During a nearly week-long attempt to assist an immigrant client who was having extreme difficulty figuring out how to use freelance job site UpWork’s program, I finally inadvertently made a suggestion that could have resulted in a violation of UpWork’s Terms of Service, and I got banned from using the site for life.
Update!: The day after this article was published, I was contacted by a member of the UpWork Executive Escalation Team, the decision to ban me was reversed, and my UpWork Account was reinstated!
The funny part is that I am a rule-follower by nature. My much more rebellious and subversive girlfriend makes fun of me constantly about it. You know how there are those lines in a grocery store parking lot that divide one parking space from the space directly in front of it in the next lane? I never cross or pull through those. She thinks that’s hilarious.
“My intent was to help tell the story of a man with a traumatic past who was having a hard time in a situation unfamiliar to him.”
I spent almost 12 years in the military, and I don’t question or violate rules, even the millions of little ones in everyday life that make no sense and seem to have no purpose. I go along to get along, and when I can’t, I punt. I unknowingly make mistakes, like every other human being, but I never intentionally disobey a lawful rule.
That’s why it was such a shock when I received an email from UpWork.com stating that my account had been permanently disabled because I had violated a policy outlined in their Terms of Service Agreement. Now, it is entirely true that I did not completely read every word of the agreement, and I agreed to it anyway. Just like nearly every person does. It’s also completely irrelevant.
I’m not disputing that the policy is in the agreement. I’m not even disagreeing that I technically violated it. I’m saying that it should be and is entirely clear that I did not violate the spirit of the policy, nor did I have any intention to.
My intention, quite conversely, was to aid a struggling immigrant and to try to improve his experience on the site. Are you skeptical? Hang in there; let me explain. I’ve brought all of the relevant evidence, and I’m happy to unpack it for you.
More than a week prior to “the incident”, I found an advertisement posted by the client indicating that he was in search of a freelance writer because he is not originally from the U.S. and his English skills are not strong. I have quite a bit of experience with foreign language learners, and I am trying to be a freelance writer, so I thought I fit the bill well. The client agreed, and we negotiated the details of the project through messaging on the UpWork site.
Up to this point, the interaction was progressing in exactly the same way that every client interaction I’d had on UpWork did. At the time of “the incident” and, indeed, even at the time I’m writing this, I had/have a 100% job satisfaction rating on UpWork. In a 5-star rating system, I’ve received nothing but 5-star ratings from each and every client. UpWork even has/had me listed as a future potential “Top Rated” and “Rising Talent” freelancer based on my performance to date.
My client, though, who has trouble with the English, remember, could not figure out how to offer me a contract through the UpWork system. We went back and forth discussing it for days. I’ve included the transcript from UpWork messaging at the bottom of this story so that there is no doubt about my claims or intentions.
I felt so bad for him. He just could not figure it out. And I wasn’t able to help him because I had never been on the client side of the website transaction before, and I didn’t know what he was seeing on his screen. Frustrated, I probably even got a little testy with him because I didn’t understand how this one aspect of the website could be so difficult for him to navigate.
My client was feeling disillusioned and was ready to bail, I could tell. Annoyed with the difficulty, weary from the amount of time it was taking to figure it out, desperate to find a solution, and sympathetic for the poor guy who just wanted his project done, I suggested he just send the initial payment through PayPal, and I would start on his project for him.
Boom. Game over. Well, at least according to UpWorks management. At that point, I violated policy by trying to circumvent the UpWorks payment management system.
What really happened (again, as evidenced by UpWork’s own electronic records) is that my client did figure out the UpWork contract offering function, he sent it to me, and I accepted. No money or exchange of service was ever actually conducted outside of UpWork, nor was there ever actually any attempt to circumvent their system. I mentioned one time that he could send me the initial payment through PayPal to get the project rolling since he could not figure UpWork out over more than a week’s time, and neither of us ever attempted to follow through with that PayPal suggestion.
You may be thinking to yourself that it is still a violation of the terms with UpWork, and you would be 100% right. That is their stance too. But who was actually harmed in this whole thing? Not UpWork, they got their cut of the job because we did conduct the entire project through them. Not my client, because he paid no more than the agreed amount and is getting his project finished. Not me, because I’m doing the agreed work and receiving the agreed pay.
