Working for the Competition: interpreters should stop moaning, and think about the ethical implications

Post date: Jan 29, 2014 9:22:49 AM

In certain situations, there's nothing wrong with going to work for a competitor. "Non-competition" clauses in contracts are generally believed to be unenforceable, and it makes perfect sense for most salaried individuals, particularly those in a professional or specialist field, to move from one company to a competitor as part of their career progression. Companies might not like it, and if they have any sense they should try to prevent it, and protect themselves against the consequences, but they can't really stop it.

A different issue arises, however, when freelancers work for competing companies. Again, clauses designed to prevent freelancers from doing just that are widely considered to be worthless (although individuals should exercise great care when encountering them). However, no company worth their salt would tolerate seeing their hard-won business undermined by freelancers working simultaneously for a competitor.

Context and timescale are key issues here: the market situation may be such that freelancers can quite easily shuttle between companies, and companies may be happy for them to do so; demand may be so strong that freelancers are in a strong position, and can choose whom to work for, as and when they please; plus freelancers working for one company, and then working for a competitor several years later, would likely not encounter any issues.

However (and this is the bit that it's difficult for many interpreters to understand, leading to plenty of ludicrous and ill-informed complaint), when the market context is particularly tough, with a limited volume of business, a small number of competitors, and pressure on prices, and freelancers want to work for more than one competitor more or less simultaneously (for example a two-week assignment for one company, followed shortly afterwards by a two-week assignment for a competitor), it just can't work.

Any company that is happy to see freelancers that it has sourced and trained (and in some cases certified/qualified to perform specific activities) sign up for a direct competitor - thereby boosting its competitor's business at its own expense - is colluding in its own downfall. Interpreters who are used to working for an array of "agencies" need to understand that. The complaint that "nobody can tell me who I can work for" is completely missing the point: a company invests time, effort and money in employing and training freelancers, and in winning contracts that bring business to those same freelancers. Having seen those freelancers benefit from such investment, no company that intends to stay in business beyond the following weekend would be happy to see its investment hijacked by competitors in a tough market.

That's just the way business works. Freelance interpreters with no obligations other than to find work for themselves as individuals need to grasp this simple commercial truth, and stop whingeing.

There is also an important issue of professional ethics involved here: if a company invests time and effort in employing and training you, is it ethical then to "pinch" business from that company, either directly or indirectly?

The Code of Conduct of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) states: "Members must not deliberately approach another member's client with a view to obtaining work from that client". Freelance interpreters who collude in that kind of practice (for example by working for a company run by a language service provider (LSP) who has won business by approaching another LSP's customer) are therefore surely in breach of the Code.

Even if they are not members of ITI (and many are, of course), any professional interpreter should respect that core ethical principle as a matter of utmost priority. They might like to think of that next time they complain that "nobody can tell me who I can work for."