Why to check references of your clients (or employers)

Today I got a call from a really brave recruiter (let’s call him Jamie F.). Why brave? Last year he got me on project where I was robbed by its project manager, Jamie didn’t care at all and the agency even didn’t pay one of my invoices. Trying to recruit me for a new project and claiming that all invoices would be paid this time requires great courage. Or a lack of good sense…

I was contacted by the agency several times in last few months and they always stopped communicating as soon as I asked about the unpaid invoice. But today it was Jamie himself who obviously has stronger stomach than others – and it was what finally pushed me to write this post.

It started when I was helping XL Video in Ghent, Belgium, with their Dynamics AX implementation (e.g. pretty complicated rental pricing). It went relatively well until I dared to ask for a calculation and a receipt for some money that Mr. Maree (project manager) wanted from me – I can only speculate why it was so important for him to do it without any evidence. What followed were threats (that it would cost me much more that the money he asked for) and soon a termination of my contract while I was on holiday. He refused to give me access to the office (which he did to another colleague too, so I was no exception) and promised to send my property to me by a carrier. Because it didn’t make any sense (is it easier and cheaper to allow somebody to pick up his stuff or to pack it and sent abroad?), I was not surprised that I’ve never seen anything of it again. I hope Mr. Maree enjoys my computer accessories, clothing, books and so on.

The upper management never gave me any response except that they would look at the matter – I guess they simply wanted to believe whatever fairy tale Mr. Maree made up for them.

As far as I know, the agency didn’t do anything – they didn’t even mind that they (and I) didn’t get paid. I know that Mr. Maree threatened them that they would never get any contract from him and it seems that they don’t mind his practices, so they wrote off me rather than him. They clearly think that they can find many other fools looking for work, but I really didn’t expect that would try to get the same fool to work for them again.

It occurred that I could have avoided this experience, if I asked around about the people involved. I was not the first one who got some “interesting” experience with the project, just the information didn’t reach me soon enough.

The experience led me to some notes to myself:

  • Make your own reference check, especially if the project is in a country you’re not familiar with.
  • Certain agencies are exactly as untrustworthy and short-sighted as you think.
  • If you see people desperately running from your project, ask them why. Don’t pretend it’s not your problem.
  • If you doubt your client’s mental health, pack and get out immediately. Don’t wait for something serious to happen.

Note that there is nothing like “don’t trust your client, never keep anything in the office because it might get stolen” or so. We have to trust each other, at least for the time being, to be able to work together efficiently. Otherwise it’s time to leave.

The remaining question is how to help others not to suffer the same fate. I did some research last year and found a few things like Freelancers Union Client Scorecard (currently off-line), which had exactly the same goal but it was US-oriented and not used very actively. I spoke to some people in Europe with ambition to organize freelancers but didn’t get much from them. Eventually I just let it be. If you know about something useful, please let me know.

Without any systematic approach, what remains is staying in touch with others, asking people who worked on the same project before (which can be found on LinkedIn, for example), who work in the same area and so on.

Not only that we can avoid some unpleasant experience, but also some crooks won’t survive on the market if nobody wants to work with them.


  1. I’m sorry to hear you had a nasty experience in my country :-/
    Let’s hope a future experience will be better.

    • No need to apologize; it wasn’t your fault.
      And other things like cycling in Belgium and tasting beer were much more pleasant. 🙂

  2. WOW…. Nasty experience. Being a freelancer have it’s up and downs, and as you write, you need to watch your own back. Keep up and continue to share 🙂

  3. Hi Martin,

    That kind of project happens but thanks for sharing this as not many become public.

    My opinion is that this kind of thing could easily happens in any country and it is quite difficult to understand what kind of project and people you will be working with until you started. I can tell that from my experience as a freelancer not an interview not the other signs cannot tell if there will be troubles with that client. But it is likely that after first week or second week you will have a full picture. And then you can decide if you want to use your notice or continue.

    In terms of unpaid invoice if you have your limited company and a contract in place it is relatively easy and straightforward to get any unpaid invoices at least this is true for UK. From the agent name I can guess that you had a contract with the UK agency.

    With regards to the web site I think it is quite problematic to have such. Not technically of course. But it could be that you had bad experience just because of one person and this person could be left the company tomorrow or there could be few departments\projects and different people can have different experience and so on. I think it would be useful to have somewhere a forum to share this kind of situations and get an advise from other freelancer how to resolve them.

    • I completely agree that experience is subjective. But still people find sites for sharing experience with e-shops, restaurants, computer games and many other things very useful. It’s useful despite subjectiveness and sometimes even because of it (because different people have different expectations and priorities).

  4. Hello Martin,

    it’s sad to hear what happened to you. Jamie F … that name reminds me someone from my contact list. Very useful information you gave us… I might have also another name deserving some level of caution in my pocket. Experience of my friend though. I can dislose privately

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