Home | 2017-05-18 | (c)2017 James Hudson

City skyline

Tweet Follow @JamesSHudson RSS Feed

Freelancers' Code of Ethics

If you are a freelancer, by definition you are on your own. Nobody gave you on-the-job training, and you have no colleagues to advise you how to behave, or pull you into line. In fact, if you are just starting out and taking any work you can find on Craigslist, you are likely to find yourself amongst some terrible examples of human nature. I've been doing this for a while, and now hire freelancers myself, so share I'll some insights I've picked up by trial and error.

Note that I have only worked in the IT and arts industries, and these fields have their own peculiarities and etiquette. I'm also not a lawyer or tax advisor, so don't take my advice on those matters; talk to one if you have any specific questions about the legality of your business. I'm also no saint and I make mistakes; so have a good think about what has made you feel good or bad when dealing with other businesses in the past, and make your own mental list.

Reputation and trust

Business relationships are like all relationships: without trust, they are over. If I ever screwed up big-time and didn't resolve issues with a customer, I think it would be the end of my freelancing career. Everybody makes mistakes, but it takes personality problems to escalate professional negotiations into a bitter feud.

I am super-conservative when it comes to business integrity, not just because it's the right thing to do, but because I would never work again as a freelancer otherwise. It's a small world, and bad stories spread faster than good reputation.

Don't overcharge.

Anyone running a business successful enough to be able to hire freelancers is not an idiot. They have strangers contacting them every day trying to rip them off and overcharge them. If you try to overcharge them, they will quickly realise.

If you made a mistake with your estimation and the project is running under budget, use the extra time doing bonus work and then your customers will be happy that you overcharged!

Don't cut the business paying you out of a deal.

You will often find yourself near the bottom of a food chain of contractors, where a small business hires you to work for a even bigger one.

Situations change, and it might make sense to work directly for the bigger company and “cut out the middle man”. However, you should first get the blessing of the business which directly hired you. They took the time to find you, and set up the deal with the big customer. It is totally up to them to negotiate your “handover” with the bigger company. Otherwise you are effectively stealing their customer.

This also goes for taking sales contacts from your customers. You will constantly get sales leads and meet potential customers through your work, which is completely fine; what I'm talking about is stealing the sales work of your customers or employer for your own benefit. I made a lot of industry contacts in my day job before I went freelance, but I avoided them when I started freelancing; I didn't want to compete directly with my old employers as soon as I quit. On the contrary, I still pass on potential customers to them.

Don't cheat on tax.

Roads, hospitals and educated kids are good. If you are dishonest and sloppy with paperwork it reflects badly on your business. Not to mention that the tax authorities have more legal power than the police to come after you.

Pay your invoices on time.

When invoices don't get paid on time, it hurts everyone and the effect ripples through the economy.

Imagine you have just ordered an important shipment of goods for your business, and the delivery person (who is also a friend of yours) is waiting with their credit card reader. Imagine the shame of begging them to let you pay later, because your own customers haven't paid their invoices on time and your business account is empty. This is what you are potentially doing to other businesses when you don't pay your own invoices on time.

Put a due date on all your invoices. Remind your customers politely if they miss an invoice, and chase them remorselessly.

Most importantly: Be nice and don't burn your bridges.

We are all helping each other to do new, amazing things together in business. It should be a happy experience, and like all personal interactions, the goal is that everyone should feel better after having them.

Don't badmouth customers or other industry players behind their backs. I think legitimate criticism is OK, if it can be backed up with facts, and balanced with the positive things they are doing. You never know when you will need to go back to a customer to get that invoice fixed for the tax office. Don't say anything about anyone that you wouldn't say to their face.

Secrecy and security

We are living in an information economy, and you need to take information security seriously, whatever your field.

Don't share anything you are working on, regardless of whether you have signed an NDA. Write what you are allowed to say into your contracts. I usually write that I can say that I worked on a project, and my customers can say that I worked on it, but only after the product is launched. When in doubt, get permission; otherwise stay quiet, and don't forward work emails or give unauthorised access to data.

How many of your customers' crown jewels do you have sitting in your computer and email? Make sure your laptop and phone are encrypted and password-protected to protect customer intellectual property and data. Use 2-factor authentication wherever possible.

