Opinion: Fair Freelancers Don’t Finish Last

When you read about famous business leaders or watch popular TV shows on the subject, it can be easy to think you need to be ruthless and relentless to achieve success. But there’s a strong argument for an alternative, as fair freelancers don’t finish last. In fact, they often achieve far more than anyone could have expected.

Imagine you’re pitching a new client for a massively important project. You travel to their expensive offices in the city, sit down, and then explain that you don’t have any of the specialist equipment required for the job. And that you’re planning to pay workers double the normal basic wages.

And then you follow that up by outlining plans to provide subsidised restaurants on site, invest in generally unheard of health and safety measures, and even pay people when they can’t work due to bad weather.

In an area of modern regulations and tech companies competing to offer the most outlandish perks, it still seems a little unusual. But now picture the reaction back in 1928, when Paul Starret was trying to secure the construction work on a new skyscraper?

You might be surprised to learn that the Starrett Bros and Eken company did secure the contract. And they went on to construct the Empire State Building in just 13 months, completing the job 12 days ahead of schedule. And that was despite managing more than 3,500 workers, 200 trucks making delivers each day, and a massive 100,000 bricks arriving in ever eight-hour shift. And a key reason for their success was that their business practices were based on fairness and decency to everyone involved, including workers and sub-contractors.

It’s one of the examples in The Art of Fairness, by David Bodanis. And the important thing to note is that Starrett wasn’t necessarily a nice person, or a pushover. Apparently he could be grumpy at times, and during the construction of the Empire State Building he brought in Canadian engineer John Bowser to audit that workers were actually on site when it was claimed by foremen, and that tools or materials weren’t being stolen by keeping detailed records.

As freelancers, many of us want to be helpful and nice to clients and collaborators. But this can cause huge problems when it leads to a lack of clear boundaries, bad decisions, or letting financial matters slide. And it can be hard, if not impossible, to recover these types of situation once they occur.

So it can seem like you have to always be ruthless in business, and that ‘Nice Guys Finish Last’. But as the original source of that quote, baseball coach Leo Durocher found out  during the 1969 season, it’s not true. Or even about whether someone is nice or not. As Bodanis is keen to point out throughout his book, it’s entirely possible to be successful in work and life by being mean, or by choosing to treat people fairly. But the point is that both options are valid routes to achieving what you want, and more. Other examples used to illustrate the point span from tech executives to politicians and military leaders, showing how widely the principles can be applied in all walks of life.

Fair Freelancers Don’t Finish Last

Switching from nice to fair freelancing

Most of us are taught from an early age that it’s good to be nice, kind and well-mannered. And as a general rule of life, those are all positive attributes but it depends greatly on the situation. As both a freelancer and a parent, there have been times when being firmer or tougher has produced much better results. And looking at it through the framework provided by Art of Fairness has made me realise why both approaches worked or failed in different contexts.

If you’re a freelancer or self-employed business owner finding success in the Steve Jobs or Elon Musk mould, I can’t imagine you’d be tempted to switch your methods. But if you’ve ever suspected that being nice has occasionally caused problems for you in your career, then switching your focus to fairness could be a huge improvement. And if you’re looking for more recommended reading for the self-employed, check out our list of the best books for freelancers.


Read more of Dan’s previous opinion columns on freelancing here, including bad briefs, living with another freelancer, and why everyone should be self-employed at least once in their careers.