Saturday, December 15, 2007

A Question of Ethics: Subcontracting Work

In tomorrow’s NY Times, The Ethicist column looks at a question about freelance work. The issue is that someone subcontracted out two freelance writing jobs to another writer, and then the end customers were very pleased with the work but didn’t know that someone else had done it. Randy Cohen, the Ethicist, thinks it was wrong for the middleman (actually, middlewoman in this case) to not tell the end customers who did the work; he calls her self-serving and says there should have been transparency.

I understand his point, but I don’t often see that kind of behavior (I mean the kind he recommends) in freelance work. Someone is hired to do a job and is therefore responsible for the end product, whether it is good or bad; if he or she subcontracts it out, that is fine, but the end customer usually isn’t aware of that. If the end customer wants to use the same freelancer for future projects, it is probably more honest of the freelancer to say who actually did the previous assignment, but I don’t think it is always necessary. It could be that the freelancer was particularly busy at that time or didn’t specialize in the appropriate area; she or he could feel that this new project is right for her or him for whatever reason, so there is therefore no real need to mention who did that other project.

I do know some people who generously pass on clients, especially if the client was very pleased with the work a subcontractor did, and I also know people who prefer to keep the client, but who keep subcontracting out work from that client, sometimes even giving the subcontractor the entire fee and not just a portion of it. Other freelancers occasionally make sure the subcontractor gets credit; I did this with a recent assignment, and both my name and that of the freelancer I hired were featured in the final product, though there was no direct contact between the customer and my subcontractor. So there are a variety of ways of handling such a situation.

Don’t get me wrong – I am all in favor of treating freelancers (including, obviously, subcontractors) well, and I also believe strongly in accepting only assignments for which I am skilled, which means that if I hire someone to do a job for which they are better suited, then it would be better to let them have the client contact, so they can continue to do that kind of work while I can do other assignments. I just think the issue is more complicated than Mr. Cohen let on (or could have let on, given the length restrictions of his column).


Anonymous said...

Ideally there would be a contract between the employer and the translator specifying whether subcontracting is allowed (often it isn't simply because of the confidential nature of many source texts). IIf the employer can't be bothered to come up with a contract, they can't stipulate rules after the fact.

B.J. Epstein said...

That's true. But I think many customers don't even consider the fact that some translators subcontract out work. They assume that a freelancer needs all the work he or she can get and/or does everything him- or herself. And a freelancer doesn't always have time to go back and forth about a contract or to bring up all potential issues in advance. Ideally, yes. But realistically, not usually.

Best wishes,