Professional policies for freelances

If you thought that turning freelance meant you could wave goodbye to the corporate world of contracts, policy documents and action plans, think again. Professionals need policies, not least so they can compete on a level playing field with larger organisations, but also to help communicate effectively with clients and to provide clear boundaries to guide business development. This blog post highlights some key policy areas and sources of guidance on everything from health and safety to fashion advice.

Beneficial bureaucracy

It is almost seventeen years since I played the role of ‘new recruit’ at a company, but I well remember my first day as an employee at my last permanent employer, the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in Watford. Back then, BRE was still a government agency and the full weight of civil service procedure was brought to bear on both the recruitment and the induction processes. While some people decry the civil service for its bureaucracy, I found it rather comforting compared with some of the drop-you-in-at-the-deep-end approaches I had suffered in previous roles.

One of the great things about the BRE induction system was that it paired new recruits with a ‘buddy’ from a different part of the organisation who was obliged to show you around, settle you in and, crucially, take you for lunch and introduce you to others you might not ordinarily meet. My buddy was a very friendly lady whose work did occasionally link to mine and we became friends, especially as we both turned freelance at around the same time!

Apart from that, what I remember best about the induction was the huge folder of ‘procedures and policies’ that was plonked on my desk. Reading and absorbing its contents was my first official task. Not at all what I was expecting – I was looking forward to getting my editorial teeth into some juicy energy efficiency guidance documents. So I skim-read the policies, learned more about the procedures by doing (and finding the workarounds) and barely gave the folder another thought until a year or so into my freelance life when I was invited to tender for a government-related contract that wanted to know my policies on X, Y and Z.

This may seem overly officious, but we freelances often find ourselves completing for work against small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and even against multinationals, so if the criteria say ‘provide details of policy X’, being a freelance is no excuse for ducking the formalities that underpin the principle of a level playing field.

A policy for all reasons

General business guidance that used to be available from Business Link can now be found at the aggregated government website www.gov.uk. The site offers guidance on a number of areas where employers are expected to have formal policies:

  • contracts of employment
  • statutory leave and time off
  • dismissing staff/redundancy
  • pensions
  • training and career development
  • trade union rights
  • health and safety
  • recruitment and hiring.

Elsewhere, there is information for businesses and organisations covering non-employment policy issues such as contracts with suppliers, payment terms and consumer rights.

Where a large organisation or even an SME might have a human resources person or department responsible for all these matters, sole traders are left to develop and manage their own policies unless, that is, they belong to professional bodies who have already done some of the donkey work on their behalf. So I am lucky that both the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) provided such support.

The SfEP, for instance, has developed a Code of Practice for its members, titled Ensuring editorial excellence, which covers a number of issues that might otherwise have needed stand-alone policies, such as confidentiality, data protection and expectations relating to quality of work. It has also developed a suite of model contracts for editors, project managers and proofreaders.

The NUJ provides comprehensive guidance on these matters too, in the guise of the Freelance Fact Pack. It also has a well-known (though not necessarily well-adhered-to) Code of Conduct which was first developed in 1936 and has recently been updated, in the light of the Leveson Inquiry. The revised Code  includes a new ‘conscience clause’, which declares that journalists are entitled to refuse to produce work in breach of the Code and will be given the support of the union if they do so.

Of course, that really applies to directly employed staff, rather than freelances who, by the very nature of their status, have the right to refuse to take on work for whatever reason they see fit. (That right is one of a number of tests HM Revenue and Customs applies to determine whether a person is an employee or a contractor.)

Putting it in writing

The generic policies provided by SfEP and the NUJ may be sufficient for some freelances’ needs, but I also have a few policies that are all my own, covering areas that are related to the type of work I do and my own foibles and prejudices.

For instance, you may have noticed that one of my first posts within this blog is about how I developed a social media policy. Two other policies I compiled several years ago are a health and safety policy and an environment policy – the latter being especially important to some of the contracts I have undertaken for clients.

I am reasonably confident that I follow the principles of the environment policy pretty closely, even though it is several years old: taking care to minimise use of energy for heating, lighting and transport, reusing and recycling where ever possible, avoiding the use of products that are harmful to the environment and – crucially for me – promoting energy-efficiency and environmental protection messages to others through my work.

The health and safety policy is different matter, though. Do I take regular screen breaks? When did I last have an eye test? Do I sit correctly, and do I walk around often enough to keep my circulation going? I am reasonable sure the lighting in my office is adequate (because I designed the office myself), but I’m less certain about potential trip hazards – though my dog is usually asleep in his basket. And is my office at a suitable temperature for sedentary working? It certainly wasn’t this morning. Brrr. There is no statutory temperature requirement, in case you are wondering; room temperature must simply be ‘reasonable’.

That’s the thing with policies: it’s all very well writing them and burying them in a drawer or e-file; the idea is to check they are being implemented and if not find out why not, and revise them accordingly. (I should practise what I have preached in countless guides to energy efficiency!)

Unwritten rules

And that’s just the policies I do have written down. I don’t have a policy/action plan for crisis management, which I have learned to my cost is essential, and will therefore be the subject of a future blog post. Nor do I have a formal policy about working hours, office hours or holidays, but perhaps I should. A quick trawl through the government’s guidance for employers confirms that most employees can work up to 48 hours per week (on average over 17 weeks) which, in practice, could mean doing several sixty-hour weeks and a few shorter weeks.

It would be unusual, though not unheard of, for me to notch up 48 hours of paid work in a week. But sometimes I do spend almost that much time at my desk, especially if I am having an admin or marketing blitz.

Holidays also tend to end up being days grabbed here and there. I have never managed to acquire the habit of booking a trip 12 months in advance – far too risky for a freelance (see Working through the summer). And I now realise that I do not actually keep a record of how many days per year I am actually ‘out of the office’ – by which I mean doing nothing at all that is related to work – now that I no longer keep a paper diary.

The statutory minimum leave entitlement for employees is 5.6 weeks of paid holiday per year (28 days) but bank holidays many be included in that total. With eight bank hol. days in the 2013 calendar I should be allocating myself 20 days off at least … well, I can dream! (Incidentally, www.gov.uk says ‘Self-employed workers aren’t entitled to annual leave’.)

In reality, I work what can best be described as super-flexitime:

  • clients are welcome to contact me via email Monday to Friday and most weekends throughout the year unless I have given advanced notice that I will be working out of the office or am fully booked
  • core working hours correlate with standard office hours, though I tend to split my day into three (morning, afternoon, evening) to fit around family schedule, and make up time at weekends if necessary.

Because this system suits me, I don’t charge a premium for working over the weekend – in fact sometimes I prefer a 9am Monday deadline to a 5pm Friday one, though of course I can deliver at 5pm on a Friday (or any other time) if that’s what the client needs.

The most important of my (until now) unwritten rules, though, is this:

  • Honesty is the best policy.

As a proud Yorkshire-woman, plain speaking is second nature to me, so don’t be surprised if I politely suggest that your deadline is unrealistic, that I am not the right person to take on your project, or that I already have something to do and I’m sorry but I really can’t juggle this time (please do try again). I will try to find someone else to take on the work (usually via the SfEP Directory), or suggest an alternative approach. I will also try my very best to give you a sensible quotation up front and will notify you as soon as possible if, for whatever reason, the project is going to take longer/cost more than expected.

This policy has served me well over the years in the business context; just don’t ask me to comment on your outfit!