When you’re at the mercy of someone else’s decision, whether that be in a job interview process, a potential new business pitch, or even in a personal relationship, it can be difficult to not feel a sense of failure and disappointment when you’ve poured your heart and soul into something, only to find yourself rejected at the snap of a finger, or worse…completely ghosted.
If something felt ‘off’, throughout your interactions with a particular company, or there was a lot of ambiguousness and things simply didn’t seem to add up, one question may have been burning at the back of your mind.
Am I being strung along here?
Having listened to personal anecdotes from friends and colleagues, as well as drawing upon my very own experiences of carrots being dangled only to be abruptly taken away without useful reason, it occurred to me just how common being strung along is — especially when it comes to business.
When you’re just starting out, it’s natural to lack the experience, wisdom and judgement that prevents you from being strung along. Though when it does inevitably happen, it can really knock your confidence.
So whether you’re a freelancer finding that you’re regularly giving away valuable advice or time with little reward, or in what feels like an unusually long and unrelenting recruitment process — Avoid your expertise being taken advantage of and look out for these signs that you’re potentially being strung along.
5 warning signs that a company is stringing you along
1. It feels as though they are treating you like a free consultant
The boundary between showing off what you know and giving away everything is extremely murky. Perhaps you’re asked a number of oddly specific questions on how you’d approach X, Y or Z. Maybe you’re asked to review a piece of their current work and share your ideas on how you’d improve it.
Whatever you’re asked to do, if you feel they are asking a lot, then they probably are. What’s likely to be happening here is that are looking for the answer to a question, or a problem that they are struggling with as a business and want different perspectives on the answer… without commitment.
2. The expectations from you are not clear and ultimately never get any clearer
Whilst I appreciate that every job/project/role is different, if the company you are dealing with are extremely vague when stating what exactly you’d be doing for them…but want you to provide everything upfront in detail, it’s likely that they are just stringing you along to see what you know and what you’d do for them. — They don’t have any expectations from you…because they’re going to go away and do it themselves!
3. Everybody you meet is incredibly friendly and casual with you
I read in a Forbes article, that people can afford to be over friendly with you in these kinds of situations. Why? Well, because they’re never going to see you again! I initially didn’t agree with this sentiment, surely people are friendly to you because they want to make you feel at ease..right?
A good friend and full-time freelancer, who for the sake of this example we will call Max, recently told me about the time, early on in his career that a prospective new client had been unusually casual and friendly with him.
Max thought nothing of it at first and became increasingly excited for the opportunity as the company gave him every reason to believe they’d be going ahead and using his freelance services.
There was apparently nobody else that they were speaking with, Max was the person they wanted for the job yet, they kept needing more details, more information, more ideas.
This went on for a while and the communication from this particular company was sporadic — always concluding with a promise that they were just ‘finalising things’ their side. Unfortunately, this went on for weeks before Max was finally told, thanks,…but we’re actually going to be using internal resource for the job.
Months later, Max saw his original ideas in action. This is so common and I, unfortunately, hear of it all the time.
4. The goal posts keep changing and it’s taking forever to make a decision
Just one more meeting, one more interview, one more phone call, one more document. Just like in Max’s situation, if your communication with this company has been going on for weeks, or even months, but you still don’t feel you’re any closer to finalising the project/job/work… ask for a straight-up confirmation.
Be open about your timeline and how you’re keen to work with them, but ultimately need to know when a final decision is going to be made. Their response will tell you all you need to know.
5. Your gut is telling you something is off
Through experiences, both good and bad — we learn and discover our innate ‘spidey sense’, and whilst I’m a big believer of making decisions based on hard fact — it is important to think about the feelings and emotions that are conjuring up inside when you’re dealing with people and businesses.
If you feel as though you’re being taken advantage of, and you’ve mentally checked a few of the points above, know your worth and walk away.
If the company really want to work with you/contract you/ or hire you, they’ll be transparent and able to explain any delays without you subsequently having 100 questions that you need clarity on. And on the flip side, if you never hear from them again…then there’s your answer!
Being strung along feels really cruel however, it is, unfortunately, a part of life and business. Once that string gets cut, you can be left feeling vulnerable and used. My advice? Dust yourself down and get back on that horse! Every lesson is a valuable one and next time you’ll be able to smell a rat earlier on.