Regular employees can choose what company to work for and stick with it. Freelancers meet new clients everyday - repeat businesses, referrals or simply new people. How can you pick and choose, especially when the reason is not quite clear?

For example, I avoid websites with following themes - religious/adult/gambling/alcohol/meat etc. (I'm sure I'm missing some.)

People even get offended/confused about why I'm turning their site down, if it's not blatantly clear (like porn?). Freelancing is greatly based on referrals, and when a client refers me to another client whose line-of-work I cannot approve, I run into embarrassing situation.

For example, this one guy wrote about non-vegetarian recipes. He was like, "I'm not selling any meat! Why can't you take my site?" I don't/can't, because I fall sick. (No, not a coincidence or a hint from universe, probably due to the dilemma eating my brain.)

Telling me things like "None-of-my-business" does not work for me. I tried that over and over.

I contact several new prospects on my own daily (not cold-calling), but sometimes during the middle of the conversation, I realize I cannot work for the company due to their line-of-work, and it leads to a very embarrassing situation.

I also hope you realize that I'm not coming from "holier-than-thou" attitude. I'm sure I'm not better than anybody else ethically or morally, but I don't know what to do about this particular situation.

Question: How to turn down projects without upsetting the client or client's referral and creating an embarrassing situation for everyone involved?

  • Hey tt, can you edit in what your specific question is? Our site works really well for Q&A, but it doesn't do too well as a discussion forum. As it stands, this seems like it might be too broad for our format without some editing. Good luck! :)
    – jmort253
    Nov 17, 2013 at 2:50
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    @jmort253 ... does the edit help?
    – t t
    Nov 17, 2013 at 2:55

4 Answers 4


I don't understand the dilemma.

"Sorry, I'm not available to work on your project." Should be more than sufficient.

If asked again, "Sorry, I'm just not available."

If pressed... "Sorry, I just don't have available resources at the present time."

There's no reason you need to justify not doing the work. They aren't your "boss" if you're freelancing. You are perfectly within fair business practices to decline the work based on whatever reason you want to give. Using current workload as an excuse is often taken as "less personal" by some.

There's also nothing wrong with stating, "Sorry, I just wouldn't be comfortable working a site dedicated to XXXXX." After all, if you aren't going to do the job now, two weeks from now, or a month from now, you may as well make it clear why you don't want the work rather than waste everyone's time.

It's often a freelancers folly to assume they need to please and stroke every single person who approaches them for work. That's a misconception. Do not waste the time of others. If someone has 50 sites to get done and they are all geared towards material you find objectionable, then turn them down and state you don't want to work on the sites due to the content but you'd be very happy to work with them on sites regarding different material. There's no shame in that. Don't send mixed messages. Clients will appreciate that far more than beating around the bush.

If it's YOU CONTACTING THEM... stop doing a very poor job of researching the company. You should absolutely know, without a doubt, you would do any work for them you are capable of doing, otherwise you should not be contacting them at all.

  • 1
    I'd also add that most people needing work done aren't tied to a specific person. There are plenty of people out there willing to do the work if you're not willing to, so they'll just go that route and probably won't give it a second thought.
    – jmort253
    Nov 17, 2013 at 6:31
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    Please don't assume I'm doing a very poor job researching the company. The place that lists the leads tells me nothing about the company. It only lists the tasks. Maybe I'm at wrong website looking for leads?
    – t t
    Nov 17, 2013 at 8:14
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    If only the task is described, and you object to working on the project as a whole. Simply turn down the work politely when you discover the offending fact. "Sorry, I'm very capable of completing [task] but I would rather not work on a project dedicated to [whatever]." I don't understand why you assume you need to coddle the clients. If you don't want the work, simply state that.
    – Scott
    Nov 17, 2013 at 20:07

There are two types of declines at issue here: Work you're offered in response to your marketing/self-promotion efforts, and work that comes to you unsolicited.

The second case is easy. As has been stated, you're always at liberty to decline work by saying that you don't have the time.

The other is a little more delicate. If you're soliciting work, and subsequently declining offers (as you're in your right to do) then you owe your client an explanation. Explaining yourself is delicate and inherently fraught with judgement and personal ethics.

It would be far better to create a clear policy/position on the types of work you're not interested in doing. However, that can be a very negative opener to new business relationships. Instead, you need to turn your choices into a brand. Emphasize the positive choices you make. If you're going to be as discerning as you've implied, you need to turn it into a marketing platform. Brand yourself as a web developer with a conscience. If your marketing indicates that you only work on products that you would use yourself (or something to that effect) then you won't have to make apologies to anyone.

Also, consider the way in which you decline offers. Understand (and make it clear to your clients) that not all of us hold the same beliefs and that you're not judging them for their choices. Show some sensitivity and repress any judgement. Be matter-of-fact. Don't apologize for your ethics, and don't expect any apologies from them.

Finally, as part of your marketing effort, make it clear to prospective clients that the quality of your work allows you to be selective. If you were starving, you might be more liberal with your ethical stance (or perhaps not). But, because your work is good and you are in demand, you're able to be more selective about the work you take on. You're only able to take on so much work. You may as well be selective about what you take on. This will position your brand more favorably. While many of your clients may not agree with you, they'll respect it and bring you only jobs that fit your guidelines. Before long, you won't have to give this too much more thought.

good luck.


You probably want to decline the project and keep the client for the future. It's like having 2 girls in the same time, not impossible, but hardly doable.

The first thing it to be honest and tell why you decline. I was once decline by a great designer because our design was against his religion believes. I was disappointed but respected his honesty. And we used his services after that so he did not lose me as a client.

Once you send a honest reply chances are 50:50 that you will be considered ever in the future. But I guess you just have to take that risk. Just be honest and explain why you cannot do the job.

IMHO the worst thing would be to take this job because you're scared for the future. You will break your believes and there are small chances you will be able to do quality work in the project.


Hey, you should not be embarrassed because you decline someone during the first negotiations. It is their purpose so that you can see whether you can do the project or not. You should only be embarrassed if you accept the job and then decline. That is totally unacceptable.


Honesty is the best policy. Simply tell the client that there are certain sites that you do not take. If they continue to get belligerent, then you probably do not want to work with them anyway. If you are getting blind leads, with no information about what the sites are, that's probably not the best either. If at all possible, build up more of your target clients in your portfolio, and in time, you will find more of them coming your way.

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