The Freelance Creative

The Murky Gray Area of Freelancing on the Job

According to Jeffrey L. Seglin, the public policy and communications program director at Harvard’s Kennedy School, freelancing on the job is not a shade of gray; it’s just flat-out unethical.

“My magazine colleague was hired as a full-time contributor to the publication,” Seglin wrote in an opinion column for the London Free Press. “Even though he met his deadlines and was productive, had the boss known my colleague had a significant amount of downtime, it would have been perfectly appropriate for the boss to ask him to take on more during the work day.”

Since freelancing during full-time work hours is largely unregulated, freelancers are left to set their own ethical guidelines. Is it really so bad to take the occasional phone interview during the workday? What about completing other freelance assignments during a lunch break at your desk?

While the answers to these questions may not be clear cut, ethical guidelines to freelancing while holding a full-time job do exist, and they can be vital to freelance success.

Get comfortable self-policing

“[My employer] shouldn’t have to draw the lines for me,” said freelance aviation and travel journalist Benét J. Wilson, who also works for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). “They’re doing me a favor by letting me write about another part of the industry.”

Even when it comes to little things like checking emails from editors on a work computer, being your own enforcer is far better than tempting your employer to question your ethics.

“Probably, most places won’t know or care, but you don’t want to approach the line. You don’t want to get into a gray area,” added Los Angeles-based freelancer Lynda Brendish. “I didn’t want someone to be able to say that these work resources were being misused.”

Ignorance may be bliss

Judging from Seglin’s experience, not all freelancers draw a clear line between personal work and office work, however, many stress that it’s the only way to maintain a functional arrangement between employer and freelancer.

“Though I check email from my editors, I try to respond to freelance-related email before work or during lunch, and I only do my reporting after work or on the weekends,” said Grace Bello, a full-time staff writer at Columbia University and freelance editor and writer [Ed. note: Bello has also contributed to The Freelancer]. “I even try not to use my work computer for such things, and instead rely on my iPhone or the computer lab to respond to editors or to pitch new work.”

Wilson works on the same principles, rising early in the morning and staying up late to avoid any overlap in the office. “If I have to do interviews during my lunch hour, I leave the building,” she said. “I’m just really paranoid of crossing that line.”

Consider conflicts of interest

Time and resources aren’t the only areas in which freelancing and full-time jobs can clash. When journalistic integrity is on the line, subject matter conflicts can damage not just a job or a gig, but a career.

While Bello’s managers appreciate her connections with various media outlets, she has to be careful covering stories coming out of Columbia. If the story concerns professors who don’t teach in her department, for instance, she considers that fair game. Otherwise, she’ll pass the stories to other journalists.

Wilson is also conscientious of subject matter conflicts from both sides. When taking her job with AOPA, she was asked not to cover any general aviation stories. Sticking to commercial aviation and travel allows her to keep things kosher with her employer and her freelancing clients.

Know employer expectations

Every employer is different. Some don’t care what employees do outside the office, while others might want to know about every project a freelancer takes on.

Production editor Jennifer Baker manages a number of people who juggle freelancing and full-time jobs, and to her, abiding by their schedules is just part of the deal. “They’re often emailing me in the evenings, so I see their correspondence when I get into the office the next day or if I happen to be checking work email off-hours,” Baker said. “The same goes with receipt of materials, unless they happen to have a day off or if they took time off to finish a job for me.”

Likewise, before becoming a full-time freelancer, Brendish worked for a New Zealand nonprofit that knew about her commitment to freelancing from day one. “Some people might not have that free, trusting work environment,” she said. “They need to be clear with their bosses and maybe sit down with them and say, ‘I am going to be continuing to freelance. What is appropriate?'”

The fidelity question

Perhaps the biggest question when it comes to freelancers working on the job is: If freelancing is a means to further one’s long-term career, are these potentially unprofessional arrangements justified?

What if freelancing is your future? That is the position Brendish found herself in as her freelancing work piled up. Maintaining clear boundaries between work and gigs became more stressful. Rather than compromise her ethics, she quit her full-time job.

Wilson, who has no plans to abandon full-time work for a freelance life, framed the debate in terms of financial loyalty: “In the end, AOPA is the one who is paying my mortgage and the child’s tuition and her braces,” she said. “If you’re going to do this, you have to remember the employer who writes you the check every other week; that’s the one that’s the priority.”

Exit mobile version