Good list of ethical dilemmas, Laura. You won’t be surprised to hear that I prefer to err on the side of integrity and being able to sleep at night. That means no badmouthing clients or other freelancers, no undercutting, not working for anyone or on anything shady, always meeting deadlines and giving clients my best advice even if it means not getting the job. And I don’t do students’ term papers either. :)
Ethics and Freelancing
Posted May 22, 2011 in Managing Clients
But it’s also about something else you rarely hear about–ethics. Most freelancers make ethical (or unethical) choices for their business nearly every day.
In this post, you’ll explore eight ethical dilemmas that you might face as a freelancer. You’ll get the chance to think about what you would do in each instance and discuss your choices with other freelancers or share your own ethical dilemmas.
Eight Ethical Freelancing Dilemmas
So, what ethical dilemmas does a typical freelancer usually face? Here are eight common situations:
- Deciding whether to do work for a company with questionable products or services. What if a would-be client provides products or services that you find offensive or disagreeable? Would you still work for them? The “client” doesn’t necessarily have to be doing something illegal. It might simply be something that you object to. An example of this might be a potential client whose products are not ecologically friendly when you are concerned with the environment.
- Being asked to do a project in a way that you know is certain to fail. Sometimes clients ask us to do things that we know won’t really work. When this happens, a freelancer has a difficult choice to make–follow the path of least resistance and do as the client asks or try to educate the client and explain why their request won’t work. This is a really hard choice for many freelancers.
- Deciding whether to accept projects from two directly competing businesses. Should you work with your client’s direct competition? If you do decide to work for both companies, should you use information you learned working with one client to help the other? How to handle competing clients is a dilemma that many freelancers face. In the absence of a non-compete agreement, what would you do?
- Complaining publicly about a client or former client. If you’ve been online for any length of time you’ll run into this–a public rant from a freelancer about a client. Now, sometimes the rant is exposing a scam that all freelancers need to be aware of. But more often the rant is simply airing a client/freelancer disagreement. Each freelancer must ask themselves if being vocal about their differences with their clients is an okay thing to do.
- Badmouthing other freelancers. This dilemma is similar to the previous one, except sometimes the motivation is different. Occasionally a freelancer will feel the need to gain a competitive edge over another freelancer by badmouthing them, either publicly or to a client. However, is this really the way to operate a business?
- Misrepresenting your freelancing business. Some freelancers withhold information about their business. For example, a freelancer might pretend that his or her operation is much larger than it really is. A solo professional might try to represent themselves as the head of a small company. A variation of this is a freelancer who outsources projects, but fails to tell the client that he or she won’t be doing the work themselves.
- Undercutting other freelancers. Is there an ethical dilemma involving pricing? You bet there is. If your prices are far below what your services are worth, it can affect client expectations. Worse yet, you may be setting yourself up for failure since once you have charged a too-low price it can be difficult to raise it later on.
- Not meeting agreed-upon deadlines. Are you known for doing what you say you are going to do, or do you let projects slip? Clients do notice things (like frequently missed deadlines) about the freelancers they work with. Of course, there’s a difference between accidentally underestimating the amount of time a project will take and simply being cavalier about the due date.
Of course, some of these ethical questions might fall into a grey area. Others are more clear-cut.
“But,” you might say, “why are ethics even important for my freelancing business?”
Why Your Ethical Choices Are Important
You may be good at what you do, but one of the top qualities that most clients look for in a freelancer is integrity. Good ethical practices lead to a reputation of integrity. Bad ethical practices do not.
Also, remember one of the top ways to get new clients is through referrals. However, referrals won’t happen if your current client doesn’t feel good about how you do business.
So, your ethical choices can have a direct impact on the bottom line of your freelancing business.
What Ethical Dilemmas Have You Faced?
Have I missed any ethical dilemmas? What ethical dilemmas have you faced over the course of your freelancing career and how did you solve them?
Share your answers in the comments.
Image by Kate Williams
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May 22nd, 2011 at 8:48 am
May 22nd, 2011 at 8:54 am
Good to hear (especially about the term papers, LOL). I’m sure that many other freelancers have also faced these questions. It will be interesting to see what they have to say.
May 22nd, 2011 at 9:40 am
1. I’ve yet to directly face this dilemma. But I know plenty of freelancers in this boat. If they do accept the work, it usually comes down to a matter of not including it in their portfolio. We need to eat and pay pills, but we can’t sacrifice all of our integrity. The downside is that your portfolio just collects cobwebs.
2. I face this one often. Hideously outdated designs, Flash landing pages, one person wanting to run a clone of an already popular site (that would take a lot of money, a staff, and huge investors to make work),and various other practices that I know won’t amount to much benefit. I think educating the client is the best option. I’d rather do that than wind up with yet another site I don’t wish to add to my portfolio.
