Guest Column: Is a Paycheck Worth Your Integrity? Not for All the Money in the World!

In the fall of 2017, I was thrilled to be hired for a freelance writing opportunity that suited me perfectly. As a longtime practicing attorney and freelance writer, I relish writing posts where I can marry my passions of law and writing. Not only did this job allow me to pen law-related web content for law firms that were clients of the company, but I also wrote in-depth articles for the company’s weekly e-newsletter.

Not long into my tenure, I started noticing typographical and grammatical errors had been edited into my articles prior to publication. For example, misplaced commas were inserted in my copy, transforming an otherwise well-structured sentence into a stilted, sometimes convoluted mess.

Certainly, I understand editors change words, sentence structure, grammar and more to improve their writer’s submissions. When I was younger and less experienced, I sometimes reddened when editors red-lined (dating myself here) content that called for improvement. Fortunately, I am no longer so wedded to my words. Today, I appreciate my editors’ input because I understand and respect our mutual goal of creating interesting, meaningful and unique content.

As time went on, I continued to notice odd insertions in my articles. Oftentimes, my polite inquiries to my editor were ignored. No matter. It is my name on that byline and I was determined to get those errors corrected quickly. Eventually I found the right person to make the fixes, no questions asked. That person was in IT, however.

It quickly became apparent I was not only going to have to read my articles immediately upon being posting online, but I was going to have to ask the IT person to make corrections. The editor never once questioned me about it, although a few times I expressed frustration to her and our boss.

As annoying as this became, I enjoyed the work so much that I decided to take the good with the bad. At least I had found a way to minimize the damage.

However, in May 2018, when I was forced to draw a line in the sand, I didn’t blink.

I submitted that week’s article featuring an interview with the Big Law attorney who represented the plaintiff in a lawsuit. I was looking forward to the piece and soon as it was posted online, I clicked onto it. My heart palpitated, but not out of joy. Along with the usual inserted grammatical errors, it included facts that, due to my research, I believed to be untrue.

OK, wait a minute, I told myself. Don’t overreact. Because I was on Eastern Standard Time and my coworkers were in California, I figured they were still in the middle of their workday. I decided to research the “facts” in question before contacting my editor for an explanation. For the time being, I gave her the benefit of the doubt that in an effort to strengthen my article, she inserted information pertinent to my piece that somehow, I had not found.

However, after checking several reputable sources, including the lawyer’s own web page, I could not locate documentation of the information she injected in my article. If the piece stood as published, it would have misstated facts linked to the attorney’s comments. I could not, in good conscience, let that happen.

I logged onto the company web site to contact the IT person to make the needed changes. Much to my chagrin, neither he nor the editor were logged in. The weekend was fast approaching and the article could not continue to circulate as posted.

Fortunately, the company CEO logged on. I frantically reached out to him, requesting an immediate edit of my piece. He asked how the article was incorrect. I responded in detail, and he made the required edits. Fortunately, the corrections showed up immediately.  

While I was thrilled the article was fixed, I recognized the problem itself had not been. I asked him how he felt about inaccurate information being purposefully injected into articles. He brushed my concerns aside, responding the situation had been resolved.

But no, it hadn’t. How, I asked, could he keep an editor who was clearly adding incorrect, unsubstantiated content into articles?

He responded he was extremely busy, and that if I had an issue with the editor, I should take it to her directly.

I did just that. Again.

She worked part time so I waited until Tuesday to email her, when I knew she would be in. I worded my missive carefully, asking politely if she could please provide me with the source of inaccurate information. I informed her I had not been able to substantiate the content, so I was curious where it came from.

No response, despite it being obvious she had been on the company site at the time.

Another day passed. I contacted my boss again, informing him I tried to discuss the matter with the editor, to no avail. It was already Wednesday, and my next deadline for the site was fast approaching. However, I had no appetite for the work. Despite truly enjoying my job, I knew I could not work with a publishing company so flippant about integrity.

I told my boss that I recognized he needed her more than he needed me. He asked if I thought the matter was a terminable offense. I was shocked he didn’t perceive it that way. He said he was incredibly busy, and if he fired every person who made a mistake, he’d have no employees.

On Thursday, the editor finally did respond. She said she didn’t understand what the problem was, because it had all been an error. Besides, she wrote in her email to me, the content was corrected, so why was I still annoyed?

And, as if to justify her behavior, she added that I had written incorrect information in my articles in the past, so why was I complaining?

That shocked me. I responded that if that was the case, why hadn’t I been fired? In all sincerity, I asked her to please educate me as to the mistakes she claimed I made so I could learn from them. There was no sarcasm in my request. If I had erred, I wanted to know. I constantly strive to improve, and if she had feedback, I wanted to hear it.

When she didn’t elaborate, which in my mind meant this was another fabrication, I informed my employer I might have to quit. I was honest when I told him I did not want to. I truly enjoyed the work, and the pay was solid and regular.

That evening, I went back and forth. Should I retain the dependable, enjoyable job I held for nearly a year or stand up for myself, other writers, and most importantly, the truth, by walking away?

No matter how I looked at it, I kept coming to the same conclusion. I had to quit, effective immediately. I knew I could not work for an editor who thought nothing of injecting misinformation into an article, let alone write for a publishing outfit that condoned such behavior.

My boss expressed surprise with my decision and with its speed. However, it was abundantly clear to me that, if I wanted to be able to live with myself, this was the only option. As a writer, I value truth and accuracy. I endeavor not to make mistakes, and appreciate when an editor injects their magic to improve my writing. As an attorney, I would have done a disservice to my profession if I had allowed the outcome of my colleague’s case to be misrepresented. But, most importantly, I had to quit to demonstrate respect not only for myself, but for the truth.

I still miss that job sometimes. I also still experience the occasional pang of anger knowing that while I did the right thing, I felt I either had to quit or compromise my morals, if I was to stay.

I made the right choice.          

Tami Kamin Meyer is an Ohio attorney and freelance writer. She is the marketing chair of the ASJA.

ASJA’s dedication to ethics and truth-telling is a key reason that many are donating to our Anniversary Campaign. With a $150,000 goal, ASJA plans to build and maintain a powerful educational portal through which new and established freelance writers can learn and share their s
tories and expertise. Though December 31, all donations will be matched, thanks to a generous $10,000 matching donation from an ASJA member. Make your contribution today!