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References and the Freelancer’s Dilemma

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Recently, I’ve been back in touch with a good friend who I have also done some work for in the past. While it was great to catch up, I was also relieved to be in contact with him again, as he is my go-to guy should I ever need a reference.

For those freelancers who work on projects for a considerable length of time, references are as easy to pick up as they are for full-time employees: they have enough time to build a business relationship with their employers, their work can be assessed as they progress, and once it is completed they can be evaluated. For professional grasshoppers such as myself, things are a little different.

In any one month, I might be at up to nine different companies. I’m rarely at their offices for longer than a couple of afternoons, and usually, they can’t assess the quality of my work because the finished articles are usually in a foreign languages. The most comprehensive feedback I can expect is to be offered more work, but all that tells me is that I didn’t screw up the last assignment.

If I were to apply to a permanent position, who would I choose as a reference? My last permanent position was when I was at university, and even then it was mostly part-time, though I was with the company for a couple of years. I could pick any one of the people I work for on a regular basis, but do they know me well enough to provide a true picture of my capabilities? I do marketing for some, translation for others, market research for yet others; which ones are best placed to assess me as an employee?

The temptation is to supply as many references as possible, to cover all aspects of my skill-set, but some job applications specify just two or three referees. Offering more than the required number may look as though I can’t be bothered to follow instructions. Also, what employer is going to check each and every one of the references I provide, even if it is just a quick phonecall? Deciding how to handle a request for references can be tricky.

Generally, when bidding for contracts, I’ve tended simply to write “Available upon request” if there is a space for references on an application form. This allows me to decide which of my referees would be the best for the job I’m going for, and also allows me the time to get in touch with them to ask them if they would be willing to give a reference. Most employers will only check references once they have a short-list of candidates, after all, so not providing them immediately is a compromise that most are willing to put up with.

Another method I’ve found of dealing with this that occurred to me recently was the same way graphic designers and web designers behave: a portfolio. Granted, as I deal with text rather than a more accessible visual medium, I have to take a different approach. I can’t simply copy and paste all the work I’ve done, as that would be exceptionally boring for potential clients, and also impossible, as much of what I deal with is commercially sensitive and therefore confidential.

What I can do, however, is offer a summary of the nature of my recent work and the client it was for. Something like this:

  • 14th April 2009: Translation project; English to French: 4000 word marketing strategy document. Client X
  • 27th April 2009: Market research project: Client Y

And so on. While I wouldn’t attach such a list to my CV (I’m a stickler for keeping things short and sweet), I can provide a link to a webpage with this summary available to those employers who wish to see what I’ve been up to recently. They could then select the clients they felt would be the best to ask for references. In such a case I’m happy to provide the contact details they need. It feels like a concise and convenient way of balancing competing needs and motives.

Of couse, this method may not work for everyone, and as I said in the second paragraph, those freelancers who work on long-term projects don’t have to worry about such things. For corporate magpies such as myself, however, this could be a way to satisfy client needs for references, and the freelancer’s desire to keep the reference question uncomplicated.

[Image by Léoo]


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