6. I see this a lot. The two examples you gave are probably the most prominent: single people acting like big companies, or people saying they themselves do A/B/C/D/E/F when they really do A/B/C and outsource the rest. The latter is especially prominent with designers who offer development, or vice versa.
May 22nd, 2011 at 10:30 am
Yes, the whole article is a ethical dilemma!
It should of been written as an ethical dilemma.
Are my comments even “ethical” based upon what was written here???
May 22nd, 2011 at 11:14 am
I encountered dilemma 1 a few years ago.
A huge, international publisher of materials of the kind that I edit had a division that hosted trade shows. I found out that some of these trade shows were for showcasing weapons–guns of all kinds. Because I am a pacifist, I found that abhorrent. I notified the authors whom I edit for that I could not ethically edit manuscripts that they planned to submit to that publisher. I also blogged about the weapons trade shows and their connection to the publisher, noting that I was boycotting the publisher until either its trade-show-management division stopping hosting weapons shows or the publisher divested itself of the trade-show-management division. (I was not the only one boycotting the publisher; many editors and authors were doing so also.) I informed my colleagues about the weapons trade shows, so that they could make their own decision about the ethics of working with the publisher.
Yes, this did affect my income for a while, but I could not bear to take money from a company that helped sell weapons internationally. Eventually, the boycott did have an effect, and the company sold its trade-show-management division. I then blogged that I was no longer boycotting the company, and I let my authors know too. I was soon once again editing materials that would go on to be published by the company.
I’m glad that I took a stand.
May 22nd, 2011 at 4:06 pm
I smiled when I saw the heading of this article since I am faced with ethical/professional value decisions on a regular basis. A significant challenge for me professional is working today in a new country that has a very different work culture… in the US we would call it “work ethic”. One major issue I deal with is the fact that clients are not aware of the fact that their contractors take a percentage from their subcontractors, which significantly influences the quality of work they receive compared to their expectations. Also, contractors seek subcontractors that will agree to sharing % in such a sneaky manner rather than searching for quality professionals or those who can meet the specific demands of unique clients. Recently someone advised me to do the same since the work culture – unlike the US & Europe – understand the value of investing in market research. The solution, he suggested, is to not include research in my proposal and just add into the cost of a web programmer and then take percentage from his/her fee. I refused… its dishonest and its denying the client quality work. Personally, no matter what you should maintain a highly professional and ethical work ethic no matter where you live otherwise it will come to haunt you.
May 22nd, 2011 at 8:54 pm
It’s reassuring to see that most of our readers have given thought to this topic. :)
TheAl–I really do think that number 2 goes with the territory, to some extent. But if the client’s idea is truly bad (or in some cases illegal), then the ethical dilemma is magnified.
Katharine O’Moore-Klopf, That’s a great example! What I like about it is that you stood up for your principles and even made others aware of the company’s unethical behavior.
Nancy R. Shurka–Cultural differences can definitely cause some problems. If you are interacting with a different culture, it’s important to understand their mores and traditions. At the same time, you shouldn’t have to do something that makes you uncomfortable (as in your case). Thanks for sharing your story.
May 23rd, 2011 at 4:53 am
a while back, I was asked to code a “safari” WordPress theme, I naively thought it was a photography safari site, but then realized it was for hunting animals (even elephant).
I told the client that I wouldn’t take on anymore similar projects, and he commended my integrity for that.
May 23rd, 2011 at 5:07 am
I think the biggest issue is with accepting projects from two directly competing businesses. If you have a ND and/or non-compete agreement, then you have no options. However, if that’s not the case, I can see a couple of reasons why both projects (or perhaps even more) can and should be accepted:
1. reusing know-how from one project to the other (which translates to increased revenue / worked hour). know-how can be simply experience or software code etc.
2. with a couple of referrals form these projects owners, you may find yourself labeled as a expert / guru in the specific field and get tons of similar projects, which benefit reason 1 above greatly.
May 23rd, 2011 at 6:12 am
Since I decided to focus on the Jewelry industry and the market I live in is small, I have also been thinking about what should I do if a competing company looks to me for services. If a no-compete agreement/clause does not exist a freelancer should be free to take on a competing client however, the freelancer is placing him/herself in an extremely legally vulnerable position. Even if you notify your clients in writing, you could still risk being sued for not acting in good faith. Lets say the competing client also offers a better fee or security (long-term service agreement vs. project based), then the freelance will have an even more difficult time proving he/she acted in good faith. How do you prove that you did not use non-public knowledge to service the competing client? To avoid such a risk, I think it’s best to not take on directly competing clients. Better safe than sorry.
May 23rd, 2011 at 9:04 am
I have come across quite a bit of these dilemmas. I think that this article will be of great help to freelancers because it gives you many thought-provoking questions to answer for yourself ahead of time or when the situation arises.
