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I work for a digital agency, and my team (that I lead) is set to inherit a long term client.

Trouble is, a member of my team expressed a moral objection to working for this client and now that I have looked into it I fully agree with the objection.

What's the best way of discussing this without singling out the team member that raised the original objection? I already started the conversation about allowing this member to not work on the project, but now that I have done my own research I am increasingly uncomfortable working for them too. (put it this way I would not take a job at this clients company)

I want to be realistic and accept that as a digital agency we can't be too picky with clients. But I do firmly believe we shouldn't associate our brand with theirs.

It's a shame because the actual project is nice to work on, the client is friendly and there are decent challenges, from a business point of view they don't quibble about invoices and all that. But from what I can see the project does touch on an area where they have had legal difficulties and is actually part of recommending a product that is the subject of many law suits.

Also, regardless of the outcome I need to be able to communicate to the team member the decision that has been made. The team member has such a strong objection that they would seek other employment if we plan to work with them long term. I too am not sure how long I would feel OK working on this client. I can be realistic for a short term project but if I was on this project in 6 months, knowing the history of their company, I too would probably feel the need to seek other employment.

I want to get this all across without sounding too dramatic, but also express the seriousness of the objection to this client, I have several articles prepared on their spotty history but beyond that I'm not sure what to prepare. Any advice?

Update

extra background I probably should have mentioned I'm in the UK and the organization I work for is not very hierarchical in nature.

I kind of knew the name of the client from stuff id heard, and associated them with "bad" stuff but before writing this and before i went to my manager I did lots of additional research to make sure it wasnt just hearsay. (I highly recommend this, as some of my opinions towards them did change)

what happened next I have regular 1 2 1s with my manager and I brought it up with him. I mentioned the un-comfort I had morally with the client, I mentioned some key points and also brought it back to the product we would actually be working on for them and how that would increase the sales of a product that is currently under investigation.

It was helpful to centre it around that and back up my ethical concern with real information (which id obviously learnt in researching the client before raising my objection).

Being honest and up front about how in effect I wanted to be pragmatic (e.g. not interrupt the work flow by flat out refusing to work with them) but that if I continued working with them, day in day out, it would probably weigh on me and lead to me exiting. I summarized this by saying "I wouldn't consider a job working for them directly, because of this"

That honest conversation then flowed naturally to a point where they wanted to see the information I had found, so I sent them all my research etc.

He then promised to have (and has since had) conversations with people involved in keeping / acquiring clients and will get back to me.

For me, knowing its being taken seriously is enough for now, perhaps my research is too biased and they will have a justified reason for continuing to work with them, perhaps they will plan to phase them out over time, perhaps it will go quiet for a bit and I will have to bring it up again later. Either way knowing it wasn't simply "their way or the highway" was really good and everything I could have hoped for at this stage :)

Thanks for all the answers, some really good discussion going on, I firmly believe if your working somewhere where decisions that matter to you are "above your paygrade" you should consider somewhere else because ultimately it will make you unhappy

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    Let's say that both you and your concerned colleague do not contribute to the project, can it still go ahead? (Is there enough manpower within the team without you both) Jan 4 at 12:53
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    What's the hierachy above you - can you make such an announcement or even the decision to refuse without consequences from your superiors?
    – iLuvLogix
    Jan 4 at 12:53
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    Perhaps you could examine the risk/benefit for your company being associated with this client. Is there a risk to the company you work for reputation wise that other clients or potential clients might have issues with?
    – Charemer
    Jan 6 at 11:17
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Lilienthal
    Jan 6 at 20:55
  • You said "The team member has such a strong objection that they would seek other employment if we plan to work with them long term". By "we" do you mean the team member themselves, both you and the team member, your whole team, or the company? I think that matters a lot, because you mentioned dropping the client, yet assigning the client to someone else might be a viable course or not depending on that clarification.
    – Blueriver
    Jan 7 at 19:05

7 Answers 7

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What's the best way of discussing this without singling out the team member that raised the original objection?

