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I have a problem some wouldn't deem a problem. I work in a startup and we outsource certain jobs to freelancers. I have to add that we work at the edge of technology and it is really exciting work we're allowed to do and the company pays salaries roughly double what is industry standard. we have a very open and meritocratic culture and our employees show little to no critique.

I have this one freelancer who always writes down extremely few hours and I'm not sure how to handle this. He is rather young, but learning fast and very talented. I'm really wondering, why would he write down fewer hours than he has earned? I would like to talk to him about it, but don't want to insult him, what do you recommend I do?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Lilienthal
    Feb 4, 2022 at 20:49

9 Answers 9

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Having a friendly chat is certainly the way to go here. You can always start with "It's great to have you on the team and we really value your work. I want to make sure that everything is cool on the compensation front and we are paying you fairly.".

During the meeting go through a few points.

  1. Make clear what you consider to be activities that are "billable hours". Besides the hands on deliverable work there is also meetings, slack chats, calls, doing research and reading up on stuff, experimentation, infrastructure, etc. Make sure they understand what activities are expected to be part of the time sheet
  2. Look at the tracking process. How do they determine the actual time: do they eyeball or measure. Personally I use an online tool "clockify.me", which IMO works great for this type of thing (especially with multiple clients). If you already have a system: make sure they understand the rules. Example: Is it ok to edit after the fact if you forgot to turn on the clock , etc
  3. Estimate hours upfront together for each new deliverable or project. That sets expectations and you can also use the actual data later to check how good your estimates are and then you can dive into possible discrepancies. That's a healthy thing to do regardless whether you over- or under- estimate
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    Thanks, clearly determining what you call "billable hours" is really something we should communicate more precisely. Estimating hours upfront is also a practice I like but much harder to implement, i.e. striking the right balance.
    – vanya
    Feb 2, 2022 at 13:06
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    Estimating hours is very difficult and requires a lot of experience. Many people start out by estimating hours that wind up being 1/10 to 1/4 the actual hours.
    – David R
    Feb 2, 2022 at 14:42
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    As to #1, I had to be asked to write down time spent in meetings and time spend reading the requirements. That just didn't feel like actually working to me. And I wasn't the least bit offended at being told I should get paid more. Feb 2, 2022 at 22:09
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    @DavidR 1 / π Feb 2, 2022 at 22:17
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    @EricDuminil (From that post's closing:) "You cannot argue PI, can you?" ...Sure I can! (a) We're geeks, we can argue anything, but also (b) after all, Pi is (still) wrong. #LongLiveTau!
    – FeRD
    Feb 3, 2022 at 6:55
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There are two kinds of freelancers: Those that shave their hours, and those that pad them.

Stephan Branczyk commented that it could be imposter syndrome. It could also be an overly cautious individual that shaved their hours for fear of overbilling.

As Joe Strazzere said, you should talk to him.

He's young and new, so he may not comprehend what he should be billing for.

IMO, you could approach the matter like this:

Don't set up a meeting, just approach him casually and say something like.

"I've noticed that you haven't been billing for all the hours you've worked. I don't want to cheat you out of money you have earned and work you have done. You are not in any sort of trouble, in fact, I value your contributions greatly, and I want you to be treated fairly."

Then ask him if he knows everything for which he is entitled to submit an invoice and then clarify if need be.

Again, just make this a friendly conversation where you emphasize that you want him to be treated fairly. This has a subtle effect where he will not want to disappoint you by under billing.

He will likely still "round down" his hours, but you will get a more accurate number, and as an added bonus, you might boost his self-esteem, and head off any burnout on his part

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  • +1 for the note on boosting the self-esteem. A few words go a long way!
    – Cullub
    Feb 4, 2022 at 20:52
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If your company is indeed paying double what are industry standards, the freelancer may be billing what they believe to be a fair salary for the work submitted rather than billing the exact amount of hours worked, especially if they are young and inexperienced. As others have said the best course of action is to speak to them and confirm they are entitled to bill the exact amount of hours worked and re-affirm that the company is prepared to pay double the industry standard to recruit quality employees which is the key point here.

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    This is what I'm leaning towards as well -- This employee may have come from another company (Even if it was just an after-school retail job) where they were accused of things like "riding the clock". They probably have an altered perception of what their time is worth.
    – Turbo
    Feb 2, 2022 at 15:48
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If he's new to the field and learning, he may (incorrectly) believe that he should only be billing for what he considers to be his most productive time, rather than time spent reading documentation, figuring things out, going down wrong paths, etc... He may believe that billing to a "professional" standard means charging for the amount of time he presumes, probably wrongly, it would take someone more experienced to do the work rather than his actual time. He might also believe that submitting a larger bill will cause you to object or believe he's not a good value.

