Questions about Ground Holding, Compassion, and the Bottom Line

One of the companies I do work for hasn’t paid me for a bunch of my work since May. I’m not going to say which company because this post isn’t about them. It’s about me negotiating issues of value, personal principles, cooperation and compromise, worry, money, and respect. It’s about situating myself within broader communities. It’s about the collision of work and family. It’s about whether I’m mad and whether I have any right to be mad.

Here’s the basic scenario:

I do design work for Company X. Company X is going through All the Changes (imagine a corporate change that could be happening - from being bought to restructuring to hiring to firing to revamping how they interact with their designers to changing email addresses to switching the brand of coffee in the break room - and it’s probably happening at Company X). It’s insane. And it has been going on for approximately a year. Because of at least some of the changes, Company X doesn’t have a system in place to pay us for new work. It’s not that they’re not going to pay us, it’s that they just haven’t been able to yet. For six months. When our agreement with them is to be paid monthly.

Company X is not the only company I design for, so I’ve taken a very slow-and-steady approach to adapting to all of the change. I’ve contributed some new work, but I haven’t gone out of my way to be in the middle of the Company X Chaos. 

But despite trying to stay out of the fray, as the months have gone by, I’ve grown frustrated. Poor communication. Lots of requests for help making transitions that aren’t always ready to be made. And still no money. And no answers about the money.

The whole thing raises so many questions for me as a designer, as a bread-winner for my family, and as a human being:

  • What do I do when I feel I am not being respected professionally?
  • How much compassion, kindness, and understanding do I extend to the people I’ve worked with for years, knowing that they’re going through an extremely complicated set of changes?
  • How do I take a stand without shooting myself in the foot?
  • Is there anything productive I can do about the situation?
  • If I’m unhappy working with Company X, why not just stop? I’m under no contract with them. In other words, how do I decide what work to do and what work not to do?
  • Are they not paying me because they can’t pay me? Or for some other unrelated reason? And how much does the reason matter?
  • At any point will I have actual recourse?
  • If I feel that all of us designers aren’t being respected, do I have any kind of responsibility to them? And do they have any to me?
  • How will the decisions I make about this affect my business? My bottom line? My family?

Back in October I decided: that I would make my grievances known to the people at Company X whom I have worked with/for all these years, trying to be courteous, understanding, and professional while still sticking to my principles and still conveying how disappointed I have been over the last year; that I would make clear what remedies need to be made in order for me to feel like a good working relationship has been restored;  and that ultimately, I would not submit any new work to Company X until I am paid the money due to me for my work submitted since May. I also decided that I would not worry as much about the designer community because what I was doing was financially very risky and it wasn’t my place to ask my peers to take on similar risks.

Because making this stand most likely means missing out on the most lucrative few months of the year with Company X. Months during which I made $10,000 one year ago, and $8,000 the year before. This isn’t pocket change. This is major money. Money my family relies on. Heavily. For real.

Oh my god what did I do?!

There is now only one week remaining for me to at least partially, and only potentially, recover some of those major losses. One week from today, the door closes on my participation in this holiday season with Company X.

So do I hold my ground?

The problem is, because Company X hasn’t paid me for the last six months, I don’t even know how Company X is doing. How will they weather all those very many changes? How is business for them? Is designing for them still lucrative enough to pay me for the time I spend doing it, or would that time be better spent working for clients, designing for other companies, or even just developing my skills and my portfolio? And if the professional relationship really doesn’t feel like it’s working anymore, do I owe it to myself to let that relationship go? Or do I owe it to my kids and my husband and the people who collect my federal income taxes to just suck it up and do the work and hope this year is even a smidgen as profitable as the last few?

I really don't know. I'm really asking. 

In closing, let me please make a request: if you are inclined to leave a comment, and if you know or think you have figured out who Company X is, please don’t name them. I’m not looking to start anything with them like this. I’m merely trying to work through issues I never guessed I’d be working through after seven years as a freelancer. This is tough stuff and I think it’s worth some serious conversations among those of us who face these kinds of dilemmas.  But I don’t want to name names or call anyone out or anything like that. This isn’t the time or the place for that. So now… discuss.