An American Editor

January 5, 2015

The Ethics of Editing: Padding the Bill

It has been a while since the last discussion on ethics (see “The Ethics of Editing: The Sour Job“) and I thought it is time to return to the topic of ethics in editing. Today’s first question, as asked by Teresa Barensfeld, is:

Is it ever okay to pad your hours if billing hourly?

The quick, concise, and precise answer is: In my view, no, it is never okay to pad one’s bill.

Analysis begins from this perspective: (a) If I were the client, would I expect a vendor to pad its bill? (b) Would I be happy with the vendor if the vendor padded its bill? (c) Is this how I want to be treated in every-day transactions — be told one price yet being charged a higher price than quoted? No matter how I twist and turn, I find that my answer is consistently “no.”

In the scenario at hand, the editor and the client have agreed upon an hourly rate which is supposed to represent actual hours worked. (This is why many editors do not work on an hourly basis; it is too limiting.) The client has certain expectations that presumably were discussed beforehand, such as how many hours the project is expected to take.

And that is where the problem lies. The editor assumed that the project would require a certain amount of hours only to discover that, for example, it took half the expected time. Now is when the question of padding arises. Does the editor bill for the expected number of hours or for the actual hours worked? Or does the editor bill for some number of additional hours, a number between actual hours spent and expected hours, or for actual hours?

If you hire a plumber to do some work and the plumber tells you the price is $100 an hour and that the job is expected to take 10 hours, but the job goes faster and only takes 5 hours, do you want to pay $500 or $1,000? I know that as the client I want to pay what was agreed: $100 an hour for the actual number of hours.

If that is my expectation in my personal transactions, on what basis would I assume or expect my client to willingly pay me for more than what was bargained: my actual time? In fact, we tend to separate our positions. When we are the consumer we expect vendors, which are typically companies, to behave in a manner that benefits us. And when we are the vendor, we want our clients to behave in a manner that benefits us, which means being willing to pay for expected time rather than actual time.

I view this question as being a fraction of the entire contract between myself and my client. My contract includes the scope of the work to be performed, the schedule for my performance, and the expected payment time frame, among other things. Consequently, if I expect my client to pay me timely as per our agreement, should not my client expect me to bill per our agreement?

The not-discussed questions, which arise from the original question, are these:

  1. What if the expectation is that the project will take no more than 100 hours but the editor is 75% done and has already reached the 100-hour mark?
  2. Does the expectation act as a billing ceiling?
  3. What are the editor’s obligations?
  4. The client’s obligations?
  5. What effect do the answers to these questions have on the answer to padding?

These questions need to be addressed but another day. Today, the focus is on padding. I see no justification for padding one’s bill. Yet the question appears to become more involved and the answer more complex when we consider the following variances (which Teresa Barensfeld raised as part of her padding question):

What if the client tells you that although it accepts your flat-fee price, because of the company’s accounts payable policy, you still have to bill by the hour, with the knowledge that the number of hours on your invoice is not the actual number of hours, but the number that will make the final amount equal your flat fee? What if the client told you this after you started the job?

In this situation, there has been a major/significant change in the project terms. We have gone from an agreed hourly rate to an agreed project fee (“flat fee”). This is a very major/significant change. The client’s expectation is that the project will cost $x, regardless of whether the project takes 5 hours or 50 hours to complete. (Worth noting is that there is no difference between a project fee and a per-page fee assuming that there is agreement upfront on what constitutes a page. In both instances, a project’s total cost is determinable in advance by a client and the client’s predetermined cost should match the editor’s predetermined fee.)

The quibble, and it is a quibble, is whether how a project needs to be invoiced (in this case in hours) makes a difference. My answer is “no, it makes no difference.” Some accounting systems need certain data to work correctly; it is simply a method for getting to the correct result. In the suggested scenario, preparing the invoices to reflect hours even if the editor didn’t actually work those hours, is just an accommodation to the client’s mechanical process. I would also add that the request is being made by the client, not the editor.

The distinction is not subtle — dare I use the word? The distinction is between fraud and no fraud. In the original circumstance where the agreement was $x per hour, the expectation was that editor would charge for actual hours worked. In such circumstance, padding amounts to fraud (deceit, if you prefer). In the current circumstance, the client is being asked to pay the exact amount agreed upon, thus no fraud/deceit. There is no padding.

And in this instance the agreed-upon flat fee acts as a ceiling. It does not matter whether it takes the editor 5 hours, 50 hours, or 150 hours to complete the project — the total cost to the client remains the same. Of course, we run into the same questions should the editor determine that the project is taking longer than expected and the editor wants to add to the agreed-upon fee for those additional hours.

