An American Editor

July 28, 2014

The Business of Editing: Do You Tell? Ethical Considerations & Subcontracting

In a comment to an earlier essay on ethics, The Business of Editing: Certification & Ethics, Teresa Barensfeld asked several questions. With her permission, I plan to give my view on some of them over the course of several essays. I begin with this question:

“Do you tell clients if you hire another freelancer to work on a job you’re doing?”

I think the formation of an answer begins with how hold yourself out to clients and your relationship with clients. How you hold yourself out to clients helps shape their expectations, and from an ethical perspective, I think it is the combination of your presentation and client expectations that determines the correct answer to this question.

It does not matter, in my view, whether you are a single-person operation or a corporation of many editors. What does matter is how you present yourself: Are you presenting yourself as a single-editor operation or as a company. We discussed the merits of solopreneurship versus company in several essays, including The Business of Editing: Why a Company?, Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (I), Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (II), and Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (III). The beginnings of the answer to the ethical concern lies in those articles.

The presentation as a solo editor is done in many ways. For example, do you use a company name or just your name? Are checks made payable to you instead of to a company name? Are electronic payments made to accounts that bear your name or a company name? Do you use a personal identification number (e.g., Social Security number) or a business tax identification number (e.g., the Employer Identification Number)? Do you answer your phone with your name or a company name? Does your email signature include only your name or does it include a business name? When asked about, for example, availability, do you speak of “my schedule” or do you indicate you will need to check whether you have “an available editor”? Does your website indicate that the only editor is you? And the list goes on.

It is these types of actions that build an expectation in clients. If you present yourself as a solo editor, which is how most freelance editors present themselves, then whether you tell clients if you hire a subcontractor depends on whether the client hired you because of your specific skills or hired you because the client needed an editor and you were available. The issue really is one of client reliance on the unique perspective that each of us has as we do our editorial magic.

Unfortunately, I do not know of a way to discern the level of the client’s reliance on individual uniqueness. Consequently, I think you should assume that you were hired for your uniqueness if you present yourself as a solo editor. If you presented yourself as being a solo editor, then I think it is reasonable for a client to expect to be told (asked?) when you subcontract.

Conversely, if you consistently present yourself as being a company, I think the client’s expectations are different. I think clients expect companies to have access to more than a single editor. Even if they do not, it is my belief that not discussing subcontracting with a client is consistent with the presentation as a company.

From an ethical perspective, in the case where you present as a company, there is no deception in taking the position that the client is hiring a company and that the company decides whom to assign to a project. This is subject to an important exception: If a client specifically asks you to undertake the editing, then, regardless of whether you present as a solo editor or a company, you are obligated to advise the client of any subcontracting and to give the client an opportunity to cancel the contract.

As I have mentioned in any number of previous essays, from the very beginning of my freelance editing career, I presented myself as a company. When approached to take on projects, I have always made it clear that I need to check “editors’ schedules” and I never promise to personally undertake a project — except when a client specifically asks, which has occasionally happened. I never discuss with clients editor assignments and I never ask if subcontracting is acceptable. I assume it is okay because the client knows I am a company. I have never had a client object; more importantly, it has often been the case that a client who hired me for one project would call again for a second or third project because the client expects me to have multiple editors.

Ultimately, as I previously indicated, I think the answer to the question lies in how you have presented your business to clients and what clients expect. I think it is unethical to not advise the client of subcontracting if the client views you as and expects you to be a solo editor because that is how you have actively presented yourself. In such a case, there is strong reason to believe that the client is hiring you personally.

In contrast, I do not think it is unethical to not advise a client of subcontracting if the client’s expectation is that you are a company. When dealing with a company, the client may hold you, as the focus of the company, responsible for problematic editing, but that is different from the issue of being notified about subcontracting.

A subsumed issue in the question, in the case of a company, goes to the arrangement between the editors. Is it an employer–employee or contactor–subcontractor relationship? And does that relationship affect the ethicality of not notifying a client that you intend to subcontract the work?

I think it makes no difference whatsoever. The employer–employee versus contactor–subcontractor relationship is a tax and insurance matter; it has no bearing on the editing. The client is still hiring the company and expects the company to have more than one editor (assuming that is how the company has been presented to the client). The arrangement between the company-owning editor and the employee/subcontractor editor is not a client matter.

So we are back to where we began. The answer to the ethical question is: What are your client’s expectations based on your presentation of yourself and your business?

Do you agree?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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