Know Your Worth: The Dance of the Toxic Client

Erin Lynch
4 min readJun 15, 2023

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Create a positive work environment by learning to say, “Hell, no!”

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“Jealous cowards who try to control
Rise above, we’re gonna rise above
They distort what we say
Rise above, we’re gonna rise above

Try and stop what we do
Rise above, we’re gonna rise above
When they can’t do it themselves
Rise above, we’re gonna rise above

We are tired of your abuse
Try to stop us, it’s no use”

Partial lyrics from Rise Above by Black Flag.

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No matter what we do, no matter how transparent we are, how well we do our jobs, how creative we become, how responsive to requests and needs we are, or how honestly we deal with situations, we will encounter clients whose goal seems to be little more than to frustrate the working relationship and tear us down.

For these individuals, it does not matter if we are on point 99.9% of the time, any failure constitutes an opportunity to ridicule, blame, and in the worst of these examples, scream and yell. These are losing situations. You will not win.

When we find ourselves working with people like this, it’s time to take stock. Why am I working with this client? Is it just for the money? Is it for prestige or more visibility? Is this worth my happiness? Is this adding so much (money/visibility) to my life that I’m willing to endure the abuse? If you can’t reconcile these questions it means it’s time we move on.

I’ve been working on our studio branding for the past couple of weeks. It’s a task I’m sorely behind on (why do we always work on our own stuff last?), but one that I’m finally making headway on.

Here is our mission statement (still a WIP, but 90% of the way there):

We are here to create beautiful and functional things.

We strive to be responsive, timely, educational, creative, reasonable, professional, and curious.

Our goal is to be a reliable partner to the people we work with. We believe in the power of design, we believe in the power of technology. We know both can be transformative in the right hands.

We believe in educating ourselves and those around us. We understand that failure is part of life. We also recognize failure as an opportunity to grow. We strive for success but have left room open for failure. We accept it, and we try not to hide behind it. Shifting the blame is not a solid business strategy.

We have no time for people who do not respect our time, our ideas, or our experience. There is no place for needy, overbearing, aggressive, deceptive, or narcissistic people in our organization. We neither hire them, nor work for them.

We are here to scratch a creative itch. To educate. To help. To create work we love.

While we are a for-profit organization, the accumulation of money is not our driving force.

I wrote this in one shot (a rarity) over the span of about 15 minutes. It’s perhaps one of the most on-point pieces of writing I’ve done recently. It was completely clear and just came tumbling out of me.

Fast forward to earlier this week when I’m so…completely…stressed…out because of a client like the one I initially mentioned above. As I was taking stock, the mission statement that I’d drafted came racing back to my mind.

After re-reading it several times I could not escape the fact that there was clearly no reason for us to be working with this client for one more day. Walk the walk, talk the talk as they say. So, the team voted and we fired the client.

Principles matter. You deserve to be treated with respect. I do too. Ensuring that we know where the line is, and then enforcing it in our practice, means we are plotting the course of our careers. We are making the choices, not our clients. Even if that means less money or less visibility, we owe it to ourselves (and those we work with) to create an environment we enjoy, a place where we feel good about the work we are doing.

Know your limits. Know your values. Draw the line and then stick to it.

This article was originally published as a free post in my newsletter, Past Tense, a weekly newsletter about being a designer, educator, entrepreneur, creative professional, and neurodivergent human.

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Erin Lynch

Designer, writer, pixel articulator, educator, and neurodivergent human. Subscribe to my newsletter, Past Tense, at erinlynch.substack.com