What to Look For (And Watch Out For) When Hiring a Freelancer

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What to Look For (And Watch Out For) When Hiring a Freelancer

Some astounding numbers were just announced a few days ago by Elance-Odesk. 34% of U.S. Workers do freelance work. 40% of those are independent contractors with no employer; 27% are moonlighters.  Source: Staffing Industry Also, the U.S. independent workforce has nearly quadrupled since 2005 Source: Forbes Multiple articles have even reported that by the year 2020, over 40% of the U.S. population could be freelancers. (That said, if you're running a business of any kind, you may want to study up and familiarize yourself with the process of hiring freelancers!) The span of fields in which you can hire someone is enormous.  Typical roles you see in the freelancing world include: writers, photographers, organizers, graphic designers, and business consultants. But there are many others you may have never considered (which could definitely come in handy if you’re on a tight budget and can’t hire a full-time employee): engineers, developers, website designers, social media community managers, guest bloggers, ghostwriters, transcriptionistss, paralegalss--the list goes on. Now, i've hired my fair share of freelancers, so let me save you from mistakes I made by showing you how to properly hire a freelancer.

1. Check References

Unless you’re just simply looking for someone on Fiverr to draw your caricature, you absolutely must check references and should check more than one. I recommend at least three – especially if you’re on a tight deadline and/or expecting to pay in the thousands for your project. This really goes without saying… but if you don’t check references, then you're just as guilty as the freelancer.

2. Hire Someone With Industry Knowledge

If you’re in a technical industry, look for someone who's already familiar with your line of work, so you don’t have to waste time (and money) explaining the complexities of your business.

3. Interview Them

Don’t think because you’re not hiring an employee, you can’t interview freelancers. You absolutely should.  Granted, this more than likely will happen over the phone (or even email is completely acceptable).  But make sure to check:

  • Timeliness
  • Communication Skills
  • Bandwidth (do they have time for your project) – remember I mentioned that 27% of all the U.S. Freelancers are “moonlighters”? Remember, the person you’re interviewing may have a full-time job and just write on the side.
  • Priorities – Some people think they can make a little extra cash working from home while going to school, raising children, or just wanting to work part time. The reasons are endless.  It’s great that people like to take advantage of opportunities to earn extra income, but just be aware that your project may not be their #1 priority.
  • Style and Quality – check their previous work. Does it meet your standards? Does it match the level of experience they claim to have?

Have a list of questions ready before you interview them. Use specific project examples if possible to make sure they’re capable of meeting your requirements.

4. Discuss Smart Payment

Don’t ever (ever) pay the full fee upfront. Ever.  If anyone asks you for that, move along and find someone else to do business with. Unless it’s a major project that will require some upfront research and expenses, don’t expect to have to pay anything in advance. You should expect milestone payments for larger jobs.  If a project is expected to last beyond 3-4 weeks, you may be asked to pay a portion of the total. (That's totally normal and this is not a cause for “red flags.”)

5. Don't Hire Based On Rates

No matter how tempting it might be, don’t automatically go with the cheapest freelancer. There’s a reason they’re so cheap. A freelancer or contractor may not always be cheaper (per hour) than an employee, but keep in mind, you’re not having to pay their healthcare, insurance benefits, sick leave, vacation, or taxes. (The freelancer is) Even if you’re paying more per hour, freelancers are still more than likely cheaper than hiring an employee. Do your research to understand what the average pay rate is for projects or freelancers in your industry for the type of work you’re seeking. If you’re in a highly technical field, expect much higher rates because the talent you’re looking to hire typically will have more experience, education and training to accommodate needs of the industry. Different industries also have different types of rates.  For instance, writers are paid per job, per hour, or even per word, depending on the project.  10-15 minutes of research can help make sure you have the right expectations going into a relationship with a freelancer. A few good places to start, when looking at rates, are freelance hiring sites, job boards, LinkedIn and even online classifieds depending on your industry. This report is a couple of years old, but still offers great insight into the Freelance world. I generally wouldn’t trust rates on a site like that list a significant percentage of overseas talent.  Their rates can skew the average rates of your location. (If your project doesn’t have sensitivities around communication or time zones, you may want to consider overseas labor. But follow the same guidelines listed here - no other expectations should change). If you DO want to hire overseas labor, I highly recommend going with a freelance site (i.e., Elance or Odesk) because those sites can provide more layers of protection. I’m not a lawyer, but if you hire someone from somewhere other than your own country, you leave yourself open to risk.  (There won’t be much recourse should something go wrong due to different laws, expense, etc.  It’s just not worth the risk.) Along the same lines, depending on your project, you generally want to stay away from “per hour” work. Beware, if you agree to a per hour payment, your bill could creep up to far beyond your expectations before you know it.

6. Create Solid Expectations

Be very clear about your project requirements and expectations up front.  Take the time to outline your expectations in detail. If you don't, you'll find that plenty of freelancers do the bare minimum and you can end up without the complete job you hired them for.

7. Always Have Contracts

Again, I’m not an attorney and certainly don’t pretend to completely understand the law, but I do recommend you have a contract detailing the terms of the project and expectations between you and the freelancer. If you’re going through a site like or, they already have standard contracts in-place by using their site, so you don’t really need to worry about having a separate one done. You probably don’t need to have something custom drawn up by an attorney – unless your business is highly complex or your project is a high-dollar and lengthy process. You can find templates online, through or, or even create one yourself and have both parties sign it. Just make sure to include all the details of payment, timeline and deadlines, requirements, confidentiality, how to handle expenses (and who will pay for what), copyrights, etc. If this project is filling a role of a previous employee, you could also reference that job description to help create a contract (or to enhance a template).

8. Bad Freelancer Warning Signs

If something doesn’t sit well with you, go with your gut (unless you had something iffy for lunch). Take caution and be aware of some of these red flags:

  • Excuses
  • Delayed Responses
  • Uncertain or Lack of References (or difficult to track down)
  • Questionable Work Samples
  • No Website or LinkedIn Page for a Technical Role
  • Wavering on the Rates
  • Unprofessional
  • Trying to Evade Signing a Contract
  • Difficult to Understand – do not, under any circumstance, let someone try to tell you they didn’t understand the terms or expectations.

Have you hired freelancers in the past?  What was your experience?  Do you have any words of advice to share? Leave a comment below! :-)

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Josh Coffy

Josh has an exhaustive understanding of technology and a creative marketing approach that drives client results. In his free time, Josh does CrossFit and travels with his wife.