How To Handle Ethical Disagreements With Your Clients

Sometimes, you may get a client who wants you to do something that you’re just not comfortable with. We all want to please our clients, but how do you please a client who, say, really wants you to directly copy another company’s logo design or sales copy? Or who wants you to do something malicious to a competitor’s online reputation, Google ranking, et cetera?

It doesn’t matter what the unethical thing is or your reason for not wanting to do it – it’s always a pain to deal with and handle in a professional and courteous manner. Luckily, there is a reliable process many freelancers can use to stop these types of clients from getting out of control, and often prevent ethical issues from coming up in the first place.

Opting Out

First, it’s important to remember that the best option in situations like these is to simply have more options and avoid these types of projects altogether. Clients who are shady are almost always more trouble than they’re worth, and if the unethical activity can be traced back to you in any way, you’ll find yourself with more trouble on your hands than you ever wanted.

If you have other potential clients you can work with, you can simply fire these bad apples and send them (politely) on their way things start to get moldy. But how do you determine who’s on the level before you take on a project?

Spotting The Red Flags

Many times, you can use your natural intuition to determine whether or not a client will present ethical dilemmas before you begin working with them. It can be as simple as a “vibe” – just a weird feeling you get when talking to them, or the dodgy way in which they answer your questions.

I’ve turned down work from clients before who just had an oddness about them that I couldn’t explain. I didn’t know why they made me uncomfortable; simply that they did and I wanted nothing to do with their project. In more than one case, I found out later that they were, in fact, up to no good. Freelancer: 1, disaster: 0.

Other times, it can be the type of work a client asks you to do that sets off the alarm bells. Reputation management, radical brand redesigns, or conflict de-escalation with third parties like angry customers or threatening competitors, while not unethical by themselves, can be signs that your client might want to handle these problems in ways that aren’t entirely above board.

Use your judgement and listen to your gut when deciding which projects to take on. It might seem silly to turn away a client just from a feeling, but it can save you potentially years of headaches and legal problems. Plus, word to the wise: it’s often these kinds of clients who provide the biggest issues when it comes to payment as well.

Remember You’re The Expert

Sometimes, a request for something unethical can truly come out of nowhere. Everything is going fine, then suddenly your client springs a rotten request on you that you’re not sure how to handle.

In these situations, it’s likely that your client is less likely to be a crook, and more likely to simply be misguided on the direction they should be taking with the project. They see what’s working for their competitors, and they decide it’s not worth tampering with what’s clearly a winning formula. In other words, they have the right general idea, but need some help executing it in an original way.

It’s important to remind these types of clients – and yourself – that you were hired to apply your professional expertise to solve their business problems. Don’t be afraid to challenge your client’s assumptions as to what will be truly effective and why.

Point them to results you’ve achieved in the past that will show them that there are many ways to approach the dilemma that won’t violate anyone else’s intellectual property rights. Don’t just send them a new round of comps or revisions – take the time to explain what works, what doesn’t, and what will help them avoid a lawsuit.

Saying ‘I Told You So’

Ah, yes. Gloating. It’s not just for schoolchildren anymore. If you’ve done everything you can to convince a client to do the right thing, and they still refuse to see reason, it’s essential to be able to release yourself from liability if and when something goes horribly wrong. Here’s where having a record of all communication comes in handy.

Even if most of your exchange with the client happens in person and over the phone, always make transcribed copies of your recommendations, requests, and warnings, and ask the client to sign off or verify them via email.

Keep records of all the advice you provide and send a copy to your client, even if they end up completely ignoring you. That way, when their idea fails miserably, you can whip out your notes and show them that you warned them. Besides being satisfying to get a little revenge on a stubborn client, it makes it impossible for the client to hold you responsible for their poor behavior.

Hopefully, this will convince them that it’s always better to do things the right way rather than treading on someone else’s rights, but if not, at least you can walk away with a clean conscience and warn other freelancers you know to avoid that client at all costs.

What Do You Think?

Have you ever dealt with an unethical request from a client? What strategies worked for you when dealing with the outcome? Comment and let us know!


  • Luke Pettway

    This may not handle every situation but having a clause in your contracts that stipulates data handling and security can save you a lot of trouble. We ran into this a lot at a place I was working at a while ago that handled medical data occasionally and clients always wanted to shortcut handling that data.

    After dealing with that same type of situation so much we finally decided we would add terms in our agreements that stated the minimal acceptable levels of data handling, encryption, passwords, and anything else that could be a HIPAA violation. There were also similar rules for dealing with PCI compliance too, like not allowing credit cards to be sent in forms.

    It’s important to remember that you can be just as liable for damages caused by not following certain compliance laws as much as your client can.

  • karks88

    Good advice! I did get in a situation with an unethical person and was just thankful to get out of it without too much damage. Sometimes you just need a sixth sense about the type of person you’re dealing with. Don’t be afraid to do a bit of searching on them to see if you can get any helpful information.

  • klevisi

    I like that you mentioned “follow you gut” as I follow my gut most of the time.

  • I have been caught by a client just copying content from a competitors website. I suspected that it may have been lifted … there were still links in it. I did politely point out that we couldn’t just copy someone else’s content but they wanted to push ahead anyway. Not surprisingly when they were threatened with legal action, it was me who got the call on a Sunday to take content down urgently! A Sunday call was annoying but I think we both got off lightly. Needless to say this was indicative of how they conducted themselves generally and thankfully I no longer work with them.