Your Paycheck vs. Your Conscience: Should you Turn Down Unethical Projects?

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04 APR 2017

YOUR PAYCHECK VS. YOUR CONSCIENCE: SHOULD YOU TURN DOWN UNETHICAL PROJECTS?

You’ve probably seen those documentary-style anti-tobacco ads – the ones where a slick and smiling executive grills a series of job applicants about their qualifications. The questions start innocently enough – there’s usually a discussion about the applicant’s previous advertising work or basic office skills like typing or filing — and then the interview takes a disturbing turn.

Check it out:

It’s an interesting approach – instead of going with the obvious, “cigarettes-are-bad-for-you” rhetoric, Truth.com (known for its edgy, satirical anti-smoking commercials) skewers the companies that produce them, putting a face – and immaculately sculpted corporate hair – on Big Tobacco. Smoking may kill you, the ads imply, But Mr. $200 haircut over here – and anybody who works for him – helps pull the trigger.


As you’d expect, all of the applicants are horrified. Some say no; others, apparently too stunned to speak, just shake their heads and fidget, treating viewers to several seconds of uncomfortable silence.

This approach makes a basic assumption about us and our work: We stand behind what we sell (or manufacture, or do the bookkeeping for, or whatever). We want to do what’s right, even if it costs us an opportunity or two along the way. It’s a principle that, I think, most of us would like to embrace. But, in reality, do we?

And, in today’s economy, should we?

What do you do if you’re in, say, advertising – and a client wants you to fudge some statistics about her product’s results? Or you’re a designer and you could make some big bucks if you design a logo for a political group you don’t see eye-to-eye with. Or – and this one really happened to us – if you’re a copywriter and a client asks you to write fake testimonials for his website.

Wintress posted a comment about that guy a couple of weeks ago – she (diplomatically) turned down the offer. We could have done the work, and gotten the accompanying paycheck, but she decided to take the high road because she felt it was wrong.

But are there gray areas? If so, where are they? Is it, okay, for example, to make a chart, but pick only the data you want a customer to see? After all, you’re only likely to post good news about your company, or good testimonials about your service. On the other hand, there does seem to be a line somewhere along the way that some advertisers cross: Like when they only post health data from the scientist the client paid – and discard data from scientists who have told the company that their product may be dangerous.

So, what do you think? Could you work on a project you felt was wrong on some level? Should we, as professionals, cherry-pick our clients based on what they stand for, or should we just be happy for the work? Where do you draw the line, and what do you do if a client wants you to cross that line?
Even better: Have you ever been in this situation? We’d love to hear about it.

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