What to do when a relative doesn’t pay for using your professional skills?

One of the first rules of conducting successful business is straight up asking for an advance payment. This applies even when you've been commissioned by a relative to create artwork.  

I’m currently in a very expensive art school in Australia. It’s always been my dream to be a paid artist and I think I’m quite good at what I do. My parents have always been supportive of my dream and they paid off my school so I only have a small amount of student loans. So any paid work I get is a monumental help.

A few months ago, my dad’s brother asked me if I could get some stuff done for his office. This included logos, office painting, a design for t-shirts and a mural in his office, and a design for magnets that go on cars and other small things. I remember telling him that I was really busy this semester and that I would have to charge him for my time because it would cut my free time. He said, “Don’t worry about money, I’ll pay you.”

I did some initial sketches for him to see if we were going down the right path and he got mad at me for wasting his time with non-finished products. The next time, I UPS shipped him an elaborate oil painting. I received an angry call from him telling me that he didn’t like the painting and told me not to waste his time.  I tried explaining this is why I like to do sketches so there’s no misunderstanding. He agreed this time and I finally created things he liked a lot. My grades were slipping while I was working on this project and it was costing me time to socialize with my friends. I did final versions of the logo, a mock up of the office mural and the final version of the oil painting – all of which he liked and approved of. I lost quite a bit of money for the materials and the shipping and it was very stupid of me not to send the invoice right away.

It’s been three months now and I haven’t received any payment. Yesterday, I received a nasty reply to my follow up email asking for payment. My uncle accused me of dragging my feet and I quote “Do you realize how much doing work for someone like me can do for you? I am giving you free advertising because hundreds of people will come in and out of my office every week!”

I am still in shock. I haven’t told anyone about the email and I don’t know how to go about it without causing a big rift in my family. What should I do?

A broke art student, 20.

Let me start off by saying your uncle is using bullying as a negotiation tactic. Use this as a lesson –

  1. Always make the ground rules clear when you take up an art gig.
  2. Don’t take up anything for free unless it’s volunteer work for charity, and even then set limited for how much you’re willing to do for them.
  3. Avoid working for family.

To handle this situation, do the following. One, refuse to do any more work for your uncle until he pays you for the cost of your materials and time. Tell your family what is going on so when things go ballistic, your parents are prepared. Secondly, you own the copyright to all of your designs. Since your uncle refuses to buy the designs from you, or take them on a lease, he cannot use any of it for her business.

Lastly, get ALL contracts in writing so when people renege on payment you can successfully take them to court and win.

Let this be a learning experience for you. People are going to try and get their way out of paying you in the business you have. Grow to be upfront about monetary issues or suffer the consequences.

Q&A with Jane: The brutal and straightforward answers to HR-related queries and concerns. Send in your queries with the subject line ‘Ask JANE HARPER’ at info@thehrdigest.com

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