The Ethics of Not Competing

Before I get into the subject of today’s post, I want to start on common ground. The language industries and especially the translation and interpreting professions are built on trust. There has to be a great deal of trust between clients and agencies, agencies and freelancers and even between competitors. In that atmosphere, some things are just not morally right.

One of these things is “client poaching”. It would be wrong for freelancers to use the information they receive as part of a job for their own benefit and this of course includes names and phone numbers of end clients. It would be a complete breach of trust and incredibly unprofessional for a freelancer to give the end client a sly phone call, rubbish the agency and steal the end client.

That said, in theory at least, that particular situation should not arise as such information should be routinely deleted by agencies and it should be the case that agencies and freelancers are not direct competitors. Agencies and freelancers should offer different services and the benefits of working through an agency should be clear to all involved. Sadly, theory and practice don’t always meet. If, for instance, the agency does little more than pass the text in one direction and the cash in the other, then there is an argument that the client and the freelancer are better off getting rid of the middle man (or woman). This would especially be the case where the agency has not done any marketing or due diligence on the client before the project begins. In short, the less value the agency add, the greater the possibility for competition between them and the freelancers they work with.

And so we come to the question I would like to pose in this article:

Is it ever acceptable for a translator or interpreter to work directly with a client with whom they have previously worked through an agency?

If the freelancer has signed a “non-compete agreement” where they state they will not work with agency clients directly then the question is moot. If you haven’t signed a non-compete agreement, the question becomes more complex. If the end client is not happy with the agency and decides of their own freewill to contact the freelancer directly then what should the freelancer do?

On the one hand, freelancers might well feel a sense of loyalty to the agency and may wish to try to rebuild any bridges. After all, it could still be in their interest to have the agency in the middle. On the other hand, direct clients do tend to pay more than agencies and it might just be simpler to work together directly.

There are many professionals who would feel that, no matter the agreement in place, it is wrong to work directly with clients if we have only learned about them through an agency. In this logic, the practices of the agency are of much less importance than our professional loyalty. The problem with this view is that it ties the commercial future of freelancers to those of the agencies they work with. If the client is going to cease working with the agency anyway, then it is hard to see why the freelancer should pay for whatever the client feels the agency did wrong. It is impossible to “steal” a client if they have already decided to walk away. Since they are going to find another provider anyway, surely the freelancer is within their rights to respond if the client contacts them and if they have not signed a non-compete agreement.

Of course, this assumes that the “blame” for the breakdown lies simply with the agency. Sometimes it is actually good to lose a client, especially if they cause more problems than they are worth. There are situations where a client choosing to change suppliers should raise warning flags in the mind of the freelancer.

So the whole situation is far more complex than any simple principle could possibly cover. Behind seemingly simple issues such as who contacts whom, why the relationship broke down and the relationship between the freelancer and the agency, there is a plethora of possibilities, each with its own set of ethical and commercial dilemmas. So instead of offering a blanket solution, let’s have a debate. Where do you stand on the issue? Is it ever acceptable for a translator or interpreter to work directly with a client with whom they have previously worked through an agency? Over to you.

Author: Jonathan Downie