When saying “no” is the ethical thing to do (Erika Cosenza)

A few days ago, one of my regular clients contacted me with a new commission. This is a publishing house for which I have been doing editing, proofreading and first readings for quite some time, and I’m used to the type of authors and works they publish.

In this case they wanted me to read and draft a report on a manuscript of xxx pages on xxx topic. We agreed on fees and deadlines. Smooth and uneventful, as usual.

Problems arose when, the following day, with the book-to-be in my possession, I set out to work. It took me just half a page to notice I was not a good fit for that job. I did not hesitate: I immediately got in touch with my client and told them I wasn’t comfortable working with the text of a person who claimed X—I am not giving any specific details 1) because it doesn’t really matter what it was, and 2) to protect my client, of course—because it clashed with my ethics and my morals.

My client’s answer was everything I hoped for and more. They accepted my reasons without questioning them. “We completely understand and respect it. And we really appreciate your candor. By the way, we have just received a book by another author for editing and proofreading. What do you think? Do you want to take it?”

Happy ending, and a fulfilling continuity of the professional relationship, which I think has grown after this exchange.

As cultural mediators, we all know being ethical implies accepting jobs for which we are able to guarantee a proper standard of quality. We must perform our task with fairness, rightness and thoroughness, and be aware of our own limitations.

I cannot but wonder how I could do all that when I find a text and its message offensive, when I feel it goes against all I believe to be right and fair.

I have a commitment to my clients, the authors and the audience but, first and foremost, I have a moral obligation to my principles. I could not conduct myself in my profession—and in life, for that matter—in any other way.

Being true to oneself can become difficult, and convictions don’t pay the rent, I know. Perhaps others would have hesitated to speak up and refuse such a job, fearing they might lose that client forever. I’m fortunate enough to have found clients who not only respect me as a professional but also, and more importantly, as a human being.

In this world of machine translation, autocorrecting programs and all kinds of technology threatening to replace us, sometimes we even forget that we have a choice. We can refuse to accept a commission that is at odds with our own feelings, beliefs and interests.

Sometimes, saying “no” is the only ethical—and healthy—thing to do.

Erika Cosenza

Illustrated by Juan Manuel Tavella