I’m sure they would and do claim that it is the intent to circumvent the UpWork system that is being punished. I could even get on board with that, but then I think we have to examine and consider whether or not that was my actual intention. My client and I conducted the transaction through UpWork after discussing taking it elsewhere and before we were informed that there was a problem. All we needed was to figure out how to make it work. It was never about attempting to cut UpWork out. We wanted to do it through UpWork at the beginning, and we did it through UpWork at the end when we were finally able.
My intent was to help tell the story of a man with a traumatic past who was having a hard time in a situation unfamiliar to him. According to my statistics and my ratings, both UpWork and all of my clients through UpWork were completely happy with me up to that point. I hoped the UpWork would be open to reconsidering the circumstances, recognizing the lack of ill intent, and lessening my punishment, if not eliminating it altogether.
They did not. I remain permanently banned from using UpWork despite my explanation and appeal.
Below are the emails exchanged between UpWork management and I, as well as the transcript of the conversation between my client and I. Judge for yourself whether or not you think my violation warranted a permanent ban.
I am writing to let you know that your account has been permanently deactivated because you have asked to be paid outside of Upwork.
This is considered “circumvention” and is against the Upwork User Agreement you agreed to when you joined Upwork.
Unfortunately, we must close your account, effective immediately, due to your behavior. You will be able to finish all open contracts, but you will not be able to work on any new jobs.
Please know our decision is final and cannot be reversed, and we are unlikely to respond to any correspondence regarding this matter. Please be advised that we may not respond to further requests regarding this issue.
Upwork Trust & Safety
It is true that I did suggest an alternative method for initializing payment of a job outside of UpWork. I understand that this runs counter to UpWork policy. However, I urge you to review the transcript and consider the circumstances surrounding the violation. I assume that the spirit of the policy is to keep people from intentionally cutting UpWork out of the transaction in order to avoid the processing fee UpWork charges. If you review my account and the transcripts of the conversation between me and the client in question (provided below), you will find it painfully obvious that I was only trying to provide a viable solution to the client’s inability to successfully navigate or understand the UpWork system. This has not been an issue with any of my other clients, and I say as much in the transcript. Rather than have one of your clients (and mine) give up and completely leave the UpWork site for good out of frustration, I was trying to provide him with a necessary alternative and a good UpWork experience.
I understand that you have said the decision will not be reversed and that you are unlikely to respond to further correspondence. I urge you to reconsider in this case. If I do not receive a response from you within 24 hours, I will assume that you have chosen to ignore this request, and I will pursue other alternatives.
Thank you for getting back to us. Please be informed that offering payment outside the platform is a serious violation. And we cannot reverse the decision we had taken on your account. However, you may still finish all current contracts on your account and withdraw your earnings.
I am now closing this ticket. If you have any other questions, please do not hesitate to contact our live chat support team.
Upwork Trust & Safety
Transcript of the Discussion with the Client Prior to Contact by UpWork Management
[5/21/2018 1:36:36 PM] (Client): Thanks for your response. This is my situation, I was a preacher back in Nigeria before coming to the US I, have come along way through many hurdles and obstacles like growing up in polygamous home, divorce parents, going without food even though their was food in the house, feeling depressed and alone in my own family house full of people as a kid and wishing I wasn’t burn into a cruel world, became homeless without job, from that to starting a business without money and buying my first car and moving to America with a green card as I desired without knowing how and not having the money nor connection at the time. I have been living in America for 18 years now, flipping a home without having any money with bad credit report, went through a divorce as christian and pastor against my preaching and almost committed suicide because of the frustration in the marriage.
I have overcome the thoughts of committing suicide about three times in my life.
where I need help.
I have not been use to writing so I need help with writing and crafting my story as message in a book with a goal to inspire, encourage and teach the reader with my techniques of becoming an over comer, and to help anyone to achieve their desired goals and dreams.
I know too well that God created me to help people to discover and live to their God giving potential.
