by Leslie Hancock
In a professional freelancers' forum that I frequent, the question of what to do when you're asked to work for someone with whom you fundamentally morally disagree recently came up. The question was framed as a conversation starter, so it was purposely vague. Its relevance was soon obvious, though, as a wide range of opinions and scenarios surfaced among the answers. I have been fortunate so far in my career that I've never had to refuse work or "break up" with a client over moral disagreements, so I was very interested in other freelancers' experiences and opinions.
The first answer was, "Be upfront. Be polite and professional, but be upfront. The worst that can happen is this relationship continues for a long time with this client believing you think alike. If it's too much of a strain on the business relationship, maybe it's for the better if you don't do business together." This is a good answer. Honesty is very often the best path the follow. However, the question can be quite a bit more complex and nuanced. For example, what if the client's opinions or beliefs that you find objectionable are based on their religion, race, gender, or other status protected by law from discrimination? What if the client isn't asking you to write about the beliefs you find objectionable, but you just don't think you can bring yourself to write for a person who thinks that way? What if you find out that the company engages in practices that are not illegal, but which you don't want to support, even indirectly?
View 1: A Professional Leaves His or Her Personal Beliefs Out of It
As a B2B ghostwriter, it's a given that you'll be reflecting someone else's opinions, voice and thought leadership in what you write. Sometimes, what you're asked to write won't match your personal beliefs, and you might even find it to be morally repugnant. Whether you're writing general content on behalf of a brand or writing pieces that will be directly credited to a business leader, you have to decide what you are willing and able to write well on their behalf. Some freelancers are just fine with writing for clients with whom they disagree, considering it a sign of professionalism to be able to write well for their customers regardless of their personal beliefs -- similar to public defenders who represent accused criminals to the very best of their ability, no matter how they personally feel about their clients. As long as a client pays fairly for your services, the reasoning goes, it doesn't really matter what you think. Your name isn't on the published work anyway.
View 2: Refuse the Work, but Be Cautious of Potential Legal Pitfalls
However, if you find you just can't bring yourself to write for this company or individual, how do you turn down the work or sever the relationship? It's unprofessional to just "dump" the client with no explanation, but there's reason to be cautious about explaining the reason fully and honestly as well. My opinion is that freelancers need to be very careful these days about what we say if we don't want to take a gig and/or we want to terminate a working relationship. There's now legal precedent for people getting sued for refusing to provide goods or services based on a moral disagreement with their customers. There has also been at least one case of a customer refusing to pay for services rendered once they found out how the vendor felt about a hot issue important to the customer, and the service provider sued for just compensation. Because of cases like these, I would be very hesitant to bring moral opinions and beliefs into a business relationship at all if it can be avoided.
Though the court cases currently in the public eye pertain to brick-and-mortar businesses subject to anti-discrimination laws, they also overlap with creative or artistic expressions created for hire. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that future lawsuits will be limited to the groups and philosophies under scrutiny in the courts today. I'm not a lawyer, but since these cases have not been fully tested in the courts yet, and we don't know how contract creative service providers would be regarded in similar cases, I would recommend that service providers exercise caution when refusing business based on moral grounds.
View 3: Just Say No. You Can't Live Your Life Scared of Lawsuits
Then there's the carpe diem point of view, from a commenter in the freelancers' forum: "Honestly, being in business is risky. Having a J-O-B is risky. Know why? We live in a lawsuit happy land. No one could work anywhere if they let their worry about offending someone's perception of their rights stop them. From sexual harassment to racism to sexism, someone's likely to come at you eventually. The key is to know the law, and keep conversations about the work. Most people are looking to get their problem solved, not sue you. And people who are going to sue are going to sue." The implied advice here returns to the original comment, which is to simply be honest and upfront, trusting that most of the time people just want to get a job done and aren't spoiling for a legal fight. Take the work, or don't take it. Boom. Done.
So What Should You Say?
So you've decided you really don't want to take a gig for moral reasons, but you're still not sure what to say. Here are some suggestions from the discussion:
- "I'm so sorry, but I don't have the bandwidth for that right now."
- "I want to let you know up front that I believe XYZ very strongly in relation to that issue. Will that be a stumbling block for you in our relationship?"
- "There are writers who are far more qualified for that task than I am -- people who are more familiar with your audience/subject matter/etc."
- Don't give a reason at all. Just say, "No thank you," and move on.
If you can, soften your refusal by recommending other qualified freelancers who may be more amenable to the work.
And Sometimes, You Should Just Cash the Check and Move On
Here's a final amusing-but-cautionary tale from a freelancer who thought he had a clever way of getting out of doing a job for someone with whom he didn't want to work: "I once tried quoting a much higher than usual price, thinking the customer would be crazy to accept it. Turns out they were crazy," he said. "I put my (unspoken) differences aside, did the work and gladly accepted the check." And there you have it.