HELP! I have a new client I am trying to sign who I think is about to ask me to pose as an employee. Their first project requires us to meet with one of their clients in person tomorrow. I received an email saying they wanted to set me up with an email under their domain and wanted to talk before tomorrow’s meeting. I know my gut says this probably isn’t the best for my company, but I really can’t tap into why exactly. In other words, it seems wrong, but I don’t know what to say when they call as to why. On their end I know that they deal with sensitive data from their client so they probably want to present a united front and not make it seem like this client’s data is in the hands of a third party, but it is. Thoughts? —Anonymous by request.
First off, I want to to validate your feelings. Anything that a client requests that does not sit well with you is nothing to second-guess yourself about. It doesn’t matter if they don’t like it or if anyone else disagrees. If something in your gut is saying, “no, this doesn’t feel right” then it’s not right for you.
What you are feeling that you can’t quite put your finger on is the fact that, whether they realize it or not, a) this client is basically asking you to be is a liar and b) asking something that’s inappropriate of an independent professional (which deep down makes you feel disrespected as a business owner).
They need some additional conversation and education about the fact that you are not a substitute employee.
The best policy is to be firm, clear and upfront.
You might say something like, “Oh, I see there is some misunderstanding about how we work together. Since I am an independent company from yours (rather than an employee), I use my own email address when I deal with people on behalf of my clients.”
If they need further clarification, explain the fact that when people work with vendors and independent professionals, those are companies that are independent of theirs. As such, and for their own protection, there cannot be any appearance that those vendors and independant professionals with whom they work are employees.
Likewise, along with the privilege of being a business owner, you also have a responsibility to operate ethically and legally according to those business protocols and guidelines that are laid out for us under the law.
Hopefully, that will be sufficient, but if they press you a bit further, you could have them consider this: Would they be asking their attorney or their accountant or their whatever to use an email address through their domain?
Of course not! It would be a highly unusual and inappropriate request. I don’t think it would ever cross their mind to ask.
Well, as an independent professional, you are no different. So why do they think it’s okay to ask you to do that? If they want an employee, that’s who they need to hire.
This is not a common dilemma for Administrative Consultants, but it is for those who are still calling themselves virtual assistants.
People equate the word “assistant” one way—employee. And the virtual assistant industry has miseducated the public to view VAs as under-the-table substitute employees.
This is why what you call yourself is an important part of setting the right understandings, expectations, perceptions and context.
Moving forward, this could be a good time to review your website, marketing message and other client-educating materials (e.g., Client Guide).
Make sure prospects and clients are getting thoroughly and properly educated so there are no misconceptions or confusion about the nature of the relationship.
In your consultations, have a frank discussion about the relationship and how it will be different from working with an employee.
And of course, never refer to yourself as an assistant. When you are a business owner, you are not anyone’s assistant. You are an independent expert who specializes in administrative support.
Here are a couple other posts that may be helpful to you on this topic as well:
Dear Danielle: Should My Client Say I Am Part of His Team?
Are Virtual Assistants Employees or Independent Contractors
Of note from the US Tax Aid article:
You may have an employee if you:
Provide training — If you provide training to your workers, this is a good indication that they are really employees.
Pay them for their time – An independent contractor simply does work in his or her own way. There is little need for meetings, especially team-building ones, except for progress reports.
Instruct on minutiae – Don’t tell your IC how to do his job. I know you spent a lot of time developing your step-by-step procedures, but requiring your IC to follow them means you have an employee, not an IC.
Require certain hours –You cannot require that an IC be “open” or “available” during any specific hours that they are not paying you. The IC should have her own system in place to track time if she’s charging hourly instead of by package.
Furnish software or supplies –Do not provide any software, supplies, cell phones, or even a special email address in which to conduct business or the IRS could decide that you have an employee. It is tempting and I have done it myself, but I am second thinking this due to this rule.
Assign a title – Don’t list your ICs on your website, office door, or anywhere that indicates they are part of your business.
By the way, when addressing emails/messages (from your own email address) to the clients, vendors and others of your clients that you deal with on their behalf, you can do it just like an attorney would do it:
I am [YOUR CLIENT’S NAME]’s Administrative Consultant. [YOUR CLIENT’S NAME] has asked me to contact you regarding…
Easy, peasy. And then, once the initial introduction is made, there is no confusion about your relationship with all parties.
