It’s a small world, after all: The Born Freelancer warns against burning bridges

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.

A 9-to-5er recently commented to me, “It must be great being freelance. You can always tell your boss where to go if they’re jerks.”

Well, actually, no. And I’m going to tell you why. If you’re new to the freelancing world, let my cautionary tale be your guiding light in such matters.

While it’s true you can always decide not to work again for someone who has made your life miserable, you should always decline any future offers from them with a smile. Tell them you’d love to but you’re too busy. Or have too many personal commitments. Or have recently died.

Never tell them what you really think of them. Never blow up or burn down your bridges.

Because however satisfying it may feel in the moment, one day you might just want to work for them again.

As implausible as that may seem after an especially unsatisfying business relationship, you’d be amazed how thoroughly you might revise your opinion of them after a suitable lapse of time. It heals all wounds, as they say.

And being hungry can turn the devil you know into a merely mildly eccentric character you’re prepared to work for again.

I have always lived and worked by this rule. Except once. Long long ago and far far away, when your Born Freelancer was a much younger and much greener BFer, I blew up my bridges by telling an employer exactly what I really thought of them. It had been a long time coming. A whole group of us freelancers had been routinely used, abused and ignored for months. We’d had enough. A delegation including me went in. Their utter indifference to our justified concerns lit a fuse within me I had no idea was so ready to blow.

I’m told they talked about it in that office for weeks afterwards.

Of course I immediately regretted it. I did so because it was so unlike me, so unprofessional, so not my style. I even apologized. Not because I was wrong but because I had handled it all wrong.

I also regretted it because of the look on the face of the person I confronted. It was an unflinching, soulless junior corporate mask and it told me, “I’ll bide my time. You’ll be sorry.”

Naturally, they continued to rise up the ranks within the growing corporate entity for which they worked.

For which I never worked again.

You should never blow up your bridges because you never know where the folk you tell off will end up. Any temporary ego gratification you get from it will quickly disappear. Their deeply etched memories of your unprofessionalism will not.

More Reasons Not To Blow Up or Burn Down Your Bridges

It’s a good idea to always act professionally and never blow up or burn down your bridges because you never know who is going to give you a good or bad recommendation behind your back. People talk in this business and what they say about you can make or break your career. Call it your reputation or your brand, it is perhaps your most valuable asset and you must work to preserve and enhance it at all times.

There was once a media outlet for which I wanted to work. I kept sending pitches, letters, phone calls, funny cards, etc. I was always met with a polite but firm no. I just wasn’t ready for them. I just wasn’t experienced enough. I just wasn’t… whatever. I felt frustrated beyond measure but I never, ever lost my cool. I refused to listen to the counsel of well meaning friends who advised me to “tell them where to stick it.” Instead I always thanked them for their time and patience. I felt that this best represented who I was anyway—a professional whatever the circumstances—but I was also aware that it kept the door open… if only a tiny bit.

You see, you need to keep that door open.

If you once worked for them, you may want to again.

If you’ve never yet worked for them, you still might.

In this case, I never did work for them but ended up working for a smaller non-competing media outlet elsewhere because the person I’d been continually approaching told another employer about me and had put in a good word for me with them.

An employer for whom I’d never worked was good-mouthing me behind my back!

They’d liked my pitches and had liked me too. There just wasn’t any job for me. Since I hadn’t actually worked for them, all they really knew about me were my pitches and how I had responded when they were rejected. Based on that alone I was recommended to their colleague. You never know where a job might come from. We live in a world where networking and personal references are so important. You can’t afford to blow off even one potentially helpful contact.

So I gradually learned anytime I make a pitch to a potential new employer that is rejected to still thank them. To follow up with appreciation for their time and patience. To never blow up any new bridges. When appropriate, I might even ask for advice on reformulating my pitch to make it more acceptable next time or for someone else. I’m amazed how helpful many potential employers will be if you demonstrate the appropriate level of civility and courtesy to them.

They will usually, if they have time, return it to you.

And even if they don’t, you never know the lasting impact a positive, professional attitude can have.

I certainly know first hand the lasting impact a negative, unprofessional parting of the ways can have. At a radio station where I once briefly freelanced, one of their on air DJs got a better job offer and decided to go out with a bang. He played the Johnny Paycheck song, “Take This Job and Shove It” as part of his big on air goodbye. He was the talk of the station. He was “a wild man,” “a real character,” and “unstoppable in his career.”

A couple weeks later when the “big offer” didn’t pan out and he was back, hat in hand, looking for work (and never getting it again with that station) people were still talking about him. But not in such a positive way any more. He was now “unreliable,” “uncooperative,” and “untrustworthy.”

I had quickly learned how real life was not an episode of WKRP however much it might have resembled it at the time.

Another reason to never blow up your bridges is your own mental and physical well being. I’ve talked about this previously. The freelance world is a world of repeated frequent highs and lows. It’s up to you to learn to balance these extremes internally. If you fly off the handle in anger at every rejection or go parading through the streets with joy every time you get a gig, you’re going to eventually be so exhausted they will be coming to take you away for a nice long rest in a soft padded room.

You have to learn to take the highs with good grace and the lows with quiet dignity. It’s for your own well being as well as your professional reputation. Nobody wants to work with a prima donna. They’re called that for a reason after all.

And in the end, if an employer is really smart, they know it’s in their own long term best interest to treat you well enough so you should never have reason to want to burn your bridges with them. In this business the tables can turn in a heartbeat. Many freelancers have turned into 9 to 5 employers. Many 9-to-5 employers have lost their steady job and turned to freelancing. You may be in a position to hire them some day—or not.

It’s a comforting thought the next time you might desperately want to burn your bridges by telling your employer where to go.

May your holidays be filled with the love and support of family and friends and 2012 with all the freelance success that you seek!

Posted on December 22, 2011 at 8:34 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

3 Responses

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  1. Written by Short Run Printing
    on December 29, 2011 at 12:41 am
    Reply · Permalink

    This is true! I’ve read a good quote that says “Don’t endure a great relationship with a simple dispute.” This holds true on this post. Very nice article. A good post to reflect upon-Sarah-

  2. Written by Dude
    on January 5, 2012 at 12:03 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    I think it’s quite ironic that in this post you caution against bridge burning, then two posts down celebrate the life of someone who was fearless — and sometimes reckless — enough to burn every bridge he’d ever built.

    As for this fetishism regarding “professionalism” — get over it. There’s not enough money, almost literally, in publishing for you to care. Be bold. Be brave. Be uncompromising. Or find a career where being obsequious can actually pay dividends.

  3. Written by Nathalie K
    on January 5, 2012 at 10:27 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    There’s a difference between being fearless and being foolish.
    Being fearless is about taking risks, going forth in a way that is consistent with your core values.
    Being foolish has nothing to do with taking risks (where results can go either way). It’s about knowing full well that the consequence of hasty words and actions will be negative for you but going forth anyway.

    Professionalism is not fetishism. It’s common sense in a connected world where your reputation precedes you (only a google away!) It doesn’t matter what field you’re in. Luigi is right in warning against burning bridges…

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