Ethical Freelancing: Would You Turn Down A Client?
There are certain types of clients I just flat out won’t work with. For these categories of projects, it’s not a question of whether the client will be easy to work with or whether they’ll pay on time. Instead, it’s a question of what I feel comfortable working on — which projects seem ethical to me. If something feels wrong to me, I’m willing to walk away from the money.
Deciding which projects are ethical to take on, though, can be very subjective. What seems perfectly okay to one freelancer is a big problem for another. Most freelancers don’t have a list of projects they consider unethical, or anything like that. I used to fall into that category, but after an uncomfortable situation where I wound up working for a client who used some pretty unethical techniques (by my standards), I’ve come to believe that it’s very important for freelancers to have an idea of what they will and won’t work on going in.
Many freelancers have some types of content they don’t want to work with. A web designer might refuse to put together an adult website, for instance — although where the line is drawn is purely a personal decision. I know a website designer who turned down designing a site for a political candidate because he planned to vote for the other guy and I know a videographer who has worked with a lot of churches but won’t work with any groups that could even slightly be construed as hate groups.
It’s a question of your comfort level — if you aren’t comfortable working on a project, you’re certainly not going to be able to turn out your best work. It’s reasonable to tell a prospective client that you aren’t able to take on a certain project at this time and you don’t even have to explain why.
It’s not always the content of a project that bothers a freelancer. Sometimes, it’s the methods a client uses in the course of doing business. One of the projects I most regret working on was something that, on the surface, seemed reasonable: writing about who handled sales at a specific category of company. But the client’s methods made me want to run in the opposite direction: he instructed researchers to lie if necessary to get the type of details he wanted in the write-ups. That was enough for me to end my involvement.
In any field, there are a few techniques that make people a little uncomfortable. A writer might want to avoid putting together content that will be sent out in spam emails. An SEO consultant may be uncomfortable with black hat techniques. It’s reasonable to simply avoid those projects that employ techniques that you aren’t comfortable with. It’s not necessary to explain why to the client, unless you actually want to.
Drawing the Line
I’ve been tempted to take on projects that I had ethical questions about in the past. I’ll admit that I’ve even taken on some projects that I was uneasy with when I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to pay my bills otherwise. But I didn’t even feel comfortable with having my name on those projects — I wouldn’t include them in my portfolio. Simply avoiding those projects that I don’t feel comfortable working on hasn’t made a dent in my income, so I feel it’s a legitimate choice to make.
Even if you’re walking away from the money, turning down a project on ethical grounds can be a good business decision. A freelancer who takes on enough projects that other people see as even borderline unethical can earn a reputation for working with questionable techniques or with certain types of content, leading in turn to offers for more of the work that isn’t a freelancer’s first choice.