Just communicate your own feelings and indicate that some team members have similar feelings. Leave out the name of the specific team member. Hope for the best.

If this is a long term client, then their history cannot be a surprise to the company. No need to bring articles to the discussion.

Also, regardless of the outcome I need to be able to communicate to the team member the decision that has been made. The team member has such a strong objection that they would seek other employment if we plan to work with them long term.

As a team leader, it's likely your responsibility to communicate company decisions and project assignments, whether you agree with them or not. Just state the facts.

If this means the team member leaves, then you'll just need to find a replacement, just as you would if the individual left for any other reason. That's the way the team lead job works.

I can be realistic for a short term project but if I was on this project in 6 months, knowing the history of their company, I too would probably feel the need to seek other employment.

You haven't indicated what causes your moral objections about this client.

It's hard to understand why working for this client for a few months would be okay, but for 6 months it would be morally objectionable. Get this clear in your own head before you talk with management about it.

Unless you are in a company leadership position (such as a C-level role), we don't usually get to decide who our company accepts as clients and who they reject. And we often don't get to pick and choose the projects on which we work, although perhaps there are enough teams and enough team members that you can be excused from this project.

If you truly feel this strongly about the long term client, then you should probably be looking for a job elsewhere. You probably don't want to work for any company that would work for this client for the long term - even if you personally don't have to do so. And if the company is in the habit of signing long term clients that you find morally objectionable, then it's likely you'll get similar assignments again in the future.

We each get to decide what our personal morals mean to us and what we are willing to do about them.

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    Already a great answer, could it be worth also mentioning the retention risk as also a potential future hiring risk. If you and others have these objections, its likely other would too. If a potential new hire understands you work with this client and has those same objections it could make it difficult to replace your lost team members. Thats a risk management may understand.
    – DavidT
    Jan 5 at 13:38
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    "It's hard to understand why working for this client for a few months would be okay, but for 6 months it would be morally objectionable." Yeah that's a good point. @OP Or maybe just leave out the bit about the 6 months. It won't really help your case.
    – user541686
    Jan 6 at 5:43
  • I think, that it is quite possible that the company does not know the long-term customer's history: If you are only requested to do a somewhat delimited task (e. g. make great merchandise materials with given content (e. g. happy cows)), in my opinion, it is not mandatory that the company has ever heard of legal issues not directly regarding its own work (say, farmland heavily contaminated with radioactive material). Jan 6 at 22:51
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    It's easy to understand why objecting employees would put a clock on this. They're giving their own employer time to look into this and make a decision. It shows more trust than instantly quitting. They're assuming their own employer isn't just as bad as the client and will do the right thing given time. The most important thing to do here is report this quickly. Things like this don't stay secret for long. Jan 7 at 20:29
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    "You haven't indicated what causes your moral objections about this client." Correct, OP did not and should not indicate this. Else the comments become derailed into discussing the merits of OP's objection, or labeling OP as a snowflake/bigot. On this website, the assumption is typically made that moral objections come from the political left. But it is just as common to find objections from the political right, for ex. a Christian that won't work with a pro-LGBT organization. OP did not delve into the nature of their objection for good reason. Their objection could be literally anything. Jan 12 at 18:30
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You report to the next higher level that your team has objections against this clients. Then one of several things will happen:

  1. Management may not have realised that there is a problem, and are happy that you informed them. If having this client would throw a negative light on the company, the client could get fired. Problem solved.

  2. Management takes your objections seriously and finds enough employees who don't object and take on the client. Problem solved. Your team has just spent one favour; you can't do that kind of thing too often, and it might be a good idea to do something where your team actively supports the company and gets that favour back.

  3. Management takes your objection seriously but has good reasons to have this client. For example needing that client's money to be able to make payroll for the next three months. If there are good reasons to accept the client, and good reasons not to accept them, your team may do the work, with management knowing that you didn't like it, and accepting your reasons, but also knowing that you do the job because the company needs the support. You just earned one favour. Some individuals might refuse to work for that client, that will be held against them to some degree.

