What’s Your Responsibility?

What I’m reading: The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh
What’s on the iPod: Summertime by Kenny Chesney

Yesterday felt like a marathon. I spent five hours in the morning finishing projects, starting projects, and sending out invoices. When I stood up at 1 pm, I was ready for a break. Off to the pool.

Only the pool was closed. Dummy – I forgot the kids are the lifeguards and they’re in school until at least mid-month. There went that brilliant idea. So back home to get some much-needed marketing in. I did get to the pool later, and it was heavenly as the thermometer hit 94. And I picked my first deer tick of the season off. I know it wasn’t there yesterday, so I’m sure it came from one of two places – Valley Forge Park or when I mowed the garden. The only two times this week (or this year even) I’ve not coated myself with bug repellant.

There was this series of emails that came in over the weekend. Five, I think. At first I thought “Great. Someone’s broken in to my account and is spamming.” Then I read one. Yep. Spam. Only the next one was a continuation of the message, as were the others. I slowed down and read them.

I don’t know who it is (yes I do, but he never officially signed his name), but these were emails from someone who’d read an ages-old article of mine. And boy, was he ticked. The article – why employers need background screenings – was hitting a nerve, for he was, apparently, once more unemployed. And he was blaming me.

Mind you, I didn’t respond. Who would? Anyone who would blame the writer of an article that was three years old for his employment troubles isn’t someone with whom one should play verbal hockey. I don’t know him, don’t want to know him, and I can sympathize all day long, but his well-being is not my responsibility. He has no idea that the article in question was someone else’s idea and it was assigned to me, much like anyone would assign work to a contractor or employee. I had no say in the topic – just the presentation. And while my new pen pal may think it was my fault for presenting the info so convincingly, I’m actually paid to be convincing.

It happened once before. When that scam artist duped me into writing a press release for him, I was chastised by not one, but three different people, only one of whom had the guts to sign his name. It was my fault he was scamming everyone and shame on me (she actually wrote that) for not ordering a thorough background check on him before writing that one, 300-word press release! Right. Let me pay $300 or better for a background check on a press release job that pays about that, if in fact he’d paid me anything.

While weirdness does seem to find me like a lightning bolt finds a transformer, I’d bet some of you may have encountered something similar. Intentional or not, your writing may have struck pay dirt, only in an adverse way. You may not realize the impact your work has on others. Most of the time it’s good. Sometimes, it’s bad, albeit unintentionally.

So what is your responsibility as a writer? Where does that line get drawn? For me, it’s drawn in two places. First, clients have to pass my moral code. If they’re acting ethically, if they’re able to prove they are (ironically, the scammer had provided proof of his legitimacy – I wasn’t aware that an application for nonprofit status or his police badge credentials can be faked), and if they conduct business in a professional, honest manner, that’s the first win.

Second, the vetted client is my responsibility. I am paid by that person or company to please. I fill the order, write the words, state the case as convincingly as I can. If I didn’t, I’d be unemployed.

While the guy with no job has my sympathy, it’s not up to me to convince his employers that he should be hired despite a shaky background. I’d be passing along false information – go ahead, hire someone with a record! – and I’d be doing my paying clients a disservice just so a complete stranger who may (or may not) be reformed can cut a fair shake. I’m of the opinion that if you are truthful on your application, in your interview, and about your background, you won’t find yourself walked out of a job you’ve just walked into. That’s your job – not mine.

What would you say to someone like this? Where does a writer’s responsibility begin and end, in your opinion?

About the author




  • Devon Ellington June 1, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    If the company or client engages in practices I find offensive or unethical, I don't work for him (provided I've found out about it in time), or I disengage, if I find out about it later.

    It's one reason I do so little corporate work. I find the majority of large corporations unethical. I don't care how much they're going to offer me — if I think they're in the business of profiting by causing harm, I don't want to be associated with them.

    Anything that has my name attached to it needs to be something I'm willing to stand by. People might not agree, they might misunderstand, but I have to feel comfortable with the ethics behind the hiring and the message in the writing — or turn down the job.

    Yes, that means I turn down a lot of highly paid work. But every time I've made a choice to work for someone solely based on the money, I've regretted it.

