When you do not get paid
I am now about to say something that I’ve not said publicly ever before…I was never paid for the last courses I taught for the MKC Beauty Academy.
There, I said it. People associated with me at that time kind of knew, and of course I told my family and close friends, but I’ve never explicitly stated it publicly. I worked for MKC Beauty Academy as an Instructor from January 2010 – December 2012 when the physical location of the school abruptly closed. At that time I was owed about $2000, which I have still yet to receive.
Imagine my surprise, then, to recently discover that they are once again hiring for Instructors. Hmmmm…
I have been ruminating over whether or not to post about this incident for quite some time. Seeing the Help Wanted ad for new teachers finally put me over the edge because quite frankly that left me feeling some kind of way. However, if you’re thinking that now is the time that I launch into how horrible MKC was, how horrible the owners were, and what a terrible experience I had, you would be wrong. I loved teaching at MKC. Loved it. I loved my students, I loved the administrative staff, I loved my fellow instructors, I loved the curriculum (MKC was focused on beauty/fashion makeup for photography as opposed to most L.A. schools that focus heavily on FX), and I loved working with the owners. I loved everything about it for most of my tenure working there. And then everything changed…
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’m still here to tell the tale and the tale made me a better artist and a better professional.
Understand, I’ve been not paid before. In fact, in fairness to MKC, they weren’t the only non-payers that year. 2012 was a banner year for me with the non-paying clients, as I had three! One entity had to be sued by the entire crew and that eventually settled, one entity finally paid me in full after months (and MONTHS!) of emails and phone calls, and then there is MKC who – to this day – is the only client who has not settled their debt to me in any way. The vast majority of my jobs, obviously, pay me. It’s fairly common for a client to pay on an invoice a little late, but not getting paid outright is – thankfully – a rare occurrence.
Being not paid is obviously problematic for a professional artist as this is my livelihood, not a hobby. Having over $8,000 just vanish was not great to say the least. But in the case of MKC the non-payment was also quite hurtful. It’s one thing to lose money, but it is quite another to feel that a relationship was betrayed, and that’s how I felt about MKC. There were a number of professional and personal repercussions for me stemming from that incident, and it took me a minute to recover from the whole experience. Here’s what that time taught me…
– Clients Are Not Friends
I’m not saying do not be friendly and appreciative, people hire folks they like being around. I am saying that your clients are not your homies, and as a professional it is important to recognize this boundary. Good or bad, this experience definitely taught me to develop a callus on my emotions with regards to my professional relationships. Even when you’ve worked with someone for a long period of time, they are still your client, they are not your home-skillet. (Please Note: that’s callus – as in the callus that develops on the heels of your feet, not callous as in having an insensitive disregard for something.)
– Pay Attention to Red Flags
The Buddhist in me knows that a goodly part of the blame for this whole episode lies firmly at my own feet. When I say everything changed, I do not mean it happened on any one day or even in my final week of working with them. That’s just when things came to a head. The change evolved over the course of my final year working with them. Signs that things were amiss were clearly there and I ignored them. I did not want to believe it was possible that they would do me wrong, and as such I stayed at the party too long. And it cost me, literally. As Radiohead said;
…and that’s why it really hurts.
– Don’t Get Too Comfortable
As a freelancer, you just never know when a rug is going to be pulled out from under you. I lived through that in full in 2008/2009 when the economy crashed and I lost every. single. client. I had. Either they went out of business or they closed up shop on the West Coast or all the staff that used to hire me was let go, etc. Teaching became that safety net when other things didn’t work out. Job cancelled? Oh well, I’ll be teaching another course soon. But then what do you do when the safety net gives way? Not only did I lose the money they owed me, but it was obvious I lost a client that used to hire me on the regular. THANK HEAVENS I never stop hustling. It wasn’t easy, but I had to hustle some new situations STAT. For a minute there it was ooogly, but ultimately things have worked out for the better.
– Do Not Be Ashamed
For whatever reason, I felt a lot of shame about the incident and for a bit it undermined my professional confidence. I really had nothing to feel ashamed of, but I did take the situation as a personal failure. While it’s true that I ignored some signs, it is also true that I am entitled to the money that I have worked for. Artists – women in particular – are often made to feel like being paid for our work is the “cherry on top”. No. With all of my clients, contracts are signed, rates are agreed to, and I work for and earn my money fair and square. Further, I am not only a professional artist, but I am a professional artist of demonstrated skill and experience and my knowledge and expertise have value. No one is doing me a favor by paying me.
– To Sue or Not To Sue
Of the instructors who were left unpaid for their work, I believe I was the only one to actually sue MKC. Understand that this was not a decision I took lightly, but in the end I decided to go ahead with a suit. My reasoning was that if they were really having this level of financial difficulty it would not be long before they would have to file Bankruptcy and/or dissolve altogether, and I wanted to be sure I’d be counted amongst the creditors that would have to be satisfied. A similar scenario actually happened to me in 2011 with a client I worked for in 2010, only in that case their lawyers contacted me to settle my outstanding invoice. By contrast by the time I decided it was time to go ahead and sue MKC, any communication on when I could expect to receive my payment(s) had basically stopped.
There is a lot of controversy within our industry as to whether or not you should ever sue a client. A lot of people feel that you never should sue a client, reason being that you will damage a relationship, damage your chances of future work with said client, and potentially damage your reputation. I think these decisions have to be made on a case by case basis. That said, in all likelihood the relationship is already irreparably damaged when a client opts not to pay an invoice for work performed. Likewise, I cannot think of losing a non-paying client as a real loss. The potential to damage your reputation, however, is real and I think how you choose to handle the situation if you do decide to sue makes a large difference. As I mentioned above, not only did I not “go off”, this is the first time I am even talking about this publicly at all. For me the emotional component has (mostly) passed and this is merely a matter of business: I performed this work and I would like to have been paid for it. In a music video it may be exciting, but in real life it is probably best not to go Rihanna when a client owes you money.
Your best clients will pay the best rates, pay on time if not early, and in general demonstrate their appreciation for you in every element of their treatment of you.
I’m sure you’ve seen variations of this quote floating around social media. While it is easy to become cynical, I have found the above quote to be untrue. Since moving on from MKC I’ve gotten great new clients and I’ve also landed in a very positive teaching situation. I got to that place where I could “leave the pieces on the floor and move the ____ on”, and it’s a very freeing place to be.
If you that see a client who once treated you like Royalty is now starting to treat you like the Court Jester, it is probably time to walk away while you can still do so amicably.
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