When you begin freelancing, your first job is cause for celebration. That feeling of honor that someone has chosen you from among all of the competition is priceless, and it’s a feeling that might last into your second, third, and fourth job.
But there comes a time for every freelancer when accepting a new job is perhaps not in their best interest. While it might feel counterintuitive to turn down a job, accepting a job when you can’t do your best work for any reason is not only okay, it’s necessary. So necessary, in fact, that we even made a podcast about it.
Whether it’s to protect your reputation, your sanity, or your business, learning how to say no is a crucial skill for any freelancer. Let’s explore some of the most common scenarios in which you might need to turn down a job and how you can do so with respect so that things end on a good note.
When you’re already swamped
When you’re already overwhelmed with work and you get a message from somebody who is interested in hiring you, it can be difficult to walk away. After all, being a freelancer often means that there are ups and downs throughout the year in how much work you get, and it can be tempting to try and insulate yourself from the possible lean times by taking on as much as you can when offered. However, it’s important to take the long view in a situation like this.
As a freelancer, your reputation is your most valuable asset. It’s your reputation that gets you good reviews, referrals, and references. This reputation is hinged on producing high quality work for every single job you get – after all, you never know which client might have friends and colleagues that they would be happy to direct your way. If you take on another project when you have too much on your plate already, your work quality will suffer and this will damage your business in the long run, even if in the short term it gives you a little cash boost.
In this scenario, honesty is really the best policy because it actually paints you in a more positive light. Just tell the potential client that you really would love to work with them, but unfortunately at this time you have too many projects on your plate and cannot take on another. Add that you would be happy to work with them in the future if they have any projects at another time and say that you hope they will be in touch. Being busy and in-demand shows that you are successful at what you do, and people like working with successful people, so they very well may be in touch the next time they need someone. When you have more time later, you can also reach out to them and tell them that you are available for more projects and see if they are still interested in working together.
When your customer isn’t always right
When someone is simply unpleasant to work with, it’s a more delicate situation and saying no to a project with that person or company might just be something you need to do to keep your mental health intact. It’s ok to say no to clients who are rude, don’t pay on time, or cause you other problems. While it might feel strange to turn down perfectly good work, you also need to look after yourself – and being able to do that is one of the biggest benefits of being your own boss. Remember that there are plenty of fish in the sea, and there’s no reason to spend your precious time working with a client who can’t treat you decently.
This is a scenario that calls for vagueness though, since you want to be polite to preserve your professional reputation. The other element that’s essential here is firmness, since clients who are bullies are more likely to try and push you into doing work that you don’t want to. A good way to respond to such a client is simply to say, “thank you for the offer, unfortunately I cannot accept it.” This is clear, direct, polite and gives the person nothing to criticize or to argue with. Don’t get into details, don’t make excuses that might be exposed later, and whatever you do don’t lose your cool.
When the job goes against your morals
A job offer that goes against your ethics or morals is one of the trickiest scenarios that you might encounter as a freelancer. During your career you might receive an offer to work for an industry that you don’t feel is aligned with your values or you might be asked to produce something that would cheat or harm others.
Whatever the specific situation might be, being able to be at peace with yourself is a perfectly valid reason to turn down work, no matter what. When your name is attached to your work, you should be able to stand by it with pride, not feel that you compromised yourself for a client.
Once you’ve decided to turn down work for this reason, it’s important to remember that your responsibility is to yourself and your business, not to lecture or moralize to the person who has contacted you. Keeping a good professional reputation means keeping all interactions with all people courteous and respectful, even if you disagree with that person. Keep your response short and to-the-point by saying something like “Thank you for the offer but I must respectfully decline”. This lets the person know that you’re not interested in working with them in the future either, but is vague enough as to be polite and nothing that they could complain about or use to smear you.
Remember you are in control
Over the course of a freelancing career, you might be able to handle different volumes of work, be more interested in different types of projects, or have any other number of considerations that would cause you to accept or decline a project. What’s important is just remembering that you are in control and that you have the final say. Saying no is an important part of being a business owner and a freelancer, and the more you practice it (when appropriate!) the more comfortable it will feel.