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A Freelancer's Dilemma: Ethically Dubious Projects

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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?

13 Responses to “A Freelancer's Dilemma: Ethically Dubious Projects”

  1. For someone that is getting started now with freelance jobs the decision is much more difficult that it seems. If you are like me, someone new to this who is trying to pay her bills from this job, but don’t be known yet, it’s too difficult to decide. I agree that it is not ethical, but how can we leave without it until we find reliable sites to write about? Have in mind that most of the sites looking for writer are scams, so should we try an other freelance job?

  2. Jeff – great scenario. I think you need to look at each situation uniquely and not pass a universal blanket over those types of situations. For example, if you have been doing business with a company for say 10 yrs, and then they are purchased by say AIG. How do you change? There business practices are documented as being questionable and obvious that they cannot run the business. Does that effect the business relationship you have with the people you know do good work and are upright?

    What if the holding company is not involved at all, but simply acquires companies for resell? I think the influence another brings to the situation would need to be evaluated to determine the change impact it would bring to your client.

  3. My good friend and NY Times best-selling author James Othmer has a new book coming out in the fall called ADLAND and it touches on this topic of ethics in what we do…the client/product you may be working on directly is a wonderful product/service but the holding company’s activities may be questionable. And where do you draw the line?

  4. @Jeff – I understand where you are coming from. Honestly, I have no issue working with the tobacco companies even now. I have bid on business for data center work when business was good and not so good. I really do not draw the line there, I can service someone whom I might not agree with. What I will not do is offer services that support illegal activity.

    @Simon – I agree totally with what you are saying. I think what some people do is draw the line not thinking of all of the possible scenarios. When those arise, they are suddenly moving the criteria for which they judge things. Bad idea since when you give an inch, a foot becomes a whole lot easier. I would like to think that when you set the line, you do not move it.

  5. @Jeff that’s a good point. And as Celine says, at least as a freelancers you can turn down jobs that you disagree with. If you work for an employer you might not have that flexibility (unless you quit!)

    @Jason Monastra I would like to think that I would behave the same no matter what my financial situation. But if I was staring down the barrel of foreclosure, with a family to provide for, I’m not sure that I could say that the line wouldn’t shift a little. But there are a range of things to consider here – I wouldn’t assist criminal activity ever.

  6. It seems like there’s a difference between working with people whose values are different than yours versus people conducting unethical business.

    Organizations (be they churches or energy companies) whose beliefs are different than mine might not be my first choice, but I’d *never* work with someone who was scamming other people. Who’s to say they wouldn’t scam me, too?

    Of course, if your selling position is related to your client base (e.g. “We help green business grow!”) then it doesn’t make sense to dilute your reputation with ambiguous partnerships or you could risk even the good clients leaving.

  7. Absolutely the line moves. If you’re struggling to pay rent, doing creative work for a topic you don’t believe in suddenly isn’t that important. Paying the rent is.
    Let me ask you this: In this world where agency fees have plummeted and clients are holding on dearly to their expenditures, would YOU work on tobacco if Philip Morris walked in the door and offered you a $20 million account?

  8. Jeff, much appreciated example but let us address the issue at hand. There was nothing illegal about what you did. Frankly, I do not smoke and I think the long term effects are more than adequately documented on why you should not. But is doing work for them morally questionable? That is one’s moral compass again coming into alignment to make the decision.

    You bring a point to discuss….when the money dries up, does the line move? And if so, how much? I would be interested in knowing if you would go back and do tobacco today if the work was presented to you.

  9. It’s a HUGE dilemma. Especially in this horrible economy, ethics have a way of flying out the window. As a company, we choose not to take on questionable clients. But years ago, after I was busy freelancing for 12 years, the ad business dried up (post 9/11) and suddenly I found myself making a hefty day rate creating ad campaigns for a tobacco company. (Please note I’m the biggest ANTI-smoker, so it went against every moral fiber of my being). BUT, there was no freelance to be found. I made the money and moved on. However, when it has to do with a “scam” like in Celine’s case, i would suggest avoiding it no matter what…because legally you could be linked when the guy gets arrested. Luckily, in my tobacco case, no one has sued the agencies yet for killing people with cancer. Hopefully, no one will.

  10. Very true, and I think the comment above brings it all together. “There is a difference between something I do not believe in and something that I think is unethical or illegal,” is really the backbone of the issue. The mention of money making a difference depending on your individual circumstance, albeit possible, should not be the measure of whether the work is performed. It might increase the pressure or offer us reason to negotiate with our morality, but it does not change the truth.

    However, I find the beginning of the post most interesting. Supporting or assisting a group that is not in alignment with your own morale compass. Now that is challenging. How and when do we draw the line there, and how is the line defined. Is it faith, religion, political, etc. I would be interested in knowing more about where people think that line lies.