The Renegade Writer

Just Say No: When, How and Why You Should Turn Down Work

This is a guest post by Susan Goldberg. Thanks, Susan!

As freelancers, most of the business development literature we read talks about how to get and retain great jobs. Less often do we talk about how to tactfully turn down work — and why doing so may actually strengthen client relationships and boost your career.

My longest-term client is, not coincidentally, one of my best clients. It’s a national professional organization that puts out two magazines plus lots of web content. They’re friendly, they pay well and promptly, they provide me with a steady stream of work, and the assignments are generally interesting.

Recently, though, they asked me to profile one of their members, an executive at a well-known, multinational retailer that shall remain nameless. The retailer has a number of controversial business practices, ones that I personally disagree with to the point that I won’t shop in their stores.

And yet, I admit I thought about taking the job. After all, I reasoned, not to do so would be to inconvenience my long-term client. I also worried that it would reflect badly on me: too fussy? Too principled? Maybe, I thought, I could just hold my nose and write something more or less innocuous and then forget all about it.

Except I couldn’t. And the more I thought about it, I realized that taking on this job wouldn’t be good for me or my client. Sure, I would find the project stressful and, likely, infuriating, and I’d feel like a sellout for, however subtly, advocating for the company by portraying their executive in a decent, or even neutral, light.

And, of course, I wouldn’t be able to simply forget all about it: the article would be online, with my name attached to it. In perpetuity.

But my client would suffer too: they wouldn’t receive my best work.

So I turned down the job. Here’s the e-mail I wrote to my editor (details changed to protect the not-so-innocent):

Hi [Fabulous Editor],

I’ve been thinking about the assignment to profile John Doe of Acme Corporation Canada, and I’ve come to the realization that I don’t think I’m the writer for the job.

I realize that Acme has done some very positive things around X, Y and Z, but I have too many personal objections to some of their other business practices and anti-union stance to be able to write an unbiased piece on the company or its employees.

I apologize for not discussing this sooner with you. I hope you understand — I always enjoy working with you and writing for [Fabulous Client], and I want to make sure that I can always do my best work for you. So, on that basis, I think it makes sense for me to turn down this particular job. I’d be happy to write about a different company/executive, and, of course, will understand if you prefer to simply assign this piece to a different writer.

Thanks very much.

Sincerely,
Susan

Instead of feeling nervous after hitting “send,” I felt relief. In my gut, I knew I’d made the right decision. That gut feeling was corroborated by the e-mail I got — within minutes — from my editor in return:

Susan:

If you’re not comfortable with the subject matter, by all means you can turn down the job. In fact, I appreciate your honesty and your unwillingness to compromise the quality of the piece. It doesn’t create any problems: this was to run in our summer issue and there’s lots of time to assign someone else or move on to another subject.

Thanks again! Always a pleasure working with you.

[Fabulous Editor]

As freelancers, most of the business development literature we read talks about how to get and retain great jobs. Less often do we talk about how to tactfully turn down work — and why doing so may actually strengthen client relationships and boost your career. But it’s a crucial conversation to have: we all need to know our ethical limits, and how to tactfully and effectively respect them.

So, how can you turn a potentially dismal situation into a chance to strengthen a client relationship? In your communications with your editor, keep the following in mind:

  • Don’t justify or defend your position at length. This isn’t the place to argue your case or talk politics. It’s enough to simply state that your feelings on the subject are so strong that you won’t be able to provide an unbiased piece for your editor. This approach avoids pitting you against your editor if he has opposing views to yours, and avoids putting him on the defensive for having suggested the piece in the first place.
  • Emphasize your good relationship with the client. Let your editor know, sincerely, that you do regret having to turn down this particular assignment, because you always enjoy working with her. Let her know that you appreciate the fact that your strong relationship allows you this kind of candor.
  • Emphasize your professionalism. Make it clear that you’ve made this decision because it’s important to you to do your best possible work for this client, and that you won’t be able to do your best work when writing about this subject. Again, the focus isn’t on your opinion about the topic, but rather about what a professional you are and your high standards and regard for your client.
  • Don’t inconvenience your editor. Make your decision quickly, and allow for lots of time for your client to find another writer or assign a different topic to you. (Better yet, suggest an alternative!) Writers turn down assignments all the time, for a variety of reasons, and editors usually have a stable of backup writers to turn to next. As long as they have enough time, they will be fine.

If you pull it off, you come across as pleasant, principled, reliable and professional. What’s more, turning down a job conveys that you aren’t desperate for work, which adds to your credibility as a successful professional.

