Many full-time freelancers get their start by holding down a day job while they start their freelance business on the side. It makes for an easier transition, but then an ethical dilemma arises: Am I obligated to tell my boss that I’m freelancing on the side?
Understandably, a lot of freelancers hesitate to do this because it could put their job in jeopardy. If your company knows you’re starting to freelance, won’t they think you’re going to leave soon to start your own business?
While I’ve never been in this position myself (I quit my job before I began freelancing), here’s what I think:
Should I Tell My Boss I’m Freelancing on the Side?
It’s totally up to you, and it depends on your relationship with your boss.
But no, I do NOT think you are obligated to tell your boss about your freelancing as long as the following statements are true:
#1 Your day job does not have a policy that PROHIBITS freelancing.
First and foremost, realize that some companies do prohibit side projects or freelancing, or, they may stipulate what exactly you can do. (For example, you might not be able to work with competitors.)
Some jobs may have contracts or agreements that PROHIBIT freelancing while you work there. So check your company policy or contracts to ensure this isn’t the case for you.
#2 You’re NOT stealing clients from your employer.
If you’re going to start a freelance side hustle, it wouldn’t be ethical to prospect for clients from your day job’s client base. For example, if you work for a PR agency and you work with the agency’s clients, it would NOT be okay for you to take that agency’s clients and then work with them on a freelance basis. That essentially would be stealing their clients. Not cool.
What IS okay is if you find clients OUTSIDE of your day job to work with.
#3 You are NOT doing freelance work while AT your day job.
Again, this is a case that would be stealing: Doing work for your freelance clients while on the clock at your day job. Your day job is not paying you to work on your freelance stuff, so save that for when you get home or on your days off.
So, for example, when I was looking for freelance clients while working my day job, I would only reply to emails while off the clock at lunch, when I got home, or on the weekends.
Realize that even if you don’t outright tell your employer that you freelance on the side, there’s a good chance they’ll find out anyway if you have a freelance website or social media that advertises your services.
I also wanted to bring up that I know someone who has told her employer that she plans to quit to go full-time freelance in one year. Everyone she works with at her day job knows this, and they are supportive of her endeavors and she feels good that it’s all out in the open.
So, again, it’s up to you to gauge what your relationship is with your employer and how serious you are about freelancing. If you’re a hobby photographer who gets the occasional engagement photo shoot gig from friends and you never plan to leave your accounting day job, then it probably isn’t that relevant to tell your boss.
If, however, you’re a photographer for a software company and you do some freelance photography for brands on the side and you plan to take it full-time, it might make more sense to bring it up to your employer (AND to ensure you don’t run into any conflicts of interest).
In sum, I don’t think you have to tell your boss you’re freelancing as long as you meet the above three conditions. As someone who values being upfront with everybody, I totally understand wanting to be transparent with your boss, but the way I see it, people interview for other jobs all the time while they have a job. Do they tell their boss that they’re interviewing with other companies? No! Bosses understand that their employees have other career interests, and eventually, will probably leave the company to do something else. Employees aren’t obligated to tell their boss that they’re thinking of leaving—not until they formally turn in their notice anyway.