Sometimes, Turning Down Work is the Right Choice

Here are seven times you should say a friendly, “No thanks!” to a project.

If you’re an entrepreneur making a living from your creative skills, turning down work is (quite rightly!) a difficult thing to do. Indeed, sometimes it feels like you’re simply not in a position to say “no” to a project. Even a bad one. But  there are plenty of times when you’re completely justified in passing on a job that doesn’t feel right. And, in fact, when it might be injurious to your business to say “yes”.

Here are seven times you should say a friendly, “No thanks!” to a project. You’ll thank yourself later. We promise.

1. When the Job Pays Way Less Than Your Rate

There are some compelling reasons to take a low-paying gig—you want to build up your portfolio in an area in which you have limited experience or the client is a non-profit organization you believe in and has a tiny budget.

But if the company is mid-sized or larger and is specific about what they’re willing to pay (anything at or around minimum wage should be an immediate no-go), it’s not only smart to say no, it’s important for your industry.

Here’s why: When companies “get away” with paying creatives a low rate, they’ll continue to do it, lowering the bar for everyone in the industry. When creatives have a strong self-worth and demand pay that is commensurate with their unique skills, expertise and experience, low-paying offenders will have no choice but to pay fairly.

Another great reason to stick to your guns when it comes to your rate? The time you spend working on low-paying gigs could be better invested in tracking down higher-quality work that pays what you deserve.

2. When the Job is Not a Good Fit With Your Skills

It’s tempting to take on work that is outside your wheelhouse. While it’s a great idea to stretch yourself creatively and professionally, it shouldn’t be on a client’s dime. Not only will you not deliver the quality they expect, you could damage your valuable word-of-mouth referral network.

It might burn a little to do so, but consider referring the client to a colleague who you know will knock it out of the park. In return for the referral, you could ask your fellow creative if you can pick her brain about how she got into this type of work, what her process is, maybe if she’d walk you through the process of a particular project.

The goodwill you foster with referrals often works the other way and you could end up with some great projects that are a perfect fit for your skill set.

3. When the Job is Not a Good Fit with Your Personal Brand

Whether you’re being strategic about it or not, you are creating a personal brand with every project. Smart creatives often zero in on a niche that not everyone specializes in, making them the go-to professionals for particular types of work.

Sometimes an opportunity comes your way that’s outside the scope of work you typically do. You have confidence that you can do it well, but is it the type of project you’d want to do in the future? If the answer is a definitive no, consider letting this one go. The energy you bring to the project will not be a good indication of what you’re capable of accomplishing. Your time will be better spent focusing your attention on the kinds of projects that challenge you—in a good way.

4. When You Can’t Give it the Time it Deserves

You’re on a roll and you’ve got a number of great projects on the go. Murphy’s Law says that this is when another amazing gig will come your way. Maybe it’s a client you’ve been dying to work with or one who you’ve enjoyed collaborating with in the past. It’s hard to say no, but if you’re not able to give it 100%, it’s not fair to your health or the client to squeeze it into your jam-packed schedule.

Be honest with the client and let them know you’ve got a full plate right now, but would love to work with them again in the future. When you have time to breathe again, be sure to follow up, referencing the project they reached out to you about, and let them know you’ve got capacity to take on something equally exciting. You’ll be perceived as in-demand, professional and organized. All good things!

5. When You’re Getting a Bad Vibe From a Prospective Client

We’ve all experienced it. A client who is curiously nowhere to be found online. The businessperson who is over the top about how incredible his product is but has very little evidence to back it up. The CEO who offers to pay more than your typical rate but is vague about the details of the project.

If your intuition is telling you that someone is being shady, chances are, it’s right. Particularly if the project would take up a considerable amount of your time and talent, ask lots more questions and if you’re still feeling uneasy, run. If you decide to take a chance on them, ask for a non-refundable deposit to reserve your time and a payment schedule that the client agrees to in writing.

6. When the Client Pays Late, is Excessively Critical or Unpleasant to Work With

This should be a no-brainer, but in our ambition to be productive and profitable, sometimes we ignore the warning signs that line the path to the end of a project. Especially when it’s a job that promises to pay well.

But, most of the time, a big paycheque is not worth the agony of chasing a client for payment months after the project has ended or dealing with the abuse, indecision or irritation of a client who requires multiple changes for little effect. Sometimes it’s important to think big picture and court the clients you want—not the ones right in front of you.

7. When the Client Has Tacked on Additional Work to a Project

You’ve completed a project within the scope outlined at the beginning. Now the client wants you to make “just a few” changes or add a little extra to what you agreed on. You may think it’s no big deal—until you get into it and realize this has turned into the never-ending project from hell.

If the client wants you to make more revisions or an additional work, be firm and tell them you’ll have to open another purchase order or charge a per diem fee for every supplementary piece of work.

Experienced creatives anticipate this hiccup with some clients who may unwittingly or strategically take advantage of their goodwill by specifying in their estimate that all work outside the originally agreed upon scope will be subject to an hourly rate—usually at least $25 more than your usual one.

about the author

Freelance Contributor Heather Hudson is an accomplished freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. She writes for a number of publishing, corporate and agency clients who depend on her to deliver high-quality, on-brand content and journalism with a fresh perspective. Learn more about her work at