By Sarah Dry
Labeling yourself isn't just about explaining what you do to wage slaves -- it's about establishing professional credibility.
"Who'd ya say you work for?" asks your date's father in his seriously executive voice. You've just spent ten minutes explaining to him about your one-man graphic design business. He looks constipated.
You think: "Not again!" But since you're a polite person you say: "Well, sir, I'm an independent professional."
Dad doesn't get it. "Independent professional" means little to guys like him, who are unwilling or unable to shake off their corporate-think mentality. Unfortunately, there are lots of guys like him.
But labeling yourself isn't just about making things clear to these folks -- it's also about establishing professional credibility. This is especially important to new IPs, who need to learn how to label themselves in specific business contexts. Not a simple task.
Without a corporate structure and atmosphere that creates and defines titles -- like assistant vice president for advertising or senior market analyst -- IPs must create a system of nomenclature for themselves. And because there are thousands of people doing this every day, according to their own tastes, there is a mess of titles, often with quite varied meanings. Let's try to clarify some of them.
When Is a Freelancer a Hired Gun?
Traditionally, a freelancer is a person in a "creative" field such as writing or graphic arts who works on a per-project basis for as many different clients as she can, or wants to, manage. For the most part, this term is well understood, and IPs who use it feel confident that others will know what they mean.
Take Jon Goldman, an IP who writes annual reports and internal corporate documents for large companies in New York City. He eschews fancy phrases like "editorial consultant" even though he works in the often title-conscious world of high finance.
"I tend to call myself a freelance writer rather than a consultant. Sometimes I call myself a mercenary writer, but on one occasion someone asked if that meant I wrote for Soldier of Fortune magazine. My business card simply says 'Writer.'"
Though freelancer is military in origin, the ferocious connotations of this word now apply only to the zeal with which successful freelancers compete for new work.
Teaching an Old Saw New Tricks
There are two ways of understanding the term consultant. A consultant can be (1) a synonym for IP or (2) a term given to a professional advice-giver, whether self-employed or not. The difference in meaning is often just a convention of a particular field -- but you should be aware of this potential ambiguity before you go recklessly tagging yourself in public.
The double-sided nature of the term "consultant" is a relatively new development in the word's evolution. There's an old joke that a consultant is a professional between jobs. Until recently, the term consultant had a slightly artificial flavor, since it often served to cover up what was considered an undesirable gap in employment.
Today, advice-giving consultants are anything but a joke. Powerful consulting companies have set high standards (and fees) for the profession. The success of businesses like Andersen, McKinsey, and The Boston Consulting Group has made consulting a blue-chip job; and this in turn has made "consultant" an attractive title for IPs.
Though the old consultant joke still draws some weak laughs, the truth today is that many consultants are professionals with high billing rates. Even if the term leaves the exact nature of the work up in the air, it carries an attractive aura of expertise.
A Contractor by Any Other Name
In the popular imagination, a contractor works in the trades, wears a tool belt, and drives a beat-up van. As blue-collar workers, they are often left out of reports on the new economy of independent workers. But such contractors operate much like consultants and freelancers, securing new jobs on their own, completing the work on their own schedule, and taking responsibility for billing and tax-paying. And the term "contractor" is also the standard way that computer consultants and other boss-free geeks refer to their non-wage-slave status.
The contingent worker often takes temporary blue-collar jobs that last as long as there is demand. The contract employee is usually a denizen of the white-collar world, often working as a computer programmer or systems analyst.
The difference between a contract employee (or temp worker) and a freelancer is that the contract employee signs on with a staffing agency. The agency negotiates fees with the clients and then pays the contract worker a portion of what it charges the client company. This can be convenient for the contract employee, if the agency takes care of onerous tasks like paying taxes and securing new jobs.
Major League Title
The phrase free agent was originally coined to describe the shift in major league baseball that allowed players to switch teams on their own. But, as Sara Horowitz, executive director of Working Today puts it, a free agent is now anyone who is "happy to be self-employed."
All free agents are self-employed, but not all self-employed people have chosen freedom of their own volition. "Some people hang up a shingle because economic factors force them to," she says, "but they don't like it." These may include people who work in part-time, non-benefited jobs as security guards, clerical workers, and contingent agricultural laborers, says Horowitz.
The main difference between free agent and freelancer? There isn't much. The term "free agent" originates from sports terminology and "free lance" from medieval warfare, but the initial meanings have more or less disappeared from both.
Tending to all these distinctions may seem like nit-picking, but it isn't. In fact, nomenclature can directly affect your ability to get new work.
Say you're a writer. If you identify yourself as a "contract writer" instead of a freelancer to the editor of a major magazine, you surely won't be taken seriously. If you want to be considered a pro, to get colleagues and potential clients to believe in you, you need to learn the linguistic etiquette of your field. If you're unsure about the exact terms, talk to veterans or pick up a book about your vocation.
Oh, Yes, the IRS
Sometimes an issue that seems to be about nomenclature is really about something more. For example, when it comes to the IRS, your working label -- not the one you give yourself, but the one you're given by your client (or employer) -- can have a serious impact on the taxes you pay and the taxes your client (or employer) may have to pay.
Microsoft was recently slapped with a fine for misidentifying a group of freelance editors, testers, and proofreaders as independent contractors. The court found that since the workers worked on company property for months at a time, they were proper employees of the company. Microsoft was required to pay back taxes on the workers' pay and was fined for the misidentification.
Of course, there is no hard and fast rule for determining who is and is not a true independent contractor, only the general rules set down by the IRS.
Even then, it's not always easy to determine who qualifies as self-employed in the eyes of the IRS. That's the reason, says Gene Fairbrother of the National Association of the Self-Employed (NASE), that his organization is lobbying Congress for a simpler, more precise definition.
In the Meantime
In the meantime, we're still living in the shadow of the Tower of Babel. What can you do about it? Well, a few things. Familiarize yourself with all the possible terms, know which is the appropriate context for each, and use the right label at the appropriate time. And if your date's dad doesn't understand, don't worry about it -- it's his daughter you want to work with.
September 5, 2000
We'd love to hear your comments about this article!
Sarah Dry lives in Boston, Mass. If you like, we'd be happy to put you in touch with her, or with any of the IPs named in this article.