  4. Management doesn't care about your objections and says "you do the job, or you get fired". In that case, you start searching for a new job, and leave as soon as you found something. The company doesn't care about its employees, so you'd rather be somewhere else. If the company gets in trouble because employees leave when the contract is half done, tough for them. Not your problem.

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    (+1) This feels like the most realistic evaluation of the range of behaviors possible, but you don't actually offer advice on how to have the discussion, which is something the question asked for.
    – Clumsy cat
    Jan 5 at 16:50
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    5. Management approves of whatever you find objectionable about the client, and in keeping with your idea that personal objections should drive business decisions, you get fired on the spot. Jan 5 at 20:51
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    @TechInquisitor: A wise company will not do that. If you fire the team lead simply for asking a question, it may cause a domino effect and a significant chunk of the entire team may walk away. We talk about having a high bus factor, but there are limits to how many people in the same area of expertise can be realistically replaced at once. If half the company's domain knowledge just walks out the door one day, they may have to temporarily stop doing whatever that team is doing, which is surely more expensive than calmly discussing the issue over several weeks or so.
    – Kevin
    Jan 5 at 22:21
  • @Kevin You mean like Monica? Jan 5 at 22:48
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    @TechInquisitor: If anything, that almost proves my point. Monica was not even getting paid, Stack Overflow, Inc. behaved very unwisely both leading up to and immediately following the incident, and it resulted in exactly the sort of fallout I just described. A smarter company would not have done any of those things.
    – Kevin
    Jan 5 at 22:52
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This question appears to be, as they say, "above your pay grade". Unless you are a C-suite employee of this company, you don't get to choose how the company makes their money, or which clients to take or not take. Someone else does that, and they decided they want the money from this client, despite whatever else. And, it so happens, you are the one who is working on supporting them. So, here are your choices:

  1. You can notify upper management about your apprehensions. Go as high in the chain as you can, and explain what you've found about this client and your reservations to work on this project. However, do not make this a hill to die on, unless this is a hill you are prepared to die on (more on this in a moment). You may want to come at it from a position of "I'll do this work if needed, but I would like to let you know XYZ facts about this client in advance of taking their money". Then, after knowing the facts (I'm hesitant to say "all the facts"; there are 3 sides to every story: your side, their side, and the truth), upper management will make a decision as to whether or not to retain them as a client.

  2. You can see if there is a way you can be taken off this project. Note your apprehensions about the client and make it known you would not be comfortable working on this project. Once again, do not make this a hill to die on unless you are prepared to die on the hill. Something like, "is there another department who can be tasked with this assignment instead of mine?" or something. Perhaps you can negotiate with project management to be given a different project instead, or perhaps you can negotiate it by saying your team is too busy to work on this project (but you may have to prove this quantifiably).

  3. You can make this your hill to die on. You can go to upper management and give them the above information about your apprehensions for working with this client, and then if they say "too bad", you can excuse yourself from the project by leaving the company. This will excuse you from having to work on this project, but will also require you finding another job. It may also create tension and restrict opportunities if you do this too often, if you have to explain that you left this company due to who their clientele is; it may make you look like a job-hopper or untrustworthy in some companies' eyes. For most businesses (successful ones anyway), they take money from whoever is willing to give it to them, and that's how they're profitable. Until you get to megacorp size, you don't just get to pick and choose your clients if you want to maximize profits, and you don't get to be a successful company if you don't maximize profits. So, you may come off as, "if I don't like who you're taking money from then I'll quit", which is contrary to (most) companies' policies of "I'll take money from whoever wants to pay me", which makes you look like a flight risk in terms of hiring you for another role.