The ending question (“What if the client told you this after you started the job?”) makes no difference in my estimation. This is simply an accounting procedure because that is how the client’s system is set up. There is no dispute regarding the fee to be paid/charged. Ultimately, that is the issue: Is a dispute about the amount to be paid created by the editor’s actions? If yes, then there may be an ethical question; if no, then there is no ethical question (assuming the method for calculating the fee is itself legal and ethical).

So, my answer is that padding is always unethical (and tantamount to fraud) but accommodating a client’s request to bill for the agreed-upon sum in a certain way because the client’s accounting system requires it is not unethical in the situation presented.

Do you agree?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

(Do you have questions about ethics that you would like to see discussed? You can either ask them in comments to this essay or drop me an email with the question[s].)

July 9, 2014

The Business of Editing: Certification & Ethics

In a recent essay, “The Practical Editor: What Does Professional Certification Look Like?,” Erin Brenner discussed certification of American editors. The essay also provoked a number of comments. Yet, I found the essay lacking in one respect: There was no mention of requiring taking a course in ethics and passing an ethics exam as part of the certification process.

To my way of thinking, certification implies that the person certified is not only skill competent but also not ethically challenged. Yet the certification programs pay little to no attention to ethics issues. Many certificated professions require the taking and passing of ethics courses and exams. I remember having to take such a course in law school and then having to pass a special ethics exam administered by the State of California in the early 1970s. If I failed the ethics exam, I could not be admitted to the practice of law even if I earned a perfect score on the bar exam itself.

Over the years and on many different editor forums there have been discussions about ethics. Colleagues would ask a question, seeking advice from others about how to handle a particular situation. We’ve asked and discussed questions of ethics many times on An American Editor in essays like “Trolleyology and the Ethics of Editing”, “The Ethics of Editing“, “The Business of Editing: The Ethics of Billing“, “Ethics in a World of Cheap“, “The Business of Editing: Expectations“, and “The Business of Editing: Walking the Line”, to cite a few examples.

Ethics are always on an editor’s mind, as ethics should be. But we lack a uniform standard of ethics that can act as a guide to our decision making and against which we can be judged.

Even though we constantly ask questions about ethics (“What would you do in these circumstances?”), there seems to be a dearth of focus on ethics in conferences or in certification courses. Conferences and courses all focus on the mechanics of editing — the things that we can do to improve our earnings or to improve our editing skills and make us more desirable to clients and prospective clients. Consider, for example, the certification program offered by the University of Chicago Graham School. Not one of the required classes focuses on ethics. The same is true at the University of Washington, the MediaBistro Online Editing Course, and the University of California at San Diego Copyediting Program, to name a few of the available certification programs. Even the Editor’s Association of Canada offers tests of your editing skills, but not of your editorial and business ethics.

From this (admittedly) incomplete survey of certification courses, one could surmise that editorial and business ethics are not particularly important in the editing profession. I have always thought that ethics was important in all business dealings. The purpose of certification is to broadcast to clients and prospective clients that we are qualified to perform the services we offer. It is a way to distinguish professional from nonprofessional editors.

Similarly, meeting ethical standards is a way to separate professional from nonprofessional editors. Of course, simply passing an ethics exam is insufficient. The certifying agencies need to also be enforcers of the ethics standards. Thus our problem.

First, we have no single agency that sets standards that editors must meet to gain certification. The agency that sets the standards does not need to provide the courses to educate editors to those standards; other institutions can do that, just as is done with lawyers, doctors, and accountants — the key is to have a standards-creating organization whose standards form the educational core around which other organizations form their programs.

Second, we have no standard set of ethics. Each editor establishes and interprets his or her own ethical standards. As a profession we need an ethics-setting agency that also has the authority to resolve ethical questions and disputes, especially disputes between clients and editors.

Third, and perhaps in today’s environment most important, those programs that offer certificates should create an ethics course and require that students take the course and pass an ethics exam as a condition of certification. This would (a) make the courses more valuable, (b) would put ethics on par with editing skills, and (c) would help reassure clients and prospective clients.

Fourth, I would like to see conferences include seminars on editorial business ethics. We need to begin exposing editors to the types of situations that can hurt an editor–client relationship because of misunderstanding and teach editors how to avoid those situations and how to resolve ethical conflicts that might arise.

Regardless of what path, in terms of nationwide standards setting, is taken, I believe that certification programs need to take the lead and incorporate an ethics component into the requirements. This would be good for the editor, for the certification program, and for clients. It is not enough that an editor be master of editing skills; an editor who is ethically challenged and who angers a client as a result threatens the livelihood of all editors.

We need to remember all those author comments on forums like LinkedIn expressing the author’s unsatisfactory experiences with editors and who tell everyone who will listen that it is better to self-edit or have trustworthy friends do the editing. If you look at their complaints carefully, many of them are ethical complaints.

We also need to remember that ethics is part and parcel of doing business, especially a service business such as editing. The more we discuss and educate ourselves about ethics issues, the better our business will be.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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