Where do you draw the ethical line when it comes to taking freelance writing jobs from other writers? When do you take the gig and say "it's just business" and when do you make a financial sacrifice for someone else?
What is "Stealing" a Gig or Client?
First let's be clear about what I mean by "stealing." I'm not talking about two writers who happen to know each other bidding on the same gig where one of you will get it and the other won't. That's basic business. While there's nothing wrong with the occasional warm and fuzzy "colleagues; not competition" notion, the truth is that some of your colleagues are indeed your competition. You're going to compete occasionally. You'll win some. You'll lose some. That's life. The benefit of your competition being respected colleagues as well is that you'll both know that and move past that, and hopefully you'll be active members of each other's network through gig referrals and more.
When I say "stealing" a client or gig here, I'm talking about something a little more devious. Here's an example. Let's say that Bob works as a blogger for a large company. They're launching a secondary blog in another niche. Bob can't take it on (or it's not in his specialty area), but he knows the perfect writer for the job. He refers Diane. She gets the gig.
Diane charges less than Bob. However, she's also less experienced and doesn't specialize in the topic area of Bob's blogging gig. However, the client decides they're interested solely in price. They offer Diane Bob's gig in addition to the one she just signed on for (at Bob's recommendation). She knows that's Bob's gig, and that it's been a regular gig for him for months. She takes it anyway, and Bob loses the client.
The Ethics of "Stealing" Freelance Writing Jobs
Where exactly is the ethical line here? Was Diane justified in taking the gig because she has a right to earn a living just as much as Bob does? Should she have turned it down out of respect for her colleague, especially given that he got her the other gig in the first place? Is there another way she could have approached it altogether?
I don't expect everyone to agree, but here's how I see it:
- Just as you wouldn't try to poach an end client from one of your middlemen clients (like a marketing or advertising firm which hires you to write for several of their clients), you shouldn't poach clients from colleagues who are actively sending you good job leads. While you can say "it's business," I'd say it's bad business. If others are saving you time marketing by sending good referrals your way it would be pretty idiotic to alienate those people unnecessarily. You could end up costing yourself in both time and potentially lucrative gigs later. In that sense, it's not even about ethics. It's just about good business.
- If it's going to change the relationship between you and a close colleague (for the worse), you should probably say "no thanks." Think about how you'd feel if they did the same to you. How would you react? Your professional network should be built on some level of respect. By poaching clients from colleagues who are referring them to you for other things you're basically saying you have no respect for other members of your network.
- I'd actually consider it terribly inappropriate for a client to even put you in that position. But perhaps they didn't think it through or they didn't understand your relationship with the writer who referred you. I'd suggest talking to the client about it. Let them know that you feel it would be inappropriate to take the gig from a colleague, especially after the referral. You might either end it there, or let them know you couldn't say "yes" without first discussing it with that colleague (after all, having the news sprung on them by the client later could make matters worse).
Don't get me wrong. I'm all about the business aspects of freelancing. I support aggressive marketing and don't believe that your network should influence the bulk of your own business decisions. I wouldn't have a problem if most writers I know casually in my network took a gig. If someone I know better and refer to clients regularly did though, I'd probably be more than a little bit pissed (and believe me, they wouldn't get another referral, and I give out a lot of them).
I've only had one colleague do this to me in the past. I couldn't even get upset with them though, because they weren't aware that I was working with the client on other projects. They only knew I was referring them for a specific gig. The client decided to give them my gig as well simply because they were cheaper (although they had no credentials in the area I was working in for them). Ultimately it was a learning experience for the client. They realized they were better off with a specialist even if it cost more. They kept working with the other writer on the referred gig, but came back to me for the work I was previously helping them with (and at that point I refused to honor the old rate since my rates had increased in general -- had they stayed originally they would have gotten the old rate through that year). They're still a client of both of us. That colleague and I are still friendly. In the end it worked out. It doesn't always happen that way though.
So what would you do in a situation like that? Forget about basic competition and think about how you'd handle client poaching on either side of the equation. How would it affect your relationship or your network? Would that effect be worth it to get the gig? How good would a gig have to be for you to stab a close colleague in the back and use the "just business" justification?