The throughline to all of the above suggestions is that there is absolutely nothing, not a thing, that you can do directly to sever the relationship between your company and this client. Even if you quit, this company will still do business with this client, and the client will have their work done, if not by you then by someone else. You have no power to (directly) create a situation wherein your company does not do the work for this client. The best you can do is to remove yourself from the situation personally, potentially by resigning from your own job. Is it worth it? That's up to you to decide.

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    "Until you get to megacorp size, you don't just get to pick and choose your clients if you want to maximize profits, and you don't get to be a successful company if you don't maximize profits." I want to disagree - it's much easier to pick and choose your clients as a small corp, especially if you don't have the capacity to serve all of them.
    – Marandil
    Jan 5 at 14:09
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    @Marandil That assumes your company is extremely high-demand to the point where you have to ration workload, which is an assumption I'm not making (I state my assumptions and I didn't state that one).
    – Ertai87
    Jan 5 at 16:29
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    I think it really depends on the industry. I'm in software and while I'm sure pornhub has very interesting scale, networking, storage, throughput, etc problems to work on, and I'm pretty sure given the particulars of their business they're quite profitable and probably pay their devs a premium, I'm even more sure I will not be working on them there. I don't think employers are going to look askance at me for that (no offense to people who work at pornhub, just ain't my cup 'o tea). Jan 5 at 22:44
  • @JaredSmith That depends on the particulars of OP's objection to this task. With Pornhub, I can easily understand why you don't want to work there; you named the company, their role and product is well-known and understood to be controversial. But OP has given no details about the client nor about the objections to the client (nor am I encouraging them too, they're free to withhold that information and doing so is probably a good idea). Without knowing that information however, it's hard to categorize their objection.
    – Ertai87
    Jan 5 at 23:18
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    @Ertai87 yeah, I'm just saying it depends. But yeah, I'm okay with doing some things at work I wouldn't otherwise do, that's part of what they pay me for Jan 5 at 23:21
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A company goes far beyond the objections and opinions of a single person (or a few of them). It has its own identity, values and vision.

Upper management (C-suite) oversees this identity and values and translate them into specific strategic decisions.

Unless company has a specific trade ethics protocol you can point out to, which doesn't seem to be the case, this decision is far beyond competency of a team lead and requires escalation to the upper management or a delegate with competency on this issue (ethics/equality/compliance/legal department depending on the specific objections), who can escalate at its time to upper management.

Best you can do is escalate this to the next person in the chain of command who can further escalate or make a decision.

As on what reasons to point out, you have to take your personal objections aside. If the client has dubious business practice for example, but your company is already doing business with them, it is clear that they want to stick with it for the time being. Between black and white there are a tone of gray spots to fall in, and I'm pretty sure this client is neither clean or evil only. Either way, you can express your concern, but the decision is not up to you unless you really are part of the upper management.

I would express my concerns like this:

I would like to express my concern regards to working with "CLIENT". There have been past episodes where this type of <products/projects/business area> have been exposed to lawsuits with important losses for the companies involved. [Refer to any jurisprudence that might exist]

While I acknowledge that working with "CLIENT" provides us with an important amount of income, my team is uncomfortable with working with this client and we would prefer not to be involved with them.

Please have a thorough review on the client's history and this concerns. I am willing to offer support and information wherever needed.

If the company goes forward with such a decision, you will have a paper trail of the concerns you have shown, which might not be useful for you at the moment if you plan to leave, but will help out the colleagues who will have to stick with this project, in case things go wrong and they need to find responsibilities.

Finally, as said, if the company keeps pushing forward this client and this is a deal breaker to your morals, find another job and send in your notice. Do not leave your duties unattended until you leave though, you will probably have to deal with this project a few days.

Regarding your team members, if you have authority to reorganise the teams and exclude anybody uncomfortable with it, you can do that for sure. If you need to protect the person raising the hand, you might have to perform a few more movements than just one to avoid drawing attention to him.