I have started recording my story in videos which I will send to you if we do agree to work together. Thanks
[5/21/2018 2:04:21 PM] Aaron DeBee: Hello, (Client). I cannot, of course, guarantee that your book will be a best seller. I can, however, do what you asked, and advise you on how to structure and present your book so that it appeals to American readers. However, this will be a difficult task to quantify. How do we each know, for instance, whether or not I’ve advised you? I suggest we agree on a number of hours that I should spend considering your story and providing feedback. Does this sound like a workable arrangement to you?
[5/21/2018 4:50:15 PM] (Client): Oh I wrote what I wanted, I have been recording the story on video because I have not gotten use to writing so I will like to send you the recordings then you will listen and write them out in a book format
[5/21/2018 5:24:05 PM] Aaron DeBee: So, do you want someone to just transcribe the words you are using in the recordings? Or do you want someone to take the information in the recordings and write a book for you? Because those are two very different things, and neither of them is really a “writing coach”. You want either a “transcriber” or a “ghost writer”.
[5/21/2018 5:30:01 PM] (Client): take the information I have and write a book
[5/21/2018 5:32:49 PM] Aaron DeBee: Okay, how long would you like this book to be?
[5/21/2018 5:56:24 PM] (Client): do you mean how many pages? if so not more than 60 pages
[5/21/2018 5:59:07 PM] (Client): or 100 at most
[5/21/2018 6:07:03 PM] Aaron DeBee: Okay, let
[5/21/2018 6:08:28 PM] Aaron DeBee: Okay, let’s say around 60 pages and not more than 100. $(Amount) with half paid up front and the other half at the finish?
[5/22/2018 8:47:27 PM] (Client): the money is not the the issue for me but finding the person who knows how to craft my store to reach so it could be captivating, with various sub heading that are mind throbbing yet interesting and instructive, encouraging and motivating
[5/22/2018 8:47:55 PM] (Client): so for my typos
[5/22/2018 8:49:34 PM] Aaron DeBee: That’s no problem. I feel confident I could do that for you. Have you read any of my work, yet? There is some under my portfolio in my profile.
[5/22/2018 8:50:25 PM] Aaron DeBee: (Article link included)
[5/22/2018 8:50:52 PM] Aaron DeBee: Two of the owners of that store said that the article made them cry.
[5/22/2018 8:51:17 PM] (Client): let me check
[5/22/2018 8:57:00 PM] (Client): ok so you know we’ll be going back and fort with me reviewing and re writing and making some changes hope you are okay with that?
[5/22/2018 9:05:59 PM] Aaron DeBee: Yes, absolutely. That’s why I think we should do half up front. That keeps me from spending a lot of time and effort before receiving any payment. We start up for half, and you pay the other half when you’re satisfied. I think the project sounds rather fun and interesting.
[5/22/2018 9:07:21 PM] Aaron DeBee: I’ve done a little traveling and have spent time in some challenging areas and situations, but I have never been to Africa, although I’ve always had a deep interest. Writing your story will give me an opportunity to see things through your eyes.
[5/22/2018 9:17:21 PM] (Client): okay how do we proceed? how do I pay? how do I send the recordings though I am not done yet but we can start with what I have then I will have cue to the next message
[5/22/2018 10:21:10 PM] Aaron DeBee: Oh, sorry, I had to step out. You can set up a contract with me through UpWork. Make the first milestone $(Amount) and the second milestone $(Amount). Then fund the project. I will accept the contract, and then I will submit a request for the first $(Amount) milestone, which you will then approve. Once I have the first $(Amount) secured (in UpWork), I will send you the information to send me the recordings.
[5/23/2018 8:17:27 PM] (Client): How do I do that?
[5/23/2018 8:17:54 PM] (Client): where do I click to set the contract?
[5/23/2018 8:18:28 PM] (Client): I thought you were the one to do that then I will accept
[5/23/2018 8:34:53 PM] Aaron DeBee: No, it has always been the other way for me. Whomever is the “employer/client” has always set up the agreement and sent it to me. I then accept the contract and we are ready. But they always set up the job and I accept the terms.
[5/23/2018 8:35:10 PM] Aaron DeBee: Let me see if it is possible for me to initiate it.
