In the movies, the heroes decide whether to do the right thing, or take the money and run. Our decisions in freelancing can often look similar: Do I take the lucrative blogging gig, even though the client makes me queasy? Or do I starve with integrity? If you’re going to have a successful career as a freelance blogger, you should know right now that this is a false dichotomy.
Reaching your maximum earning potential and maintaining your professional integrity is NOT an either/or proposition. In fact, acting with integrity is actually the best way to earn the most money. It’s true—the top earners in this industry are the ones who stick by their values, whether they’re rolling in clients at the moment or not.
The fact is, acting with integrity is the best way to ensure that you are working with the right kind of clients, and earn the kind of reputation that keeps them coming in droves. Let’s take a look at how we ended up buying into this lie that you can either have your integrity, or financial success.
Why Do We Think It’s Either/Or?
Our culture has a weird guilt about earning well. That might seem nuts—we appear to idolize the young and wealthy social climbers of the world. But do we, really? Or deep down, do we equate being rich with being greedy and immoral? When we think about our businesses, we eventually come to think that you need to choose to either be evil magnate Lex Luthor, or humble reporter Clark Kent.
The reason for this is either/or thinking is often a symptom of just being a young business. When you’re starting out, you probably won’t have more than enough gigs to choose from. Turning down bad gigs, therefore, means losing out on the money outright. But keep in mind: this will only be true in the beginning of your career.
I had a potential client lined up recently who was offering lots of work at good rates–but was a dumpster fire of a person. In one meeting, he managed to insult my religion, degrade people with mental health issues, and imply that women earn less because they take so many days off because of their periods. Yes, really.
The problem was, I had just lost my biggest blogging contract, and I was desperate for work. I was sorely tempted to ignore his many issues and just take the paycheck. I even planned a follow-up phone call with him after escaping the meeting, which felt more like a hostage situation than a business sit-down. I really struggled with a decision, agonizing over whether or not to call it off, and how to do it. When I first started freelancing, I told myself that I would never shy away from writing about my politics for fear of offending someone, because I felt that if someone wasn’t cool with me being a feminist or an advocate for mental health, then I didn’t want to write for them. Now that decision was staring me in the face. If I wrote for this guy, knowing about his misogyny and phobias, could I say that I had upheld my own standards? On the other hand—rent.
I got in touch with my network of freelancers in a Facebook group, who were all aghast at the guy’s behavior, and they advised me to run, not walk away. I came to realize that I was framing the question all wrong–it wasn’t “can I afford to act on my principles”, it was “can I afford not to?”
Why “Shady Practices” and “Earning Well” Rarely Go Together in Reality
Here’s the thing about the clients who promise big payouts but ask you to ignore too much. Who’s more likely to come through on a deal—the client who acts professionally, treats you with respect, and makes their expectations clear? Or the guy who can’t handle a simple meeting without making his opinions on Catholics known and sharing his genius theories about the gender pay gap? The client I was considering was a startup that was looking for more venture funding. I realized that if this guy couldn’t handle one meeting with a freelance blogger without going off the deep end, how was he going to act in front of his next potential investor?
The same principle goes for other types of sleazeball behavior. If you’re uncomfortable with a client’s ethics or the way they treat others, know that you aren’t privileged. A client who disrespects others will inevitably do the same to you when it suits them. It’s just like getting into a relationship with someone who’s already spoken for—you already know their policy on cheating, and you can’t assume that you’ll be the exception.
Affording Your Principles
It’s easy to justify ignoring your integrity in the short term until you can “afford” to be choosy in the future. This is the wrong way of thinking. Bad work tends to beget more bad work. Many of your future blogging clients will come from contacts that you make with your current ones, so the network you build now matters. That’s also the reason why you shouldn’t accept lousy rates or predatory contracts, even when you’re first starting out. That only puts you in the position to accept more lousy rates and more bad contracts down the line. The obverse is true, as well—good clients tend to beget more good clients, and with them, good rates.
Ignoring your business integrity will always have consequences, and they may be expensive ones. Acting in a shady way can get you a bad reputation as a freelancer, or it can expose you to the risk of lawsuits or other penalties. No matter how hard up for work you are, it’s never worth it.
Instead of trying to decide whether acting with integrity is worth the financial loss, think of it instead as a business investment. Your freelance blogging career is YOUR business, and you get to decide how it is run. Many of us left our full-time gigs specifically because we wanted to leave shady businesses behind. Don’t allow yourself to recreate that toxic culture in your own business out of some misguided notion that you can’t “afford” to act with integrity. The best earners in this business are the ones who act like professionals, and stick to their guns.
The Integrity Checklist
Here’s a handy list of questions to ask yourself while you’re considering establishing a business relationship with a new client. Run through this checklist every time you do a business deal or start a new gig, and you’ll come through with your integrity and reputation intact.
- The gut check—how does this new client or gig make me feel instinctively, before I start rationalizing the pros and cons? Am I excited or a bit queasy right off the bat?
- Has the client thrown up any red flags? Have they done or said anything to indicate that they may not treat others with integrity? Do they hold any beliefs that are contrary to my values?
- If this deal fell through without you having to make a decision and through no fault of your own, how would you feel about that? Would you be sorely disappointed, or the least bit relieved?
- Would I want the writing I do for this gig to be visible to every future potential client? Or am I considering omitting it from my portfolio and not sharing it to any of my social networks?
So, acting with consistency and integrity while you run your freelance blogging career pays off in the long and short term. Acting according to your values will limit your risk of dealing with predatory clients, of garnering a bad reputation that scares the good clients off, and of possibly exposing yourself to lawsuits or fines for shady behavior. Instead, your good reputation will attract the kind of clients that you actually want to work with—honest, and willing to pay for what good work is worth.
Drop me a line in the comments if you’ve had an experience in your own career that showed how sticking to your guns paid off in the long run!