10 Reasons to Turn Down Freelance Work (And What Happens If You Don’t)

Freelancing can feel like a goldmine. People want what you’re offering, and they are willing to pay! It’s a great feeling. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean you should accept every freelance project that comes your way. It may sound odd to turn down money, especially if you’re just getting started, but it can be hugely beneficial in the long run. Whether you’re just getting started or scaling up your freelance business, here are some reasons why you might want to turn down freelance work.

This article is broken down into two categories of reasons to reject freelance work: things that are about you as a freelancer and things that are about the potential client.

Reasons to turn down freelance work that are about you

1 – Your plate is too full

This is probably the best reason to turn down extra work. Even though it’s tempting to always take on new work, don’t overload yourself. If your plate is already full, focus on delivering for those clients. That said, this is also an opportunity to share the work with other freelancer friends. So maybe don’t reject the work entirely, just forward it to someone else. You’ll probably get the karma back at a later time.

2 – You can’t do the task at hand

Richard Branson is famous for his advice that you should always say yes to a task, then figure out how to do it later. There is a time and a place for this. However, freelancing rarely is that time and place. As a freelance, you are hired to complete a task and complete it well. If you can’t do the task at hand, don’t agree to the work. The exception here is if you can disclose that you aren’t ultra-strong at the task, but are willing to give it a shot. If the client agrees to those terms, you can take on the work without guilt.

3 – You really don’t like the work they want you to do

Studies show freelancers on average like their work more than full-time employees. A big part of this is because freelancers have the choice to turn down work they don’t like. For many, that’s a perfectly good reason all by itself. If you’re not feeling it, you don’t have to take it. Now, the people who truly reject all work they don’t like usually are successful in other ways. So this strategy may not work as well if you’re just getting started. However, it can be helpful to think consciously about how much you like a project before saying yes.

4 – You disagree with their approach

Freelancers have to be partners with their clients. Specifically, you have to support your client’s wishes as a freelancer. So if you fundamentally disagree with how they operate, you may not want to take on the project. Some freelancers can put their personal feelings totally aside and simply do what they are told. If that’s you, go forth! It’s necessary sometimes, if only for money, to just do what you’re hired to. But if you have the choice, it’s usually better to not work with clients you don’t agree with. If you’re not sure about their approach, ask them the right questions to get them talking.

5 – You get a bad gut feeling

This one is hard to explain, but sometimes you just get a bad feeling. Something is off during your call. Or the email confirmation from the client makes you queasy. When these things happen, it could be your intuition noticing something your conscious mind didn’t at the time. Declining a client project because of a bad gut feeling is a touchy subject. You want to make sure you turn them down politely. But at the same time, entrepreneurs live and die by their guts – so take this one seriously.

Reasons to turn down freelance work that are about the client

1 – Pushy on price

Clients should expect to pay a fair price for what they get from you. And “fair” does not mean the lowest possible price. If you deliver premium work, you should get premium pay. So while it’s natural for a client to negotiate, if they become pushy the project might not be worth it. Unfortunately, it’s not only about the money when a client is pushy on price. It’s a signal that you might be dealing with someone who will nitpick constantly. When that happens, projects can derail. About 40% of freelancers already struggle with being paid on time. You don’t want to get in a situation where you’re not being paid what you’re worth.

2 – Pushy on expectations

Always explain how you work when talking to potential clients. If you notice they are overly pushy on delivery timelines or process with no reason, that’s a big red flag. Similar to being pushy on price, this is a signal that the client may bully you or nitpick throughout the project. When that happens, all you get is grief. Sometimes, being pushy on expectations is also the person setting themselves up to demand a refund later – another problem you want to avoid.

3 – They don’t know what they want

Freelancers execute. That’s really it. But it’s up to the client to know what needs to be done. While freelancers can – and often do – provide strategy advice, everything needs to start with the client knowing what they want. If they don’t, your work will be all over the place. Scopes could change (and with it, prices). Or the project could be abruptly ended with you left in the dust. Granted, this does not always happen. But this red flag is one to take seriously.

4 – They want you to do additional work for free

When you submit a proposal to a client, there’s nothing more irritating than them quickly adding more work to your plate. Often, this is done in a sneaky way. They will ‘casually mention’ how there’s a bit more to be done, but it’s not a big deal so you don’t need to scope for it in the contract. When this happens, you have two options: reject the project or take the time to scope out everything they ‘casually’ mention. Both could work, but turning down the work is definitely the easier path if you can afford to.

5 – They can’t explain where the work fits into the bigger picture

As a freelancer, you are delivering work that needs to provide your client some form of return on investment. As such, you should ask where your work fits into the bigger company picture. If the potential client can’t explain that, you may not want to take on the work. There are some instances where the work you’re doing stands alone. For example, as part of a new innovation project. But these are rare – and even in these cases, there is a bigger picture at play.

Issues with taking on bad fit projects or bad clients

If a potential client raises these red flags and you still take on the work, it doesn’t guarantee it will be horrible. However, you may run into a few challenges:

Wasted time: a client that is pushy on expectations might also waste your time a lot. That could mean in extra calls, edits, changes to scope, or other problems. This could erode your profit margins.

Emotional drain: some people are just… hard to work with. Even if you can’t quite explain it, you feel exhausted by them. And you dread receiving an email or call from them. These types of clients could be wonderful people, but they are simply a bad fit for you.

Money problems: if you take on a client who’s pushy on price or take on work you aren’t 100% sure you can deliver on, it could translate to lost revenues. Either you may need to give a discount or refund if you can’t deliver, or the client may end up trying to not pay. Neither are fun situations to be in.

Rejecting freelance work is sometimes necessary

As a freelancer, it feels amazing to close deals. That’s often direct cash in your pocket. When you’re just getting started, you can even associate client deal sizes with tangible life things. For instance, one deal might be around the cost of your rent. Another could be groceries for the month. A third is your internet or phone bill. These comparisons are hugely motivational in freelancing, but at the same time make turning down the wrong kind of work all the more difficult. Plus, there are lots of ways to make money freelancing.

As you go about your freelance journey, remember that turning down work should only be done if it’s in your best interest. But once you’ve figured out that the work isn’t a fit for you, make the tough call and keep going!

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Author: Stefan Palios

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