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I took a job at the beginning of this year at a digital agency. As the title says, I generally enjoy everything about the job, except for the type of clients we work with... The longer-standing clients we work with have business models that are against some of my personal principles, and I have a hard time staying excited about the work, and giving it my 110%.

The clients aren't skeezy or "evil", but they are generally companies whose products or business practices I don't agree with. They are mostly just your typical eCommerce and SEO-driven websites, but I feel like some of them are either being deceptive or capitalizing on people in need. Again, nothing illegal or anything like this; any agency is going to have clients like these.

How do I approach this with my boss (who is also the owner of the company)? We've got a great relationship, and I know we generally align on a lot of viewpoints. Part of me thinks he feels the same way, but what can you do when you need to run a business? Also, another coworker has voiced similar thoughts during our daily standup meeting.

If I do talk to my boss about getting different clients that are more rewarding to work for, should I preemptively start looking for other work? Should I just start looking for new work without bringing it up? I'm worried about sounding like I'm standing on a moral pedestal when there is very likely little that can be done about the clients.

Thanks for any input!

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How do I approach this with my boss (who is also the owner of the company)?

You just talk with your boss. You express your feelings and how the clients he has chosen run counter to your personal principles. And you explain how this makes it difficult for you to work hard and stay excited about your work.

If I do talk to my boss about getting different clients that are more rewarding to work for, should I preemptively start looking for other work?

Most certainly. In fact you should have made significant progress in your new job search before you even bring it up with your boss.

Most likely, your boss will say that they aren't going to try and change the types of clients they work with just because one or two employees would prefer not to have them as clients. Otherwise, they would have to try and figure out what every employee wants and end up rejecting a lot of business.

It's also possible that your boss will tell you to leave. Perhaps not likely, but you are signalling your unhappiness and that would be a sign that you are leaving anyway.

So just be prepared.

Should I just start looking for new work without bringing it up?

It would certainly be simpler to do that. You aren't likely to be able to change the selection process for new clients.

When you start looking at potential new employers, make sure you dig in enough to understand how they choose their clients. You don't want to get into another situation that goes against your personal principles.

Alternatively, you start your own business and use your personal principles to choose clients. If you hire employees, then you can deal with demotivated workers where your clients are against their personal principles.

  • Thanks for the detailed response! I think you are dead on with all of that. It sounds like I've got a bit of planning to do. End of the year is a bad time to look for new work, so in conjunction with @DavidK 's answer, I'll spend some time searching for new jobs, or new clients I can bring to this company, or my own. – Eric Oct 31 '18 at 2:19
  • As a follow-up question, when you're interviewing and they ask why you're leaving your current job, should you say that it's client ethics? – user90809 Oct 31 '18 at 19:55
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Simple. You don't. The business is what it is and will have clients you may or may not agree with. Unless you OWN the business (or have a substantial percentage of ownership that you can veto the choice of clients) you don't get a say in that. At all. Really, you don't. It is their business and you are hired to work for them.

To give you an example, I don't (and never would) work for companies that make gambling software of any kind. For this reason I don't work at their companies, I don't accept interview invitations, I want nothing to do with them. It would be ridiculous if I went to work for one and then complain that I don't like what they are doing.

tl;dr if you don't like the work your company is placing you on you can either ask for different work (if it is available) or leave. There's little else you can do because it isn't your company.

  • There are many examples of employees demanding ethical change at their employers. Google and Microsoft recently had employees complain about contracts with the Pentagon and ICE respectively for example. – Glen Pierce Oct 29 '18 at 15:10
  • Not the same thing. – solarflare Oct 29 '18 at 21:28
  • I think @GlenPierce 's example is pretty similar. It definitely is possible, and I won't know it it is possible with this company without bringing it up. I think I'm leaning on having a backup plan, then talking about it. – Eric Oct 31 '18 at 2:06
  • @Eric very noble to talk about it but don't expect a business who's primary objective is to make money to pay much attention to a worker complaining about where the money is coming from. – solarflare Oct 31 '18 at 2:16
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I mostly agree with Joe's great answer, but I have a slightly different take no how to approach this with your boss.

First off, it sounds like while you aren't a fan of some of your clients, you are still willing to do work for them, just less enthusiastically. I also get the sense that you like the company enough that you might be willing to stay on even if the clients don't change. If those assumptions are wrong, this approach might not be for you, but...

I suggest approaching this with your boss as a potential opportunity to expand the business in a new direction. This way you aren't trying to change your company's income source, you are adding to it. Rather than explaining what you don't like about your current clients, talk about the types of clients you would want to work with. Make sure to also explain why you would be excited to work with these types of client, and also why it would be beneficial to your company.

During the course of this conversation, it's very likely that your boss will ask if you are unhappy with your current work. I suggest being honest, but don't dwell on it too much. Just say that you enjoy the work you are doing, but find it hard to get invested in these particular clients.

If you have the skills and knowledge to spearhead expanding the business, then you are incredibly more likely to succeed. If you talk to your sympathetic coworker beforehand, you could even mention that the two of you could work on it together. You would of course continue to do the work for your current clients, but would taper off as you got more and more work from the new ones. If all goes well, you could eventually be running an entirely new department!

  • @JoeStrazzere I was thinking that, as with most companies, they have their market that they tend to focus most of their energy and marketing towards. Maybe they do lots of work with banks and investment companies but almost none with non-profits or small businesses. The OP hasn't really shared those types of details, so I am making some assumptions. – David K Oct 29 '18 at 13:19
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    @DavidK This has been in my mind, too. Thanks for the validation! I want to flush out my thoughts on expanding to non-profits/for-good-for-profit clients before bringing it up. Maybe get a warm lead or two first. I really appreciate your suggestion. – Eric Oct 31 '18 at 1:53
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How do I approach this with my boss (who is also the owner of the company)? We've got a great relationship, and I know we generally align on a lot of viewpoints. Part of me thinks he feels the same way, but what can you do when you need to run a business? Also, another coworker has voiced similar thoughts during our daily standup meeting.

Presumably yourself and your like-minded coworker like getting paid? Well, so does your boss. So if you want to propose ditching a chunk of the company's long standing client base then you're going to need to come up with a pretty concrete plan to at minimum replace the revenue they bring into the company.

And preferably have a pretty strong argument why these alternate clients should be worked with instead of the clients you don't like rather than in addition to because even if your boss isn't a great fan of these customers clearly he's made the decision that he's okay with accepting their custom - otherwise they would have progressively dropped them as new clients came on board to replace them.

Which would suggest that you need serious amounts of volume of replacement clients - because unless demand for a business' products/services substantially outstrips it's capability to supply then there are limits about how picky you can be in terms of taking on new customers.

It's surprising how many of your ideals you leave at the door when you're wondering how you're going to make payroll this month!

any agency is going to have clients like these.

Believe me I don't mean this as harshly as it sounds - but I think this is something you need to examine in the context of whether you are in the right line of work. I'm never going to judge anyone for drawing a line in the sand and saying "no, I'm not going to work for clients in industry X" but if, like you say this type of client is typical for agencies of the kind you work for then you are going to run into this same situation over, and over again. And at that point you might be better off making a career change so that you can be happy in what you're doing and your values.

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