Can Consultant Turn Down Assignment For Ethical Reasons

As a freelancer just starting out, or even one who’s been doing this for a while, you might be inclined to say “yes” to every project and client that comes your way.

But believe it or not, there might come a time where you’d be better off saying “no.”

Now you might be thinking… Why would I ever turn down a project? That’s a relationship and money I’d be saying no to!

In reality not every project is for you, and you need to learn to recognize your limits.

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Don’t be afraid to say “no”

In my last article I read this comment by Sarah,

“What has helped me is changing my way of thinking — saying No means saying Yes to something else. What am I saying Yes to?”

So it’s important to remember that when you say yes to something, inevitably you are saying no to something else.

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There is an opportunity cost associated with each time you say yes to something, because you are committing that block of time to that project.

Learning to say ‘no’ means focusing on what’s most important to you and your business. (tweetable)

(e.g. if you’re trying to become an ICON designer specifically, if you want to be the BEST at icons… don’t design business cards. FOCUS on icons, etc.)

Why would I say no in the first place?

There are many reasons you might need or want to turn down a project. It could come down to an ethical conflict, time constraints, or most often – insufficient compensation.

For example: Say you get a client who needs X done and only has a budget of $N. You don’t have much work on your plate right now, and you could use the money, so taking the job seems like the obvious choice.

So now you’ve committed to the project, and along comes client Y who has a more realistic budget in mind, but has a tight deadline and you can’t take it on because you’re booked.

But, what if you had politely turned down client X’s job, explaining that the costs just simply wouldn’t cover the time required (a plus because you gain respect, and now this client might come back in the future when they have a larger budget, because they know you mean business, or they might recommend you to someone else). Now you would’ve been free to take on client Y’s project.

But, what if client Y never comes along? What if you had turned down client X and then been without work for that week?

You could use that time to invest in yourself.

You could invest that time in learning something new that might expand your abilities and increase your value. You could hack on a passion-project (which usually end up being the biggest successes).

You could spend that time working on recurring income such as an ebook or digital downloadable content.

It’s all a matter of correctly valuing your time, and always being cognizant of how that value increases over time. With every project you work on you become more experienced. You might not necessarily want to increase your rate with every successful project launched (although you could), but you most definitely do want to keep track of who and what you are committing your time to.

Always be honest and try not to burn bridges when declining a project.

Show your humility and use this opportunity to reinforce your network.

If you’re presented with a project that’s outside of your comfort zone, take the time to clarify what it is specifically you do and maybe set them up with another reliable freelancer (or maybe even team up with another creative who can help).

Just because you’re declining the project, doesn’t mean you need to decline the relationship.

I’m a freelancer, not your full-time employee

As an example from my own experiences, late last year I turned down what otherwise could have been a great project to work on. At first, the opportunity seemed perfect.

The work was for a creative firm who had a large named client, and they needed the help of a handful of freelance graphic designers.

The project required me to work remotely on the UI and iconography of this project.

I set up a few calls and they were interested in working with me!

At the same time I was negotiating my position into this project, a local business reached out to me for help.

At this point I needed to choose between the two and I had my sights on this larger project.

After politely turning down the local client, I continued to work out the details for the other.

I found out that this large project was going to be about three months of work, and that I wouldn’t have had time to take on other projects.

When it came time to start the work they asked for me to come into their offices to meet. I didn’t have a problem with this, but then they said that they’re going to need me to commute at least 4 days out of the week to have project meetings…

Although the work seemed amazing, here’s what the project required: I’d have to put all of my current and future projects on hold for the duration of this work and I’d have to commute over two hours, 4 days out of the week for group meetings.

For the duration of the three months I’d essentially be this firm’s temporary employee.

Here’s where the alarm in my head started going off!

I took the next few days to reconsider this project.

Did I want to put my freelance business on hold to become a temporary employee for some firm?…

The answer to that is NO!

Although my freelance career is just myself, it’s still MY business.

I had current clients as well as other opportunities that I felt were more aligned with my business goals. Although the money and experience sounded great, I’m not willing to shut down my business to be someone else’s temporary employee.

I made my decision and here’s how I responded:

Hi [Creative Firm],

I hope all has been well.

Over the past week I’ve received a few other project offers, which I believe are more closely aligned with my business goals. Therefore, although it was a difficult decision, I must decline this opportunity to work with [Creative Firm].

I really do appreciate all of the time you and the others have taken to talk with me, and I wish everyone the best.

If you ever need help with smaller design projects, you can always feel free to shoot me an email or give me a call.

Again, thank you for the opportunity and your time.

[Email Signature]

After getting a very polite email back thanking me for my honesty and best wishes for my future projects, I reached back out to that local client and we started working together!

That’s my experience, What about you?

Have you ever had to turn down a project?

I’d love to read about your personal experiences in the comments on this post! Leave a comment and let’s talk!

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This article first appeared in Penn State News.

In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, Ask the Ethicist, aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website. 

Question: My boss asked me to create a marketing campaign for a new client, but the client’s environmental record is poor. Sustainability and protecting the environment is something that I am extremely passionate about. I’m worried that saying “no” to the assignment will upset my boss. Should I go against my morals and complete the assignment since it’s my job or should I stick with my instincts and say no?

The ethicist responds: The decision to turn down a work assignment can generate anxiety for an employee, especially for a young person or someone who is new to a company. On one hand, you may fear that refusing the assignment will limit your future promotions or other opportunities with the company. Your fears have some grounding. Bosses sometimes see this kind of decision as a lack of loyalty to the company or an unwillingness to be flexible to meet the needs of the company.

On the other hand, taking the assignment may mean constant internal struggle as you make decisions to promote a company that does not match your values. You may feel that you are “selling out” or you may worry that down the road you’ll be asked to do something that you object to even more.

Situations like this are common in the work world, particularly in consulting firms and agencies, which frequently add new clients and rotate employees onto different accounts. You may be asked to work on a project that makes you feel uncomfortable, or the client may promote a social issue that you disagree with.

New employees want to demonstrate that they have what it takes to do well in the job. This also happens in the classroom when a professor integrates engaged scholarship into the course work by assigning students to consult with local businesses and nonprofits. Professors typically choose clients that are not objectionable to students, but sometimes a student’s personal beliefs do not match the client’s work.

Many consulting firms and agencies have an “opt out” policy that allows employees to choose not to work with a specific client because of personal or religious beliefs that disagree with a client’s stand. You should not be afraid to take this option. If your company does not have a policy, you still have the option to approach your boss to discuss your concerns about the client. You may find that other employees also feel apprehension about the client. As a practice, when researching potential employers, you should try to determine if they have this kind of policy.

At the end of the day, you will be the one to decide whether you are willing to take on the client's work. If you accept the assignment, you should honor your commitment and complete the work, unless progressively more unreasonable requests are made or you encounter information that creates additional ethical questions. If you decline the assignment, you will need to accept any career consequences that you face, but you should have confidence because you stood up for what you believed in, and likely, you will gain the respect of your peers for taking a stand. Your career will be long, and you may face similar decisions at times. Deciding what you believe in and what you are willing to compromise on early will allow you to live with integrity.

Interested in learning more about addressing ethical issues in the workplace? Visit the Arthur W. Page Center’s lesson on ethical issues. Faculty who wish to contribute to ethics curriculum development can learn more through our Call for Grant Proposals.

Denise Bortree is the director of the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication and an associate professor of advertising and public relations in the College of Communications

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