Virtual Assistants Are Not Employees

By November 19, 2009 General 10 Comments

Today I’d like to talk about a scenario that may occur when a client is under the impression that they have hired you as an employee and so therefore you are their dedicated assistant.

A Virtual Assistant is an independent business owner, not an employee. A Virtual Assistant is actually a partner to multiple business owners, supplying professional services on an as-needed basis, similar to other partners in business e.g. accountants, bookkeepers, business coaches or consultants. It’s very important for both the Virtual Assistant and the client to understand this concept!

Once you have established yourself as a VA, you’ll have more than one client, and each client will take up varying hours per week. If one or more of your clients believes that you are available to help them at any time with very little notice, you’ll inevitably encounter some problems juggling your time … not to mention alot of stress. You want to avoid the situation where a client thinks you are their employee, that you’re available at the drop of a hat and doesn’t want to ‘share’ you with other clients.

I have been a Virtual Assistant since 2002 and strangely enough, only came across this situation last year! Up until then, all my clients had completely understood the concept that I am an independent contractor with various commitments. They were happy, because the end results were consistently good and deadlines were met. They also understood that they were going to save a lot of money because I wasn’t their employee and they were only paying for the time spent ‘on task’, rather than having to pay a full-time salary or other benefits such as sick pay, holiday pay etc.

Last year, I started working with a new client who initially seemed to understand the concept and had in fact worked with a Virtual Assistant before. When discussing my availability to do some work, I had explained a few times that I had more than one client but could definitely fit in time to help on particular days if I was given some leadtime to schedule it into the week. She seemed fine with that and we started working together.

It was great, the work was interesting and we got on very well. However, pretty soon, she started to expect that I would be available every day, for most of the day! Now, don’t get me wrong, it was great to be entrusted with this much work on an ongoing basis. However, it wasn’t the model I had intended for my business. I already had a number of ongoing clients who needed various levels of support, and I did not want to be dependent on a single source of income.

Needless to say, I wasn’t able to provide full-time support, especially if lots of work was emailed to me in the morning with the expectation that it would be completed that same day! I wondered whether I had not properly explained that I had a number of clients and therefore needed some notice if there was going to be a lot of urgent work.

Of course, if you’re running a Virtual Assistant business where you have a number of subcontractors, you could outsource some of your work and juggle things that way. At the time, I was outsourcing some of my work but for personal reasons I had decided not to subcontract this particular client’s work.

After speaking to her at some length to explain things again, she decided that she would like to keep working with me on an ongoing basis, but just get me to help with some higher level work rather than everyday stuff.

I got the sense that she ideally preferred to have someone who didn’t have other client commitments. It turns out that her previous Assistant was more like a dedicated virtual employee with no other clients (or a minimal number of clients). She ended up finding someone who was able to commit to the level she needed, and everyone was happy in the end. I’m still helping her with more adhoc work on an ongoing basis and I’m glad that things got ironed out very quickly.

This isn’t a topic that I have seen discussed that often, so I thought I would write about it and share my experiences. Have any of you come across a similar situation? Please add your thoughts, questions and comments below!


  • Debbie Meehan says:

    Why not send a work agreement up front describing your availability, expected leadtime and rates before you even begin working? Let it be known there is an additional fee for expedited work. Then stick to it, right from the start. That should stop any unexpected immediate work expectations.

  • JLR says:

    I liked the article. I haven’t yet run into much difficulty but I am just starting out and still filling my client roster. I do already have a system in place for discussing expectations and hours allocation for just this reason and hope it is sufficient to prevent any future issues with clients.

    One thing I am noticing more and more are listings looking to hire a virtual assistant but then describing things like hours, check in requirements and ‘salary’ as if it were for an employee.


  • Deb Lamb says:

    Hi Lisa,
    You must be talking about a client I’m working with now. OMG! You have described one of my clients to a ” T ” and this client just wears me out.

    I have tried to be as patient as I possibly can and sometimes I think I’m just too nice, after all, I do need the money and I just hate that part!

    I have tried a couple times to terminate our agreement according to the terms of my contract, etc…and they just say how much they love me and it goes in one ear and right out the other! Ugh!

    I know one thing…I have learned a very, very valuable lesson in this situation and I will never let it happen to me again. So thanks for bringing it up and letting me vent a little bit. I appreciate your post and will be back for more…unless, of course, I’m dealing with that client! LOL

    Deb :)
    Marketing Consultant and Freelance Writer

  • Lisa Taliga says:

    @ Debbie – Great point you made there about the work agreement. I have one in place that all clients sign, and it does stipulate a number of things including rates and leadtime (if the work constitutes more than a certain number of hours), but not an additional fee for expedited work. I used to charge an additional percentage for same day turnaround but for some reason I stopped doing this. Thanks for the reminder – I may reinstate it.

    @ JLR – Discussing expectations upfront is always a good idea. Sometimes clients choose to ignore expectations and push it a bit further, but if you nip it in the bud as soon as it starts happening, you should be fine.

    I’ve also seen listings for Virtual Assistants that are aimed at the employee mindset. I hope this article may go some small way to dispelling the myth that VA’s are employees.

    @ Deb – Glad you could ‘relate’ and best of luck going forward with your client.

  • Ann Starnes says:

    You are right and I know in some areas, like here, there are some entities who basically want ghost employees without having to pay them for overtime, etc. I am glad for the reminder to put in the contract what is required and additional pay for just working for them and not other clients.

  • Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for another great article and for rasing a very valid topic. This is something that often arises when you have become successful and your practice is busy with a number of clients. In the early days VAs are often only too pleased to be flooded with work from one source, but as you rightly say, this can leave you in a very vulnerable position.

    I’ve found from experience that the best way to prevent this is to take a strong lead right from the outset with both your client intake and management processes. Clear boundaries and expectations are set at the start of the relationship, and an ongoing regular management processs where both we and the client have the opportunity to evaluate how the relationship is working, and what could be improved on both sides, has proved invaluable in keeping clients happy, and myself and my team sane!

    Best regards,


  • Judy Polite says:

    Hi Lisa,

    I have been working with a client who pays me for particular services, but yet he expects me to be available at that moment when he calls. He calls after business hours, at first I didn’t mind at the beginning because he had a shift work schedule, but it has gotten ridiculous. I constantly ask him to send an email if it’s a minor note or change, but he just seems to ignore my request, even though they are in writing of what I will and will not do, and my work hours that I am available. I think personal cell numbers should only be giving out to clients who may need work updated realtime, than just any client who calls to just be calling with no work purpose. I do intend not to renew this client’s contract when it is up this month. Not just because of business relations, but because he tries to slip in comments that cross the professional and personal boundaries of our work relation. You can only be professionally courteous for so long. Keep going strong Lisa. Always appreciate your thoughts.

  • Diane Bohn says:

    I would like to ask you where you find listings for people seeking Virtual Assistants. I am in the Orlando area and have Career as a job search engine.

  • michelle says:

    There are exceptional assistants of all kinds, but each person has their limitations!

  • The Virtual Personal Assistant can be the perfect assistant for companies. This is because companies get the results with less of the cost and less of the stress.

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