May 23rd, 2011 at 1:36 pm
The real measure of success for me is the value you provide for an audience/client/customers and understanding their values and business. As long as you provide value and prove that value through a portfolio/testimonials/blog/word of mouth/etc. you only need time on your side. No amount of undercutting will beat that genuine level of value you provide to your clients. But of course, I imagine on bidding sites that undercutting happens all the time.
May 23rd, 2011 at 2:46 pm
I have learned over the years that if you act unprofessional in any way, someday, maybe years down the road, it will pop up and bite you on the ass. Guard your reputation; it’s as valuable as gold (even at the new current high). Think before you open your mouth. You don’t want to be the BP of freelancers.
Years ago, I was approached to do copywriting for Glock (pistols). It was an attraction/repulsion moment. I took the assignment and learned new respect for firearms. Sometimes, an open mind is better than a closed one.
May 23rd, 2011 at 4:29 pm
Thanks for sharing your ethical dilemmas. I think that these problems occur more frequently than we realize–but rarely do freelancers talk about it with each other.
Personally, I think it’s helpful to think about this in advance so that you are ready when you face one of these situations.
Paul–I’m glad that your client recognized your integrity. I can certainly understand how you might have misunderstood the project.
Bogdan Pop and Nancy R. Shurka, Non-compete agreements can be a big deal. I actually think it’s a good idea to get legal advice if you have questions about one that you are asked to sign.
Robert Roth–That is so true. Also, it is up to each individual freelancer to draw the line about which projects they will, and will not, take. I would think that line would be different for every freelancer…
May 23rd, 2011 at 4:52 pm
This is an excellent discussion – thank you for bringing it up!
I often face difficult choices in many of the areas listed above. One of the most common problems I face is clients with a completely unrealistic idea for a website or ebusiness (like a new social media BuddyPress site where people can join by the thousands, share their nice moments via photo or blog, and buy a t-shirt) or a design that makes me cringe. In most instances like this, I politely turn the business away. But, even armed with my “honest but encouraging” comments, is it fair to the people who want to try out their new experiments and can’t find someone to help them? I just can’t take their money!
Another difficulty that recently presented itself was a programmer on the staff of my husband’s development company who decided he needed his pay in advance (against policy) and sabotaged the application he developed hoping to hold the company hostage. Poor money management on the worker-bee’s part turned into a near-career-ending problem to the poor client who was supposed to present her “new solution” to the international board of directors two weeks later. The programmer who “quit” (and has done so 6 times) will no longer be considered for re-hire, and the project was completed ahead of schedule, even though the obfuscated code and access hurdles were tough. Be careful who you work with! Their ethics (or lack thereof) can cause ripples of chaos for so many people… Check the code of people who might be working on your projects. Is it commented? Does it follow best practices? Or are they masking gateways and hurdles so that if changes need to be made to the code, only the original programmer will be able to work on it?
Thanks again for the post!
Dianne JensenMay 23rd, 2011 at 8:04 pm
I think the toughest thing for me right now is working for a big client with deep pockets. The friend who hooked me up with the gig said to double bill on everything, but the projects are quick and easy. The deadlines are sometimes ridiculous, so I charge a rush fee. But overall, the projects are ones that can get done while I’m sitting on the couch and watching a TV show. Could I use the money? Absolutely. Would anyone on that end bat an eye? Nope. Am I otherwise getting kudos and referrals to other departments who need help? Every day.
But, could I sleep at night knowing I am taking candy from a billion dollar, publicly traded company? Don’t think it’s ever gonna happen.
eMBeeMay 26th, 2011 at 10:52 am
TheAL and Nancy: what is the difference between hiring subcontractors and taking a cut or hiring employees and also taking a cut.
if i hire subcontractors you say i am bad.
if i pretend to have a team then i am bad too,
so if i hire employees and actually do have a team i am good?
if someone hires me as a subcontractor, why should they not take a cut? after all they are providing me with work that i don’t have to look for myself. of course there are limits to how much of a cut is fair, and on the other hand if i hire a subcontractor i’d make sure the work is actually up to the standards that i expect.
in other words i’d make the subcontractor part of my team. a team is good, right?
May 27th, 2011 at 8:51 am
I find that most of the unethical practices in this industry come from the clients not the freelancers. The issues above pale in comparison.
So it goes…
May 31st, 2011 at 8:49 pm
Nice post, ethics are a integral part of every business and I thank you for bringing attention to these few scenarios.
However, I think you missed the mark on your description of #6. As a freelancer you ARE the head of a small business. Turning your talent into a marketable brand is imperative and the sooner a freelancer realizes this the more likely they are to succeed.
Also, offering services that you can’t complete yourself but have resources that can, should not be frowned upon. It’s a great way to grow your business. By creating a network of other talented creatives a freelancer can help others find work and offer their clients a wider range of services.
Take printing for example. If a freelance designer has set up an affiliation with a printer, is it wrong to offer this as a service? Of course not.
I think this is a topic in itself so I’ll stop here… Thanks again for the post.
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