Finally, if you cannot reassign your team, you could communicate the problem to that person like this (I have made some assumptions on the potential outcomes, so please adapt to whichever the situation was, this is just an example communication):

First of all, thank you for raising your concerns about "CLIENT". I have definitely thought about it, and share (some/many) of your concerns. I have escalated this issue to "NAME OF THE COMPETENT PERSON", to make sure that the project is aligned with the values of our company.

Unfortunately, a decision has been made that we will go on with this project.

I have made my best effort, to the greatest level of my attributions in this company, to try and reassign you to another team, but unfortunately it is not possible because (understaffing / skillsets required / management refused / etc).

I understand that this is a great disappointment for you, and should you decide to work with us in this endeavour, I will strive to make as many accomodations as possible for you to be able to do your job.

Rest assured that this decision is a company decision made by "UPPER MANAGEMENT", and does not hold you, or anybody of our team, accountable for taking it.

Please let me know your comments about this, and feel free to speak me privately if you are more comfortable with it.

Then it is up to that person to agree to continue or send in his notice, and in that further case, it is a problem for the company to find a replacement, but not the end of the company.

One last note: It could happen that this person refuses to stay with the project, but refuses to leave. This could even be intentional to be eligible for compensation and unemployment helps. In such cases, refer to local law to find the most appropiate way to handle this situation. Disciplinary dismissal might be justified in such a situation.

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It is not known what the situation actually is, but I see a possibility that was not mentioned yet, and I think it is realistic:

The people deciding about the project may actually be uncomfortable with the customer themselves, to some degree.

They could be rejecting the customer even as strong as you do - but not act, because they would interfere with your work, for reasons they could not easily defend.

This may be overly optimistic, but that is not necessary. I assume the problem is at least mildly objectionable in an objective way, like exceedingly bad treatment of animals in a chicken farm. Many in the company know of the bad press that customer gets, but they feel it is not their business to think about it, because that is your job. They may not be interested in the details of the issue, and will never find out how bad it really is, as you found.

That is not a very optimistic case, it does not seem far fetched to me.

In these cases, your problem is different because it is not an adversarial game.
It is not that you want to make someone do something that he does not want.
It is that you want to support someone to act on an idea he already has, at least so much that he immediately understands why you see a problem.

I think in this situation, the detail information you collected is the key that makes the problem easier to solve, or outright solves it.


An independent aspect is about the effects on your team. Working on the project has negative influence on motivation and productivity, to some degree that is hard to measure. That is no problem in itself if the customer pays for it. But there is a problem: it does long term harm to the motivation and productivity of the team, and additionally to the trust and commitment to the company. It is very hard to quantify, but I expect a sociologist would agree.

This is a rational argument for the company not to work with that customer.

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  1. It's perfectly proper for people to object to working in certain ways or on certain schemes. The alternative of shut-up it's 'above your pay grade' leads to 'only obeying orders'.

  2. If you're leading a team (ie a proper team) then share your dilemma with your team. What do they think? That's what teams are good at.

  3. One of the 'business' approaches is to think of a price at which your scruples come second. This applies to the whole business as well as teams and individuals. For example the business might increase the contract price to cover its reputational loss, risk of defections (clients and staff) and so on. It's surprising how large the variation in 'how much I care' there is.

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Company values

Perhaps it is worth looking at this from the perspective of 'company values'. Many companies, especially larger ones, try to codify their moral principles in writing. Has your company done something like that?

If the current company values already support this moral objection, then that is a solid argument for escalation to management - it's not just a random opinion of your team, it's simply pointing out a dissonance with the stated principles of the company and, effectively, a policy endorsed by top management and even company owners.

If the current company values have not considered this moral objection, or have not been codified, then this would be a good opportunity to request that the company does so - preferably in a general manner, not specific to this one customer, in order to establish a policy for the future.

And if it turns out that the company explicitly decides (or has already decided) on values that are contrary to your and your team's moral principles; or are clearly unwilling to stand by these values, revealing that they are empty words - well, in that case, you get clear information about where you're working and whether you want to continue to do so.

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