    I need to give a damn.

  • Lori June 1, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    I have to agree, Devon. I'm not one to work for just anyone. If I get an icky vibe, I dig further. If I can't resolve it, I trust my gut and get out.

    What's weird about this situation was it was for a small, female-owned company that has a pretty fantastic business built organically. They wanted to let their clients know about the potential pitfalls of not doing background screenings for employers. Why this guy thinks it's my fault that he can't get a job is a mystery.

    My guess? He's not been 100-percent truthful on his application or in his interview. That's not my fault – that's his. Lying on an application (even lying by omission) is a fire-able offense. Tell the truth, tell how you've learned from your mistakes, and know that there are companies out there who will give you a chance.

  • Cathy Miller June 1, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    Devon put it beautifully. I can't write something if my gut-check has a problem with it.

    There is so much emotion behind being unemployed. I understand it and feel for the person, but your article is not the reason for it.

    We all have a need for control and there is no worse feeling than a loss of control over our livelihood. He still has that control by the choices he makes, but that's not always easy to see when you've been kicked down a few times. I wish him well and hope he recognizes he still has the control (not an author of an article he came across).

  • Jenn Mattern June 1, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    Like you, I would just ignore this guy. If it makes him feel better to blame you, let him. It's not your problem.

    As for the issue of responsibility, like everyone else commenting so far I think we each have our own internal alarms about these kinds of things. There are certain types of companies I won't touch, and topic areas I won't cover.

    Because I focus on smaller businesses as clients and I tend to take on long-term gigs rather than one-offs, I get to know most of my clients pretty well. I get to know them as people rather than just people who cut the checks, and I think that helps a lot. When I do take on larger corporate work it's generally through a smaller middleman client (like a marketing or SEO firm) and they know up front what I will and won't be involved in.

    I think the worst issue I had was with a blogging client. In addition to my own blogging he hired me to edit posts from a non-native English speaker. In the process I discovered she was violating copyright laws using images she couldn't legally use in her posts (not a violation where she was, but it was where the business was registered — and where I live, putting me at risk too). I let him know. He talked to her about it. She got better for a while. But then she slipped back into that habit, and I had to tell him flat out that I won't touch her work moving forward. It's just not worth it to be involved with people you can't trust when some of that liability could fall on you. Fortunately I haven't had to deal with clients themselves doing anything particularly devious. Let's hope I didn't just jinx myself. πŸ˜‰

  • Lori June 1, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    There it is, Cathy. He was looking for some way to gain control. In lashing out at me, he can find some semblence of order. I can't help him. I do sympathize because who hasn't felt that way? But in the end, he's the one who has to determine his own path.

    And there was part of me that still thinks his blaming me in five unsigned emails is more than a little weird. I know if I engage him, it wouldn't end well. Frankly, his notes were a bit creepy.

  • Cathy Miller June 1, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    Okay-I didn't know about the 5 emails-and yes, that is creepy. You made the right choice in not responding. I would have done the same thing (even if I do have Pollyanna tendencies, 5 emails blasting me on a random article kicks Pollyanna to the curb). πŸ™‚

  • Lori June 1, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    Jenn, I prefer the same ongoing relationships. First, it's just easier on you than constantly having to market for twice the work. Second, you can get to the point like you have where you can tell clients "No, this doesn't work for me."

    Ridiculous that the woman would use copyrighted materials and would revert to her old ways like that. You're right – that's a liability on you, and who needs that?

    Cathy, yep. Five. I know he's frustrated, but five late-night emails to a stranger blasting her for his woes is just, well…

  • Lori June 1, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    Sorry – just went into my Delete folder and counted. SEVEN emails.

  • Paula June 1, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    You could just have easily been assigned to write an article on why employers shouldn't automatically discount hiring ex-cons.

    When someone complains about an article or something you've written on assignment (unless it was an opinion piece, of course), the best response is probably along the lines of, "I'm just the writer, you'll have to take that up with the decision makers."

    (I know, I know. We're not "just" writers. But sometimes you need to play up the fact that someone else is calling the shots.)

