Ethics. Is it something you think about at work? Most people get by. Some people actively seek out their employer’s ethics statement. Some people don’t even care. However, when you are freelance the ethics are down to you.
Are you ‘in it for the money’, does the love of your job come before all or are you somewhere in-between?
Oxford Dictionaries defines ethical as:
Relating to moral principles or the branch of knowledge dealing with these.
Morally good or correct: e.g. ‘can a profitable business ever be ethical?’
So can a profitable business ever be ethical?
Well, yes. Put simply, you do the best for yourself and your client. An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.
But is life ever that simple? How about turning it on its head and making it about the freelance rather than the client? An honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.
This is something that is becoming increasingly rare.
It’s a sad fact of life that these days many people want something for nothing, and many want to pay as little as possible for top-quality work. Ethically I cannot and will not turn in substandard work; however, it does seem that there are people out there who have no qualms about cutting corners. A quick spell-check does not a proofread make.
So how can a freelance run an ethical business and still earn a living?
I don’t accept all the work I am offered – if I am not suitably qualified, or able, to take on a commission I will try to refer the client to someone who can help them. I have had to turn down some lucrative work in the past, but ethically I would not have allowed myself to say yes. In return I have had colleagues pass work on to me. In the short term, financially, I may lose out, but other jobs always come along to take the place of the commissions I’ve turned down.
Customers sometimes aren’t sure what they want or need, and require guidance. They don’t need the hard sell and they should never be talked into something they don’t want. I explain what is needed for each commission if asked, but would never pressurise a client into doing more than they want or can afford. Sometimes you have to accept that a client just wants a light edit or proofread and leave it at that.
If a client wants a light copy-edit, keep it light and don’t do a heavy edit; if they want a proofread just proofread. Ethically you have to look after yourself and your business too – it can be tempting for an editor to stray from one level to another, but do what you are being paid to do. By all means flag up some issues if they appear as you work but you have a moral right to look after your business, and that means that your time is precious. Get it in writing: lay down between you and the client what is expected and what will be done, and stick to it. This can be difficult if the client pushes the boundaries, but running an ethical business also means learning to say no.
This is a big deal. It’s difficult as we all have bills to pay, and sometimes you have to bite the bullet if a bill is coming in. Working below your financial comfort level can lead to low self-esteem and fatigue (as you try to do more work to get your daily rate up to a decent level). Taking on low-paying work is also doing a disservice to your profession. Clients need to be educated that the creative industries require just as much training as other professions, and should be treated equally. You would (hopefully) not feel it ethical to ask anyone else to work for peanuts, so you should not work for less than you deserve either. Remember, there’s no free in freelance.
Treat people as you would wish to be treated and hopefully it will be reciprocated. At the end of the day if you treat your clients well they will remember it and word-of-mouth referrals count for a lot in a freelance business.
I’ve used editing as an example here, but the principle applies equally well to other freelances. There are obviously other ways to run an ethical business. For example, you can get down to the nitty-gritty and start from scratch, building up an ethics statement involving only using other ethical companies and products etc., but I believe dealing with the way you treat yourself and your clients is a good way to start.