No matter how much the customer pleads, just refuse to do anything blatantly dangerous, insecure, or invasive of users' privacy. For example, is it really necessary to send the exact location of a user back to a server, or can you “blur” the data so that they can only be pinpointed to the nearest city?

Standing up for yourself

Being a freelancer gives you power: in a capitalist world, businesses have more rights and respect than citizens, so treat yourself as a business,. However, you are also on your own, without a union, or any collective rights. You don't have anyone to turn to for advice, stand up for you against a big company, or cover you when you are sick or need a break.

You: "Sure, I can add these extra items to the contract - which features would you like to drop?"

Often, your customers will get lots of great ideas as they see your project progressing. Maybe the business environment has changed, and they need to switch plans. They might want to terminate your contract and abandon the project. You shouldn't treat a contract as being set in stone, but as a starting point for negotiating new terms. If customers want to add extras, make sure they understand you are happy to do it, but it will involve dropping other deliverables from the contract.

Don't argue over the fine points of the contract - it's a sign that communication has broken down, and nobody will walk away from it feeling like a winner, even if you won a battle over the wording of some sentence. The only end-goal should be everyone walking away from the deal happy.

Billing new customers: pay half on commencement, half on completion

This is fair, and a good starting point to build trust with new customers. Once you know and trust the customer, you can bill whichever way works best for both of you.

No business is better than bad business.

One of the joys of being a freelancer is being able to say “hell, no!” to a project, and going to the beach instead. One nice way of saying “no” to a contract, is to help the potential customer find someone else who can do the work.

A common reason why contract negotiations will stall is that your proposal is too expensive. If you are good at your profession, a potential customer would love you to be the one doing the work. However, they probably have a fixed budget, and you have quoted above that number. You can try dropping features from the proposal until you hit their budget - maybe they would be happier to split the project into smaller phases to reduce their risk?

If a customer is squeezing you too hard for discounts without compromising on the deliverables, it usually means one thing: they are having problems running their own business, and are competing on cost, not value. You don't want to join anyone on their race to the bottom, so walk away.

Doing extra work later

You should be paid for future maintenance work, and you should write a new proposal for it. The possibility of future work should also be mentioned in the initial proposal. I've had long-forgotten customers contact me years after I had completed a job, who expected me to blow the dust off it and do free work on it again.

Just tell them you'll prepare a new proposal if they want more work done on the project.

Credit where it's due

You should be allowed to take credit publicly for what you have done, so put reference rights in your contracts. This should be the default position, and if the customer wants to change this, it needs to be negotiated. Also make sure you always credit everyone involved with a project.

Look after yourself!

When you are running a business on your own, it can be hard to get away from the most demanding and intrusive boss in the world: you. You are never really “off duty”, so make an extra effort to look after your physical and mental health. Use the advantages and time flexibility of freelancing to look after yourself.

For example, by taking your laptop to the park.

Last words

There are countless, and prominent examples of people who cheated and backstabbed their way to the top. But there is also a silent majority of good people: those who help each other realise their dreams, make the shared journey into prosperity a joyful and exciting experience, can be counted on in challenging circumstances, and still get as far in the end. Who do you want to be?

James Hudson

Please write to me about your thoughts on ethics at work! Or at least "like" or "share" this post if you think others would appreciate it.

Tweet Follow @JamesSHudson RSS Feed


It's Monday morning, but I don't have to go to work. Ever again.
Become a Part-Time Superhuman: Work a 4-Hour-Day
Adequate is better than more: your life as the perfect kitchen
This is the Sales Manual you should have been given at graduation
I'll build your app to help you become independent. For free.
Why there is no Facebook killer: the death of the P2P dream
How to become a freelancer in Berlin: the tricks and the traps
How to write a proposal they can't refuse
Programming basics for everyone: how to try coding right now, and why you need to.
Poledancing versus programming: break away from your business and run it remotely.
The Freelancer's Code of Ethics: doing good, standing up for yourself, and not burning down the building.


Needless to say, this blog isn't financial or legal advice, an excuse for getting fired, or promising that any of these ideas will work for you. The companies or people I mention may not agree with my opinions here. Don't do anything reckless, damaging or hurtful to anyone! In the future you might need your bridges unburnt. (c)2014-2017 James Hudson