I thoroughly agree with you Danielle! Once again you empower us to have a backbone. I SO appreciate that about you! Thanks again for all of your candor!
Wow, I have to say that I totally disagree here. I am a professional that works with many different companies in which they have assigned me email addresses at their domains. They do this because they want to continuity of communication in emails going back at forth to their clients. My signature line reads as my name, their company and my job description for the services that I am providing for their company. Underneath, I have my position title for my company and all of my company information contact information. Their clients are very well aware that I own my own business and am acting on my client’s behalf when performing functions. These are also high level executives that I serve. I think that this is perfectly fine as long as your client does not intend to hide that you are an independent contractor working on their behalf and that they allow you to place your business contact information in the signature line. BTW, if you decide that you do not wish to work with this client, please refer them my way and I would be glad to speak with them.
Shelley, you have a serious lack of knowledge in this area of the law as a business owner and really need to get informed (along with your clients).
From what you’ve described, the way you are working with clients and how you are representing yourself in their communications, the IRS could easily categorize you as an employee, and your clients would be on the hook for back taxes, penalties, etc.
It’s not up to clients to assign you an email. You are not their employee. If they want continuity in communications, then they need to hire an employee, not an independent contractor.
I totally agree. Any situation that compromises your own business’ integrity is a big no-no. How would the client feel if he finds out what is really going on and that you were a part of that deception? If it happened to me, I definitely wouldn’t be that happy about it. Aside from that and as Danielle has pointed out, you’re not an employee, you run your own business and you should represent that in front of prospective clients. Good luck!
For one of my client’s I do have an email address set up with their company and I dont see a problem with it. That said, it does clearly state in my email signature “Administrative Consultant” and when I write an email to someone new for the first time I always say what you wrote above, which is “Hi, my name is Paulette and I’m the administrative consultant with ______[company].” etc. I dont see a problem with having an email address set up with your client’s company as long as it’s clearly understood that you’re a consultant with them.
That’s what you aren’t understanding, Paulette. You are not with their company. You are your own company. And for you to create any appearance that you are with their company creates a potentially expensive liability for the client with the IRS and does both of you a disservice.
Dainelle, excellent post. I love the way you break it down and challenge us to stand up for what we do. I know for me, the client I have mentioned in a conversation that I worked for him. I quickly corrected that knowing that I could lose this client. It was my first client and I did make some adjustments to get this client, but stating that I was his employee was not one I was going to compromise on. When he said, “When you call XYZ, tell them we work together instead of me as your boss,” I was like, “Boss? Who is that?” I simply stated, “What I will do is contact your client and let them know that I am contacting them on behalf of (my clients name). When they ask who I am. I will say (Clients name) has hired my company to work with him on this transaction (it is an investor I am working with).” We haven’t had any problems since.
That is perfect, Tracy! Well done and good for you for sticking to your standards and business integrity. 🙂
Great article, I use my clients’ support@(client’sdomain) email and the signature reads my name on behalf on the client – when I first contact my clients’ clients I have an introduction email similar to Tracy’s My name is Stephanie, your attorney has contracted my services to work with you on this matter. They usually already know that I’m an independent professional for the simple fact that, with my clients’ consent) I added a letter about how the attorney contracts me to manage their cases. I mention it in my first email just to be sure that everybody’s on the same page since some people don’t read the welcome kit. Anyways long story short because I manage lots of cases at a time it is easier for me to keep everything clean when I have each clients email in their own domain.
I’m not sure how managing a million different email addresses keeps things cleaner. What could be simpler/cleaner than using one email address (your own)?
For every email address you set up, you have to remember to switch to the right account every time you email someone. But that’s besides the point. The issue here is not creating any appearance that you are with the client’s company in the first place. If you’re using their email address, there’s no point in those introductions. If the IRS wants use the fact that you use a client-provided email to determine that with any particular client, you are an employee, your introductions aren’t going to make a difference. The best and safest practice is not to use any client-provided equipment or emails in the first place.
I think what people find cleaner and easier is not having (what they perceive will be) difficult conversations with clients and standing up for operating, really and truly, like independent business owners. They fear if they do, they will lose clients. But you don’t have a client if you are being held hostage by fears in that way. What you have is a slave owner (fear) holding you hostage and keeping you from living fully and truly by your own rules and self-determination.