Freelancing Ethics - Turn them into your competitive advantage!

In the last few years, Freelancing has turned into a buzzword and you will see business gurus selling the idea to the masses as a silver bullet to solve all of their financial and career problems. In my humble opinion, freelancing has been marketed falsely because even though the ads you see online or some motivational speaker will tell you that you can make a quick buck by working only a few hours every day from home. It doesn’t work that way in real life. Freelancing can be a side hustle for many people but in reality, it is a full-fledged career with most freelancers working over 45 hours a week to make a living. 

So what exactly are Ethics and why do you need them? 

Ethics are moral principles embraced by a person or an organization that governs their actions and behavior towards other people, organizations and/or activities. 

Freelancing career is, in fact, running a tiny business and it requires a code of ethics just like any other business and its absence can be damaging for your business’s reputation and eventually its existence. Sticking to a code of ethics can turn into a competitive advantage and will also increase your productivity and business prospects.

Now let’s talk about the things you need to learn and practice to grow your freelancing career

1. Think about Legal vs. Moral Work 

There are projects or industries which are outright illegal or illegal in your region and then there are things which may be legal but won’t align with your own moral values. First thing first, don’t work for anything that is even borderline illegal. Also, you have to set boundaries and decide the projects/industries you absolutely won’t pick. 

For me, it means cigarette and alcohol brands, anything related to gambling, adult content, mortgage, and insurance, political parties, shady wellness products, and services, etc. 

2. Set and honor your terms 

For this, you need to set terms and for setting terms, I would recommend you to create a project charter or statement of work. Whenever you get a new project, create a project charter for the work you are being hired for. It is important to have your terms and deliverables in writing and then following through. Your project charter should have the following things. 

  • Project Requirements and Deliverables 
  • Timeline with milestones 
  • Cost and payment terms, including details on taxation
  • Risk and Dependencies 
  • Terms for contract termination 

Once you have everything documented and signed, honor the terms you have set and make sure your client does so too. If NDA is required for the project, please create, sign and honor that too. 

3. Dealing with problematic clients 

Finding problematic clients is inevitable in your career as a freelancer. You will work with at least one problematic client and handling them will require a whole lot of strength of character on your part. I would recommend you to create a screening process for yourself when meeting with new clients and look for certain clues, like complaining about everyone, asking for free services, previous history of filing dubious lawsuits, not signing a charter or NDA, or asking you to start working without setting expectations or price, having a history of nonpayment, etc. Another way of doing this is to run a background check on them, you can do that by reaching out to the people they work with or just stalking them online a bit. If you spot someone like this, no matter how good the money is, run in the opposite direction and never look back. 

If unfortunately, you have started a project with them, see if terminating the contract is the right thing to do. If yes, do it and refund them their money. 

Furthermore, in the case of nonpayment, I won’t recommend you to take that drama on social media unless the person disappears.

4. Understanding Conflict of Interest 

This also happens. Especially when you develop expertise in an industry, you will see clients who are competitors of each other will flock to you. The rule of thumb should be to be exclusive to one client at a time and raise your rates as you will be saying no to good business due to conflict of interest. Another thing to do is to put a timeline on NDA and/or exclusivity agreements. This will also help you in avoiding conflict of interest. 

5. Handling data protection, piracy, privacy, and intellectual property

The data you will receive from your clients for work should be stored, used and discarded properly. Don’t keep it for future use or for someone else’s project. Make sure you don’t keep it on a shared device or drive, keep it private and encrypted. Also, think about the work you are doing for the client, will it be their intellectual property or yours? Work these details out in your contracts or agreements to ensure your project completes without any disputes or hassle. You also need to make sure that you are giving due credit to the sources and are not using pirated tools or resources for completing your deliverables. 

6. Maintaining Transparency and Honesty 

Both transparency and honesty should be your key values when dealing with a client. You should be upfront about the scope of the work, dependencies, risks and the way you will be billing the client, which also indicates that you set categories for billable and nonbillable hours/work. What you should and shouldn’t bill must be decided mutually, for me, consulting meetings are billable but kickoff and final review meetings are nonbillable, also, most domain-specific research work is billable but if I am learning a new skill for the project, that is not billable. Create a process for tracking progress and creating and submitting milestones. Assume the role of a trusted confidant and advisor for your client so that you can help them navigate the project better and save them from impending failure. But be mindful that you are not overstepping your role. 

7. Outsourcing the work assigned to you

If the client doesn’t know about it, don’t do it, especially if it is something that falls under an NDA. Outsource after discussing it with the client and getting a go-ahead from them. In some cases, it becomes a necessity to have an extra pair of hands or eyes to get the work done, for example, in my work, I usually need a reviewer or a proofreader. If the work doesn’t fall under the NDA, I do get it reviewed by someone in my team or from my brother or husband. But again, it is important to tell the client about it. 

8. Estimates and timelines 

Estimation is a tricky game and perfecting your work estimation technique can take a bit longer than you anticipate (did you see what I did there?). So what should you do when sending out an estimate to your clients to ensure that you don’t have to ask them for more time or money at the 11th hour?

I have a few tips for you. 

  • When estimating, don’t estimate for best-case scenario or the worst-case scenario, average it out and do add a small cushion. 
  • Do think about weekends, public holidays and other things coming up and set timelines accordingly. 
  • Don’t confuse number of working hours with calendar days, these two are separate things, I may give a client an estimate of 8 hours but it doesn’t mean one calendar day, the timeline can be as short as a day or as long as 20 days or more, depending upon the type of work, my own schedule, and dependencies, 
  • I give my estimates in ranges, so it helps me meet my deadlines, usually, my estimates look like below. 
    • Rate: 75 USD per hour 
    • Estimate (in hours): 35 (plus/minus 5)
    • Total Cost (number of hours * hourly rate): 2250 – 3000 USD 
    • Timeline: 10 working days
    • Kick-off: 1st January 2020
    • Deadline: 15th January 2020
    • Milestones: 
    • Milestone 1 – Date: 
    • Milestone 2 – Date: 
    • Milestone 3 – Date: 
    • Milestone 4 – Date: 
    • Dependencies: 

So yes, meeting timelines and sticking to your initial estimates (provided that scope stays the same) shows your work ethics and establish a level of trust between you and your client. It also shows them that you are a person who likes to take ownership, which is an excellent professional trait. 

9. Stay in constant communication 

Over-communication is a myth and under-communication is a sin. 

Don’t ghost your clients and make sure you stay on top of the communication game by creating a protocol for your communication pattern. In my case, I have weekly status meetings, I also send out updates once I am done with my objective(s) of the week/sprint. In case of delays (due to whatever reason), make sure you tell them beforehand unless it is some unforeseen and unfortunate incident. Use a tool to collaborate and communicate and also to ensure that you have a record of all the communication that happened between you and your client and also a log of all the work you have done and the feedback you have received. The key values here at dependability, reliability and being organized. 

10. Undermining your competition 

Don’t ever do that, no matter what! 

Embracing better ethics for your work is not only good for your career but it also creates a better vibe and structure in your life. Your work ethics start creeping into your daily life and improves it immensely. On the other hand, you will also learn that following a Code of Ethics is easier than not following one and it will create better business opportunities for you. 

So these are the Freelancing Ethics that I have learned and integrated into the way I work. Do you have a more comprehensive list? Do share it with me. You can find me on Twitter!