and why I’m ripping him off. I’m so tired of dealing with him that I’m just about ready to walk away from the cash, but I’d really rather not. How can I reason with someone who is being so unreasonable?
You aren’t just dealing with someone who is stubborn or unreasonable; the person you are dealing with is a bully. Bullies are different from people who dig in their heels and they’re different in some important ways.
- Bullies don’t care about the other person’s perspective or interests;
- Bullies are willing to change the rules of the negotiation whenever it suits them;
- Bullies are quick to use name calling and intimidation as tactics to get what they want; and
- Bullies are sensitive to harm they believe you cause them, but are oblivious to harm they might cause.
You do not have to put up with a bully’s behavior, even if you need to continue interacting with that person for work.
Bullies attempt to control the situation with their behavior. They assume that you’ll get fed up with dealing with them or be intimidated and give up. To combat that you need to set your own rules of engagement and stick to them. They need to be strong boundaries that you don’t give in on.
For instance, with the emails that you didn’t like, rather than let it go on after he started again you could have said, “I’ve asked you nicely not to include me on these emails. If you can’t respect my request, I am not going to be able to continue working on this project.” And if he still didn’t stop? Stop working, and send a final invoice saying you’re terminating the engagement and you’ll hand over the work product as soon as he’s paid.
Seem too harsh? He’s being a bully. You’re not treating him the way you would a normal person, even a normal stubborn person. You’re treating him like he’s behaving. If he stops behaving like a bully, you can stop treating him like one.
For the unpaid bills? Tell him he’s late, he’s accepted the work product and he owes you the money he agreed to. If he doesn’t pay you in 48 hours, you’re filing a small claims notice and if you do that you’ll sue not only for the money he owes you, but the costs to file the claim as well. Attach a copy of the paper work all filled out. If he doesn’t pay? File it.
He might scream and yell that you’re wrong and unreasonable and that he never agreed to — blah, blah, blah. He’s a bully. Do not listen to him being a bully. Stick to your guns.
If you aren’t ready to file a small claim, think about talking to a lawyer and have them write a mean letter. Sometimes when the bully realizes they don’t get to just beat up on you, that there is someone else involved, they fold. You can also report them as a crappy client on the Freelance Union’s Client Scorecard. If it’s a vendor who’s being a bully, report them to the local Better Business Bureau. If it’s gotten way out of hand and they pay attention to social media, the Twitter army can be awfully persuasive.
Each of these solutions requires you to do two things: (1) identify for the bully what your rules are and stick to them, and (2) figure out who outside of the situation might be influential with the bully. You can identify the best outside source by thinking about what the bully is interested in and cares about. The more directly related the outside source is to their interests, the more helpful the source will be.
Bullies are mostly bluster, but they can get darn loud. Don’t forget that you don’t have to treat them like you would a rational person; you don’t have to respond to their messages or taunts. You are allowed to stand up for yourself, demand they follow your rules and enforce consequences when they don’t. Good luck!
If you’ve got a question for the Good Advice column, send it my way: workmadeforhire(at)gmail(dot)com.