I read this article on Fortune yesterday, titled “Why Freelancers Need a Code of Ethics.” We focus so much on companies and larger organizations that it never occurred to me that the freelance industry would be thinking about concepts like this. But when you think about how large the freelance and consulting industry is, and how much it’s growing, it makes sense. Many companies are supplementing their full-time staff and keeping costs in check by hiring temps, adjuncts, and consultants. The article cites a report by MBO Partners that predicts a 35% spike in the independent workforce by 2018 and another by Intuit that predicts that in the United States, the share of contingent workers within the workforce will surpass 40% by 2020.
That’s a lot of independent workers… but as consultants and freelancers, I imagine they are not certifying on a company’s code of ethics or taking its code of ethics training. Are they attesting to the company’s compliance policies and asserting they will report misconduct if they witness it? If not, do they present a greater risk than full time employees?
Mitigating Risk with Code of Ethics Training
Sara Horowitz is the president of the Freelancers Union. She’s interviewed in the Forbes article and she advocates for a code of ethics for freelancers, not to reduce this kind of risk to the company, but to create clarity around ethical behavioral standards or “rules of engagement,” for the freelancers. In fact, the Freelancers Union is in the process of developing a code of ethics for independent contractors that they could use with the business world as a standard way businesses should operate with freelancers. The code, to be introduced later this year, will include topics such as how to be a good freelancer, how payment should work, etc; hopefully the Union will also include code of ethics training so the contractors covered by the code of ethics will be trained on its nuances.
Just like with companies, freelancers can and should profess and exhibit behavior that aligns with ethical values. What does that mean to freelancers? “Be a mensch, a really decent human being,” says Laura Pincus Hartman, a professor of business ethics at the DePaul University Drieshaus College of Business in Chicago. “Treat people fairly and justly,” and be willing to walk away from clients or deals that feel like they’re somehow related to The Wolf of Wall Street. Those are good pieces of advice and should be reiterated in the Freelance Union’s upcoming code. As freelancers and independent contractors are often living project to project, it might be tempting to take that deal that feels like it’s from The Wolf of Wall Street; the code of ethics training should very clearly state for freelancers what behavior is expected, like being transparent and consistent with fees living up to documented commitment, and how they should turn down an opportunity that feels like it could be ethically compromising.
Code of Ethics Training for Non-Profits
Of course, it’s not just for profit companies that have developed codes of ethics or codes of conduct. The Fortune article points out that many professional associations have developed ethical codes, including the American Academy of Actuaries to the National Association of Realtors and the American Translators Association, all of which address ethical issues such as client confidentiality and negotiation for recognition. For people in those associations who run their own independent businesses, they have a starting point they can then tailor to meet their own needs.
It can get even more complicated in certain industries where professionals can be subject to multiple standards of professional conduct or overlapping ethical guidelines. “Most audiologists are subject simultaneously to multiple standards of professional conduct; standards that can and do overlap,” writes Heather Bupp, an attorney at the American Speech -Language Hearing Association.
Still, multiple codes are better than none; too many ethical guidelines are better than zero. It’s encouraging to see, with the growing number of independent contractors entering the workforce, organizations like the Freelancers Union thinking about things like implementing a code of ethics, but I would still advocate that if you hire freelancers, you ask them to attest to your code of ethics or code of conduct. Give them your code of ethics training or business ethics training. Ask them to read and certify to your ethics and compliance policies. This way you can ensure they learn your company values and the ethical standards by which you expect your employees – and by extension, any contractors or freelancers – to behave. You can also ensure that they learn what to do if they witness any noncompliant behavior while working for your organization and that they apply ethical principles to any decisions they make while working on your project.
Does your company hire freelancers? Have you given them business ethics training? Have they certified to your policies?