  • Paula June 1, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    Of course, with an anonymous guy sending seven e-mails, it's best not to reply at all. My response was just for, you know, stable types.

  • Lori June 1, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    Paula, I agree. If it had been one email, I may have responded. Seven? Yea, I'm not going into THAT flame! LOL

    I've had to use the "just writers" phrase a few times, usually when someone takes exception to the topic like this guy did. If we stayed away from every subject that could upset someone, we might as well be writing menus.

    Then again, someone would find fault with something on the menu or not on the menu.

    Yep, no winning. πŸ™‚

  • Wendy June 1, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    In a way, you should feel complimented. You convinced someone, somewhere about something with your writing. Apparently, you did a good job!

    Bashing emails are different. If he wants to blow off steam, fine. But, he should've kept that to one email. Seven is bordering on harassment, which may need a response from the local law enforcement if it goes further.

  • Lori June 1, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    Wendy, I should feel complimented. πŸ™‚ LOL Hard to do when I'm trying to make sure he can't find me, though he does live several states away. I watched the progress of his emails go from caustic and accusatory to trying to convince me he was wronged, back to one more attempt to be heard. If he'd put that in one note, as you said, it would have been someone blowing off steam. Seven?

    Yep. I know where he lives and I wouldn't be above contacting someone should he escalate it.

  • Wade Finnegan June 1, 2011 at 11:37 pm

    First off, 94 degrees! You're kidding. It's 60 and raining here. Second, no wonder you blog so much, you always have interesting subjects to draw on. This guy sounds totally creepy and I wouldn't engage him. My question is, how much of my personal information do I put out there? As a writer I want to make it easy for people to contact me, but your situation makes me wonder. That is what I love about your posts, I always find something to ponder about freelance writing and learn in the process.

  • Devon Ellington June 2, 2011 at 1:54 am

    Lori, I think you're right — he was probably caught out being dishonest on his resume.

    I script read for my home-base theatre when I worked in SF. When I moved to Seattle, I script read for my home theatre there. I got a script to read by a playwright who claimed he'd had it produced by the company I worked for in SF while I was working there. Problem was, I'd been the one to reject the script there.

    It hadn't been produced. He lied, and got the same reader.

    Can you imagine what I put in my report? πŸ˜‰

  • Lori June 2, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Yep, 94 degrees, Wade! It wasn't pleasant in the least because it was so humid.

    I used to have my address and phone number out there, but I had one too many run-ins with some scary people. I now have a phone number and an email address. If they want me, they can find me that way. I want to make it easy too, but not easy for the wrong ones to find me. I've been considering signing up for Google Voice just to mask my phone number. I'd really rather not have crazies showing up to do me harm.

    Devon, that's actually hilarious! Not for him, I'm sure, but it's hilarious that he had the bad luck of lying to the wrong person. Karma!

  • Anne Wayman June 2, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    Hi Lori, I'd probably have responded once saying something like "I'm truly sorry you're finding it difficult to get a job."

    Then I'd save all his emails in a folder for awhile on the theory I might have a cyber stalker on my hands. I never have, but I do have a trail of some interesting folks.

    Here's my theory… he wants to be heard and if I simply state in some way or another I've heard him I may have fewer emails.

    This comes from experience with a site of mine, PowerfullyRecovered.com where I challenge my beloved 12 Step movement to get over itself… most who email me agree, a few think I'm going to make everyone get drunk or something.

    Ignoring also works… I'll stand by my job – the writing. On my writing site, when I was posting jobs, I had to occasionally apologize when I'd posted a scam…

    The real question might be "Are we having fun yet?"


  • Lori June 2, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    Anne, if he'd sent one or two notes, I would have responded. I understand that frustration, and it was clear in his blaming. But seven emails in a row is a warning to me to stay away from it. He was heard, but he was going beyond sending a message – he was bordering on harassment.

    I remember seeing you post apologies. I didn't think it was necessary because to you, it looked legitimate. But we run that risk sometimes – the risk of endorsing what isn't true or real in some way. I'd never blame you for posting a job that turned out to be something other than advertised, but I do know there are people who would.