A Freelancer's Dilemma: Ethically Dubious Projects

Some years ago a web designer asked me if I thought it was right for him to design a site for a religious group whose values he completely disagreed with. “The site is actively promoting their beliefs,” he said, “and I’m not sure I want to be a part of that.”

I was reminded of his dilemma last week, when a potential client contacted me to ask if I could write sales copy for his multilevel marketing scheme — at twice my usual fee. After doing a bit of research on the company, however, it became apparent that this person was running a scam.

As freelancers, we sometimes get requests that we find shady. These can range from the above examples to creating promotional materials for companies whose ethics we don’t completely agree with. How do we deal with these requests?

A Resounding “No!”

“Would you accept a freelance project that goes against your ethics or values?” When I posed this question to several freelancers, most quickly said they wouldn’t. “No real professional would ever do such a thing,” said Eugene Rembor, a management consultant.

The good news is that we freelancers have the freedom to be selective about which projects on which we work. We can easily turn down clients if the company, business or product doesn’t correspond with our personal ethics.

The Gray Area

But while most of the freelancers I asked said they wouldn’t accept such jobs, there are those who recognize a gray area. For example, a few of the freelancers I talked to said that although they wouldn’t take ethically ambiguous or dubious jobs, they might feel otherwise if they found themselves financially desperate.

“There is a difference between something I do not believe in and something that I think is unethical or illegal,” said freelance editor Beth Beaty. As she noted, sometimes her clients write books or articles that support ideas with which she doesn’t agree.

“The higher ‘ethic’, if you want to call it that, for me is that everyone’s voice should be heard,” she explained, “and I am not here to judge the author’s beliefs or the marketability of their ideas.” According to her, as long as the project is legal and the client is trustworthy, she will provide high-quality work.

I’ve often applied these ideas to my own work. I was once hired to edit web site content about astrology. I don’t believe in astrology, but I felt that I should do the work. The client was an honest person who believed in her web site and wanted it to be better; she genuinely cared about her audience. I’d do the job again, just because I respected the client’s intentions.

Drawing the Line

There doesn’t seem to be a concrete rule on how to tackle ethically questionable requests. Each client, situation and project has to be assessed individually. It’s up to you where to draw the line.

As for my potential client’s multilevel marketing scheme, I turned it down. I wouldn’t have been directly involved in the scheme, but I didn’t want to help promote it, either. I’m not comfortable with writing something that convinces honest people to waste their money in a scam, especially in these economically trying times. And I have no doubt that someone out there is going to do this job -– it just won’t be me.

Do you ever get requests for projects that don’t correspond with your ethics or values? What do you do when those opportunities arise?

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