I just turned down a lucrative contract because in my heart I’m ethically opposed to the company’s corporate owners.
When I was first contacted by their director of engineering, I had a negative gut feeling that it just “wasn’t me,” but I put off the concern in an effort to challenge my assumptions. I wanted to explore whether I actually understood the implications of their work before judging them. Also, I’m not going to lie, the money was pretty attractive.
The proposal process went further than I had anticipated it would, and I failed to do the due diligence necessary to evaluate the company’s ethics prior to implying that I was interested in the gig. At the 11th hour, I backed out. I no doubt burned that bridge (not that it was one I necessarily wanted), but what I really regret is that I put someone in a bad position with their superiors. I had acted foolishly by denying my true feelings from day one.
Why am I telling you this story? Because despite the missteps I took in getting there, I ultimately made the right decision for myself and felt relieved once I admitted the truth.
Of course I wish I’d handled the situation with greater maturity, but in the end I fought one of my worst flaws and I won: I didn’t follow through with something I felt was wrong just to save face. I’ve done it before and I’ve regretted it every time. I promised myself I’d never do it again, and I stuck to it.
The next time I’m at this crossroads, I will own up to the truth sooner and present myself honestly. Not only because of the pain and frustration it causes others when I don’t, but because I owe it to myself to never compromise my morals. It’s a slippery slope once you do.
“You have a responsibility to the community at large to make sure that what you’re signing up to design is worth being designed. That’s right, kids: I’m interjecting ethics into the mix. You are responsible for the work you put into the world.”
— Mike Monteiro, Design is a Job [book website]
When have you been in an ethical dilemma on a project and how did you handle it?
What would you have done in my situation?
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Matt Convente says
I think you did the completely right thing. People have to be comfortable and confident in our work, and if it doesn’t feel right then it’s best not to do it. Luckily, I’ve never had to turn down work that conflicted with my values, but there are companies I would not take work from if I were a fulltime freelancer.
However, I have been in the middle of a sticky work situation that left me physically affected. I generally don’t like to let people down, and in my situation someone was going to be let down. It was really stressful. In the end it all worked out, though.
I’ve thought about the age-old “never burn a bridge” adage, but I’ve modified it for modern times and me personally:
You never want to burn a bridge, but sometimes you have to burn a lane of traffic.
Matt, I like your modified saying and think it fits the world we live in now where so many connections are possible. We can’t possibly maintain all of them. But that shouldn’t give us permission to disrespect people. I hope by sharing my experiences, we can all think a little harder about the best way to conduct ourselves in tricky situations like these. Thanks for your comment!
Brian Van says
I think you did the right thing here, and I don’t think you ought to feel terrible about it. Sometimes, it just takes more time than you’d like to really reflect on a situation and make a decision. It was tricky in this case, because you were trying to be fair to the client and fair to yourself and things moved ahead too fast for you to stop and think about the commitment you were about to take on. Sometimes the client has to take responsibility for that too, because it’s a collaborative process. Your own personal mistakes aside, I’m sure the client was so hyperfocused on the job at-hand that they were not at all considerate of the ethical or human elements of the relationship. All considered, I wouldn’t worry about a burned bridge here. This is an unworkable relationship to begin with, and the setbacks they’re facing are inherent to the approach that they take with their work and relationships.
Thank you for the reinforcement, Brian!
You’ve mentioned you should have put more effort into due diligence – what would you change for the next time?
I agree with you – you made the right decision, but you probably should have made it a bit earlier (not that I know the specific details of how fast that process progressed!)
But it is a tough thing to judge – keeping an open mind but also making sure you do the work that’s right for you. I’m not sure how to judge that at the beginning of a client relationship, so I’m interested in how you would do things differently now.
Rachel, what I would do differently if given the chance is express my concerns from day 1. Not necessarily turned down the gig immediately, not necessarily prevented the conversations from progressing as they did. But by voicing my hesitation, it would have properly set the client’s expectations that I needed time to assess the situation. Instead I was going through a mental process he knew nothing about. We aren’t mind-readers. He could only go on what I was telling him, and with each additional communication, he felt like we were getting closer to go. I wasn’t. That was my huge mistake.