When you and a client fundamentally disagree

Years ago, a nonprofit approached me about some work on its magazine. I was surprised and briefly conflicted: I welcome new clients, and the work was simple; on the other hand, the nonprofit promotes a viewpoint to which I am diametrically opposed. It was only proofreading, though – I wouldn’t be furthering the cause – and adding its name could help my resume look philosophically balanced. So I took the job.

The name is rarely on my resume now, but the dilemma looms larger with a newer client. Not long ago I had the opportunity to do a great deal of work for a nationally prominent organization. The contract offered creative expression, improved skills, and the chance to try some new areas of marketing. I’d only vaguely heard of the organization’s off-center reputation.

As I delved into this enormous project, that vague “rumor” slowly became more of a question, then a strong suspicion. Suddenly, perhaps 10 days into the assignment, something major happened in the news. Rattled, I mentioned it to a contact at the organization. “Oh yes,” she said casually, “that was ours.” The organization, to my horror, had helped orchestrate an event that changed history.

I wanted to scrub my hands – but this organization had filled my dance card, and the dance was fulfilling. Was this a case of public accommodation, take all comers, “will write / edit / strategize for food”? Or would potential clients I liked give me the hairy eyeball because of my association with this one?

For perspective, I turned to fellow members of LinkEds & Writers, a LinkedIn discussion group. “Ever fundamentally / philosophically disagree with a client?” I wrote. “I don’t mean over an assignment. Do you refuse work from a company/organization you can’t abide? Do you turn down work once you realize a client stands for everything you don’t – morally, politically, ethically, etc.? Do you figure everyone’s money’s green and just leave the ‘bad’ ones off your resume? Or have you decided that a diverse client list is a good client list?”

This brought dozens of interesting responses. People have turned down (or not renewed) work on objectionable political campaigns, on pornography, for fracking companies and defense contractors, and for individuals who were misogynistic, homophobic, and / or xenophobic. Other thoughts:

—You can separate private views from professional duty … “If it’s a matter of certain people at a particular company whose philosophies (generically speaking) I am at odds with, I find that it doesn’t affect my ability to do the work. In fact, if I get assignments with content that I am opposed to (for whatever reason), I find that I often do a better job with the substantial editing portions as I’m more likely to be critical of the content / how it’s worded.”

—Or use them as contrast … “I frequently play devil’s advocate, questioning the validity of ideas I don’t agree with in nonfiction work. My questions sometimes lead to fascinating exchanges with my clients, in one case new insights and whole new direction for the author. But those kinds of questions are usually ignored. :-)”

—Or place the client along a continuum … “I prefer to work for companies and organizations that share my basic values and social and political views, and these are the accounts I actively pursue. However I will and have represented clients that have different social and political views than mine as long their conduct is ethical and their goals do not conflict with my fundamental beliefs. So, for instance, I can work for moderate Republicans even though I am a Democrat, but I will not work for an organization that is racist or opposes a woman’s right to choose, to cite just two examples.”

—Or draw a line you will not cross. “Yes, a couple of time I’ve had to ‘not take on’ clients whose products or systems with which I did not ethically or morally agree. When job discussions got to a point where I understood what was what, I said ‘I realize that I won’t be a good fit to work on this project with you.’ That was that.”

—You are your own boss; you decide. “Part of the reason I have my own business is so I can decide what I do and what I stand for. That means that I do turn down assignments and clients who I morally, ethically, politically, etc., disagree with. At the end of the day, when I look in the mirror, I need to be able to look myself in the eye. And that has nothing to do with a ‘diverse’ client list – I’ve done content for financial people, restaurants, yoga instructor, lawyers, and more.”

—It helps to have multiple specialties or clients. “I don’t see that having a diverse client list and refusing work from clients who you philosophically don’t agree with is a mutually exclusive proposition. Part of the benefit of having a diverse client list is having the ability to turn down work from those you don’t agree with or don’t respect.”

—Sometimes needs have to balance with wants. “Honestly, how willing I am to turn down work depends on how hungry I am at the moment. So far I’ve only ever turned down one job based on a political disagreement (a book praising a presidential candidate who had recently said or done something even more reprehensible than usual for him). If I’d been desperate, I would’ve taken it anyway, and I still would’ve been able to look at myself in the mirror – the candidate didn’t have a chance of winning. But it was nice to be able to say no.”

—You can also decide what to do with your clips. “If you’re concerned about what other potential clients would think, can you skip using it as a sample? We pick and choose what samples to show all the time. Is it possible for you to not use this one without the absence causing you problems?”

Ultimately, as one poster put it, “I would have to think long and hard about how important my convictions are to me, what the possible damage to my reputation and career might be, and what the damage to my self-respect would be before deciding how to handle the situation.”

That’s what it came down to for me. The project is done, the contract complete. Now it’s up to me to scan my resume each time it goes out and decide whether to include this client. I consider before every meeting whether to include certain pieces in my portfolio or to explain them in context. I can honestly tell people that the massive project was a worthwhile learning experience and had many benefits. One of those benefits is that I can make a different choice the next time around.

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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