What if, despite following all the above guidelines, you still get a negative response from your editor? That’s bad luck. But it may also signal that your editor isn’t a particularly pleasant or ethical person to work with, anyway. Maybe you’d be better off cutting ties with that particular organization in order to develop relationships with ones who respect their writers’ limits and appreciate their commitment to providing them with the best possible copy.

What if you’re broke and desperate for the work? That’s a tough one. Consider whether you can actually afford the extra investment of time and (emotional) energy this project will take, or if you may be able to use some of that extra time and energy to market yourself, write a different query, and dredge up a different job while eating Ramen noodles for a couple of weeks.

At least, you’ll be able to sleep at night.

Susan Goldberg is a freelance writer and editor based in Thunder Bay, Ontario. She is coeditor of the anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents and Our Unexpected Families, and blogs at www.mamanongrata.com.

Feb 7, 2011 Advice, Editors, Ethics

14 Responses

  1. Rebecca says:

    The key is to be honest with yourself. If you take an assignment because of money or the relationship, the integrity of the work will suffer. It’s not fair to you or the client. Honesty is the best policy. Use tact and diplomacy and you won’t have a problem when you turn down an assignment.

  2. Star says:

    I have done this–it doesn’t always turn out this well. Just sayin’.

  3. JanO says:

    Great stuff. Last week, I posted my own story of turning work down professionally and politely (http://www.janodaniel.com/2011/01/turning-down-freelance-work/), but I appreciate the practicality of this post. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Howard Baldwin says:

    This is a load of hooey. Every single corporate client I have has been accused of something bad in the last year. Sometimes it’s unethical; sometimes it’s illegal; sometimes it’s just stupidity. But if I kept track of every potential subject’s shortcomings, and turned down work because of it, I’d be sitting here twiddling my thumbs.

    If you don’t believe me, do a little Googling about your *favorite* companies, the people you’d love to write about. You’ll be horrified by some of the things you find, because everybody’s screwed up, including we writers and journalists. People (especially freelancers) who live in glass houses …

    • Hey Howard,

      I agree with you – it would be hard to find a corporate (or, for that matter, noncorporate) client with an entirely clean record. I’m not suggesting that freelancers spend all their time tracking clients’ shortcomings and turning work down because of them. What I am suggesting is that if a particular job or client really triggers your personal ethical watchdog, then you may consider whether you’ll be able to do your best work on the job. I’ve taken on other assignments on topics (agribusiness, cosmetic surgery) that don’t thrill me, but not to the extent that I would have cringed the entire time and written something below my usual standards. Hope that helps clarify things.

  5. Nancy says:

    Great article and interesting feedback from your readers! I really respect the client for her response to you, Linda. It shows you are dealing with someone who is reasonable and in touch with the real world. Thanks for the post.

  6. John Soares says:

    Susan, most of my freelance work is for large textbook publishers, and I’m very comfortable ethically with the work I do. Last week I was contacted by a small private corporation to write testing materials for their online certification programs.

    I wasn’t comfortable with the company’s line of business, so I politely stated that I had too many other project on my plate right now.

    • Good point, John, as the comment from FinallyFast reiterates below – sometimes a polite, “I’m sorry, but I’m too busy to take this one on,” will suffice. Especially when you’re not sure if you’re going to get a decent response, and/or you don’t have a solid relationship with your client. Thanks for the perspective.

  7. I think your approach is tactful and full of integrity and if I was very comfortable with an editor or client, the way you appear to be with the editor mentioned in your post, I would feel totally comfortable turning down a project for moral reasons…but in any other situation I think I would have to take John Soares’ approach. A full plate is a rock solid alibi and gives the impression that your work is good and you’re in demand. The editor can’t fault you for that…and they might even offer more money for the piece!

  8. As I said above in the response to John, very good point – but would you take on the job if they offered more money? ;-)

    • I think it would be very much dependent on how opposed to my values the piece would be and how busy I actually was. I want to think that I’m values driven enough that I would turn it down even in the face of more money. If I was put in your exact place, I think I would definitely turn the work down even if offered more money. I’m not a fan of conglomerate wrong doing in any way and I can’t see myself writing a positive piece for a Bank Of America or Walmart exec of any sort. I just don’t feel that I could be objective.

  9. Laura says:

    I’ll take your word for it. You really did make the right decision. Words cannot describe how relieved I am to have read this post. Most people would be scared to turn down an assigned job especially if they have already created a great professional relationship but then again, if you don’t turn down an assignment knowing you can’t make the best out of your ability and out of it, it could cost that type of relationship you have with them.

    Once again, thank you.

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