Jo Stichbury

Technical writer

Dude, that’s rude!

Cautionary tales from the freelance coalface

Through choice, I’ve been a contractor in the UK’s technology sector for 16 years, on and off. I am contacted regularly, via LinkedIn, by recruiters from agencies, and by HR teams within tech organisations. There are some notable exceptions, but so many are plain rude, by my standards at least.

Here are some of the recurring patterns (warning: contains swears):

The Disappeared

“Hi Jo, I hope your (sic) well”, or similar. There may follow some flannel about my profile or maybe some hyperbole intended to spark my enthusiasm for a new challenge. Then a rough sketch about a potential contract. Am I interested?

By now, I’m twisted and cynical about these approaches, but occasionally they do lead to some interesting work. If I’m in the market, I may — against my better judgement — reply.

“Yes, I may be, thanks for asking me. But I’m not available full time; is the role flexible?”

Silence. The recruiter is gone, never to be heard from again.

The polite thing (which I’ve seen from good recruiters) is a swift response to say, “No, sorry, not this one, but I’ll keep you in mind in for future roles that are.”

How long did that take? 1 minute or less? I will probably never hear from them again, but at least we both got some closure from the conversation.

Recruiters: if you make unsolicited contact with a freelancer about a potential role, and they get back to you politely to ask a question about it, why disappear? Even when you don’t know the answer or don’t want the hassle of negotiating a part-time role, you can surely shoot off a quick mail and close the discussion that you initiated. Did you found a better candidate? Also fine. You can still be polite to anyone you contacted who bothered to reply to you.

Does this happen to you? What’s your approach? I’m wondering if the best thing to do — when you’re interested in a role — is to call the recruiter directly, have a one-time synchronous transaction that you can close, and move on.

The Ghost

Worse than The Disappeared is The Ghost. These get you half-way down the path to a contract, only to ghost you. You have a good initial discussion, they send you a job specification, which you read diligently and decide — after some research — that you could make a good job of. You respond positively, so they ask about hours, when you can start, your hourly rate. So far, so enthusiastic.

You send through the information they’ve requested. They don’t respond.

Well, fuck you.

You give it a few days, and tentatively check in to see whether you need to start working for them in 2 days time, as they seemed really keen that you do so in their previous mails. They don’t respond. They never contact you again.

This has happened to me countless times over the years. If you get a better candidate, or the contract is filled by another agency, or whatever, you can still let your other candidates know, can’t you? It must be possible to spend 2 minutes writing a short explanation and shutting down the discussion politely.

Or am I being unreasonable?

This doesn’t only happen for freelance jobs. I once went for an interview at a well-established publisher in London. It went great, I had a fantastic discussion over 2 hours with several interviewers, into which I had put time preparing, and paid a not-unsubstantial train fare. All was friendly, enthusiastic and positive. I left under the impression that it went well.

I never heard from them again.

When I contacted them a week or so later to find out what was happening, I was ignored. I emailed them again, only to be treated like a crazed stalker for wanting to know whether I would be passed over, or asked for another interview, or offered a job.

From now on, I’m going to push back on the ghosts. If I don’t hear anything after a reasonable period, you can be sure I’ll be calling to find out what’s going on, even if it does make me look like a bunny boiler. Maybe having the conversation with me will cause the ghost to reflect and change their behaviour next time.

Bunny, Boiler by Bamblesquatch https://flic.kr/p/dCiFGy (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Time Suck

Over the years, I’ve applied for a few jobs where I’ve been asked to read and review website content or documentation, and offer a reasoned critique, then re-write some of it to show how I would improve it. Or I’ve written 1000 words of new copy on a subject of the hiring company’s choosing. Or I’ve been registered for a custom recruitment portal that needed me to cut and paste my portfolio, paragraph-by-paragraph, whereby all the formatting was lost…along with my will to live.

Then nothing. (London 2012 Olympics — I’m looking at you. I’m assuming I didn’t get that job, by the way).

Maybe I’m not what you want? A five minute read of my resume would have been sufficient for a hiring manager to realise that I’m either under- or over-qualified for what they want, or they need someone with PHP experience or a UX designer, or whatever thing that I’m not. You didn’t need to waste my time before deciding that.

Maybe after you set me the task, the role got pulled? That happens, you can share the information because in this industry, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But a silent brush off, after you’ve chewed through my time? It’s just rude.

There’s not a lot you can do about this pattern. I’ve learnt to clarify up-front how much of my time is expected on the task, and I’m forward about my expectations if I put that time into it. Any other ideas to avoid the suck?

The Cloak of Invisibility

This is a classic, which every creative will be familiar with. It’s unavoidable if you want to pitch an idea or content to a team you’ve not worked with previously. You carefully craft the submission, read the guidelines, edit it some more and send it off.

You hear nothing.

This isn’t so much rudeness as thoughtless. I expect to be rejected much of the time. It’s not a crushing blow to my ego, and I’m not whining about never getting my crazy 3am ideas published. But I would like an acknowledgement that my submission ever happened.

If you’re running a serious publication, you want good content to include and promote. You are actively reviewing pitches and you are making judgements about them. So, fuck it, you can take 2 minutes to reply when someone has taken the time to submit something that meets your submission criteria. Or, if you have a high volume of submissions and that’s impossible (which I doubt, as people like Quincy Larson and David Smooke always manage to respond politely, and they probably have more content coming across their desk than you), how about setting up an automated response:

“Thanks for reaching out. We’ve received your proposal, it will be evaluated and, if you don’t hear from us withing 72 hours, we won’t be taking it further”.

That’s not hard, eh?

Deep breath and calm. But, while I’m on the subject…

This goes out to the beautiful, shiny, Medium publications, with thousands of followers and bountiful supplies of life-changing articles.

Please can you make your submission guidelines easy to find, and keep them up to date? And explain how you prefer that we pitch to you? This will help me not to feel like a failure when I send you something and it’s ignored. At least I will know that I followed the correct process and didn’t send my lovingly crafted pitch to an old email inbox or former employee, where it is invisible and unloved.

At least I’ll know it’s you, and not me.

I’m sure I’m not alone in noticing these patterns of behaviour, and you probably have other examples. Maybe it’s normal for those in employment to rush from task to task, and not pay too much attention towards candidates, even though they are potential colleagues or commission, in the case of agency recruiters. But, whenever I’ve been employed and working with freelancers, or hiring team members, I have been careful to make sure communication is open, respectful and complete.

Who else has a similar tale from the freelance coalface? Please share it in the responses below, and thank you for your time, in advance!

Jo Stichbury is a technical writer and developer, who freelances in the UK. She is available for ghosting by technology startups on a regular basis, and can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn.

More by Jo Stichbury

Topics of interest

More Related Stories