You'd be doing a tremendous favor to take him aside and clarify expectations around billing, especially that billable time includes all of his actual time on the project, including learning, experimenting, mistakes, meetings, and everything else. It may also help to provide some general guidance on the number of billable hours you broadly expect to see, so that he understands that if he turns in a bill for $X, you're not going to be shocked or upset.

While this advice would be to his benefit if his bills increase, it ultimately benefits both of you to be on the same page about billing and to have someone working for you who feels valued and supported.

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I have this one freelancer who always writes down extremely few hours and I'm not sure how to handle this. He is rather young, but learning fast and very talented.

I don't think anyone else has suggested this in an answer but is it possible that he is so good that he actually gets the work done in the hours he states? There are exceptional people in the world. I know someone who completed a PhD in under two years in a field where much longer was normal.

I would phrase it thus:

You seem to get a lot done in the time you are claiming for. Are you undercharging for your work or are you just quick at it?

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  1. Why did the freelancer charge fewer hours than he actually worked ?

The answer is probably as follow : He is young, and perhaps does not have lots of work experience to polish his resume. So, for now, his main goal is to try to get more experiences to add to his resume or to his profile at the freelancer website.

I am sure he did know that he charged you less than his actual work hours. However, he wants to keep a good work relationship with your startup for now so that he can get more future projects from you. If he gets more work done and you have to pay him less than you pay the other freelancers, then you will more likely to choose him for more future projects.

  1. What should you do ?

Perhaps, if you want to be extra kind and nice to him, you can add a small bonus to pay him at the end of each milestone. You can tell him that bonus is for the excellent job that he has done. I am sure he will greatly appreciate that bonus. :-)

You can also tell him that you are a fair person, and he can feel free to charge your company the actually hours that he has worked.

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I wanted to just give a perspective of being that guy, not because I don't think the approaches suggested in other answers are good, but just because it might help to get an "insider" view.

I hadn't been working all that long in programming (a couple of years, but self-learning from scratch) and got a high-paying contract in London, a new city for me, for 3 months. It was my first spin at contracting and boy did I learn a lot about imposter syndrome and a new level of anxiety that I never knew I had. It turns out that asking for money for the work I did was deeply unsettling on every level. Negotiating a salary isn't a problem for me but actually listing hours was virtually impossible - "they're surely going to call me out and this will get really messy".

The person I had to invoice wasn't my direct manager but luckily he spotted it that I hadn't submitted an invoice for 10 weeks (at the time I had actually budgeted out the last of my overdraft to cover the train for the next week so I was about to go bust). This is such an extreme example of how these things can manifest but, even in this case, him being direct that the hours needed to be accurate and just giving the assurance that "you need to be paid for what you worked" was enough. It sounds a bit ridiculous to put myself in that position but in my head, I just felt I needed some stand-out result to justify all the work, so it was a race against time to complete that before asking to be paid. I forget his exact wording unfortunately, but him tackling it head-on, without reprimanding me but being firm, was absolutely what I needed and was in no way offensive to me.

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I would like to talk to him about it, but don't want to insult him, what do you recommend I do?

You should talk to him.

Approach it as a way to make sure he understands he is entitled to be paid for all the hours he works (assuming that is the case).

There's nothing insulting about asking.

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    I think you're right it shouldn't be, and I will certainly follow your advice. Nonetheless pay is a difficult topic for many and I believe the psychological aspect shouldn't be underestimated here. :)
    – vanya
    Feb 2, 2022 at 13:10
  • @JoeStrazzere Well, like Old_Lamplighter said, there are two kinds of freelancers. The kind who underbill, and who an employer would notice underbilling, are often the type who internalize what they believe to be their employer's expectations of the relationship. They want to please their employers by doing good work quickly and at low cost (or at least uninflated cost). ...With that sort of mindset, ANY type of correction can be taken as negative feedback, even if it's the employer saying that they feel they should bill higher. It's not the unqualified "Great job!" they were looking for.
    – FeRD
    Feb 3, 2022 at 7:15
  • (Hell, I'm 47 and I still have a bad habit of haggling with myself, whenever I have to quote someone a fee or bill for my time.)
    – FeRD
    Feb 3, 2022 at 7:23
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One more possibility (especially in US and similar) is misunderstanding about overtime.

If your contractor bills for only 8 hours per day but it actually takes him longer to accomplish all his tasks, he may not know whether extra time is billable or not.

I was in such situation and fortunately had someone I knew before to explain that some overtime was actually expected.

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