We’re freelancers because we like having more freedom – or maybe we just wanted to opt out of the corporate world. But the best part of freelance life may be that we can choose who we want to work with.
Yet sometimes that choice comes with nagging questions: Am I OK with this client’s business and intentions? Is this a project I’ll feel good about working on? What if the answer is, probably not?
At our January 13, 2021, meeting, PJ Christie – longtime freelancer and founder of digital marketing agency, Search and Convert – led a discussion to get us thinking about how we answer those questions.
For PJ, making good choices for businesses and our clients requires us to develop a personal code of ethics – to set boundaries and communicate them clearly, both to clients and to ourselves. It requires thinking about the world we want, the business we want, and the people we want to work with.
Foundational vs situational ethics
Foundational ethics create the framework of your core values. Situational ethics guide what you do under certain conditions. When you’ve taken the time to think them through, they can help navigate ethical dilemmas that can arise for freelancers.
PJ offered tips for creating a personal and business code of ethics and suggested how to handle common business challenges.
Get clear on your accountability.
PJ’s “Freelancer Circles of Accountability” are a framework for understanding where your loyalties lie and the impact to operating your business. To whom are you accountable? Where are your priorities? PJ’s suggestions are:
#1: You (and your family)
#2: Your immediate team
#3: Your client (including your contract and shared expectations)
#4: Your client’s team
#5: Their customers
#6: Members of the social contract (humanity)
Do some soul (re)searching.
To begin developing his own code of ethics, PJ took cues from philosophers and religious leaders to develop a list of principles and questions to ask himself before making decisions. For example:
- Start with the Golden Rule but don’t stop there. Don’t ask anyone to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself. If you expect your clients to pay on time, pay your team on time.
- Think of Gandhi’s “Talisman”: “Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest person whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him or her.” Consider how taking on a client, putting out a piece of content or setting up an ad campaign might affect people in a different condition of life.
- Consider the Iroquois 7th generation principle: What will your decision mean for people who come after you – the 7th generation – in the future?
- Ask, “What if everyone did this?” Treat every person as an end and not as a means. Your client is a person, not simply someone to extract money from.
Be specific about what you offer.
After a company retreat, PJ and his team decided on three core principles for Search and Convert: ethics, equity and creativity. When you decide on yours, include them everywhere – your marketing materials, slide decks, home page, LinkedIn, etc. The more specific you can be about what you offer, the more potential clients will be prepared for discussing any ethical issues with you.
Be clear about what you won’t consider.
You must feel comfortable with a client’s intentions in their business, so make that part of the initial conversation. Do you have any hard lines? PJ’s ethics code says no religion, no porn, no politics. Being clear on those hard lines instantly takes those issues off the table. People are unlikely to ask you to do something you clearly stated you won’t do.
Look for the flags before you sign a contract.
When choosing whether to work with a potential client, knowing how to read the signs – the green, yellow and red flags – can often predict how your relationship will go. But knowing the difference between those flags comes with experience. If you do your part to truly understand a potential client, you’re less likely to have things go wrong.
Set the contact rules in your agreement.
Have a team list of who to talk to about what and how to contact them. Be sure to outline the work flow, including turnaround times, as well as people’s roles. Consider having the client designate one person to be your point of contact.
In the “What would you do” part of the discussion, we talked about ethical dilemmas members had faced and ideas for addressing them. Several scenarios came up.
Your client refuses to take your advice.
Sometimes you have to say not to something a client wants to do if it violates your ethics. It’s important to set boundaries even with paying clients. There is nothing wrong with extracting yourself from a relationship when your boundaries are not being respected.
(Another tip from PJ: It’s also important to be able to back up your point of view with data such as Google Analytics or research on best practices.)
A client you don’t want to work with asks you to refer another freelancer, but the relationship has gone too far south and you don’t want to.
Don’t refer what you don’t want to do ethically. You have an obligation to protect your community of freelancers. That said, the problem between you and the client might be just a personality conflict. Make a referral if you think you know a freelancer who might be a better fit.
You want to say no or fire the client, but you don’t know how to do that professionally and appropriately.
Saying no is hard. Feeling like we’re always on the edge financially puts freelancers in a vulnerable position, so think of being vulnerable as your superpower. Also, a hard no gets you respect, and it’s more important to be respected than to be liked. People will spend their money with you if they respect you.
You turn in some ghostwriting or editing, and the client’s changes are so terrible you don’t want your name on it.
Plan for that in your contract. One freelancer tells her clients they can decide whether or not to put her name on the project, but she gets the ultimate decision on whether she’s listed. You can make the client happy but avoid being associated with something that might reflect poorly on your work.
You’re not sure you want to work with the client, but you also need a paycheck.
If a project violates your personal code of ethics, you have to reconcile it with yourself and decide whether the paycheck is worth it. If you say yes but you have reservations, you might find yourself in the same situation when that client refers you to others doing similar work. That can be a slippery slope.
So, what would your personal code of ethics look like?
Think about it, write it down and embrace it internally, and you’ll be able to create the freelance life you want – and will feel good about.
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