[5/23/2018 8:38:19 PM] Aaron DeBee: Hmmmm… I can’t change the way that it is set up to be paid, so we’ll have to make the up-front payment and the finishing payment two separate agreements. We’ll do one right away and the other at the end.
[5/23/2018 8:40:06 PM] Aaron DeBee: You should be able to accept the proposal I just changed. Accept that proposal and fund it. Then I will request payment and you authorize it. After we’ve done the first payment, we’ll set up another contract to finish the job for the remaining $(Amount)
[5/23/2018 9:41:40 PM] (Client): its like you still don’t understand me , I am new here I don’t know where to click to accept to make the payment so direct me how to I am ready to go further with your proposal
[5/23/2018 9:46:44 PM] Aaron DeBee: I understand. Unfortunately, I don’t know the answers either, because I have never been on your end/side. I have never set up a contract on here either, so I don’t know the answers to give you.
[5/23/2018 9:47:19 PM] Aaron DeBee: Do you see above in the messages where it says that I changed the proposal?
[5/23/2018 9:48:23 PM] Aaron DeBee: There should be a green link. Click on it. After that, there should be buttons for you to fund the project, etc. I can’t walk you through it, because I can’t see it, and I don’t know what it looks like.
[5/23/2018 9:56:34 PM] (Client): ok I have seen it and I have paid
[5/23/2018 9:59:39 PM] Aaron DeBee: Hmmm… it’s not making it available to me yet. Is there a button that lets you send something to me? Or that let’s you… submit the offer or offer contract or something like that?
[5/24/2018 9:30:33 PM] (Client): I don’t know what else to do I have clicked all that I should click even the shortlist
[5/24/2018 9:34:57 PM] (Client): I think it should be open for you now maybe I needed to have clicked the shortlisted
[5/27/2018 6:55:04 PM] Aaron DeBee: I’m sorry, (Client), I don’t know either. There have to be directions somewhere. All of my other clients have created jobs and set up payment for them. I don’t/can’t do that part, because I am on the receiving end.
[5/27/2018 10:45:58 PM] (Client): are you saying it’s not open for you yet?
[5/27/2018 10:46:47 PM] Aaron DeBee: That’s correct. I don’t have an offer from you.
[5/27/2018 10:48:04 PM] (Client): how do I get to customer service because I have short listed you
[5/27/2018 10:49:29 PM] Aaron DeBee: I don’t know. I have never had to use them.
[5/27/2018 10:50:37 PM] (Client): this please is not very interactive there is no link for reaching or getting help
[5/27/2018 10:52:35 PM] Aaron DeBee: I agree. There was just a pop-up message describing a service, but now I can’t find it.
[5/27/2018 10:53:23 PM] Aaron DeBee: How about this: Do you want to just send me the money via PayPal, and we can conduct the rest of the work inside of UpWork?
[5/27/2018 11:26:44 PM] Aaron DeBee: Alright, well, my PayPal account is under (my PayPal account). If you want to move forward with the project. Send the first $(Amount) to there, and we
[5/27/2018 11:26:52 PM] Aaron DeBee: will get started.
[5/28/2018 12:35:04 AM] (Client): I have to remain here I don’t wan’t to do anything outside here I will figure it out
(Some of the remainder are system messages indicating the Client has finally set up the contract successfully.)
[5/28/2018 1:29:54 AM] (Client): I want to write a best seller book, I have a story i have recorded about half of the book, but I need an experience writer to coach me on the arrangements and advice me on how it can make more sense to my target market.
This job was posted from a mobile device, so please pardon any typos or any missing details.
[5/28/2018 4:07:38 AM] Aaron DeBee: You did it!
[5/28/2018 4:09:40 AM] Aaron DeBee: Money to be paid prior to work beginning on new contract.
[5/28/2018 7:35:29 PM] (Client): Aron is helping to write my book
[5/28/2018 7:36:05 PM] (Client): So what next?
[5/28/2018 8:20:00 PM] Aaron DeBee: Perfect doing well. Now you have to get me the audio files. Are they shareable (like in Google)? Can you attach them to a message in here or upload them to the project? If not, can you email them to me at (my email)?