Red Flags: Should You Say No to a Project?

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As a contractor, you’re constantly drumming up work, so turning down a project may seem unthinkable, particularly in this economy. But there are instances when passing up a job is the best choice for your career and reputation, not to mention your sanity. Some potential projects come with clear warning signs that may prevent you from completing your best work. Maybe the deadline is too tight, or you don’t feel you’ll receive all the information needed to do a quality job. Whatever the case, you’ll make a more informed choice to accept or decline a project if you keep an eye out for the following red flags:



  • No clear project lead. It’s essential to have a clear, internal point of contact for direction and approval of your work. If you’re uncertain who’s making the decisions, your work may be critically delayed, or the objective may change numerous times.
  • You don’t have the exact skills. Someone wants to hire you to work on software with which you’re unfamiliar. You could take a crash course in the program or assume you can do the work because you know another similar program. But don’t fall into this trap. More of your creative energy is likely to be directed toward learning the new program than finishing the job. If the client discovers that you were not forthcoming about your lack of experience, your reputation will be affected.
  • An unrealistic deadline. Let’s face it, even with a realistic end date, unforeseen issues almost always develop and can delay project completion. Take a close look at the objectives, your responsibilities and the associated deadlines. Will you be able to complete your work within the given time frame? If you are already overloaded or the client’s deadline is too short, you won’t produce the high-quality work essential to maintaining an excellent reputation.
  • You’re the sixth contractor on the project. This significant red flag indicates that the job has already been plagued with problems that others haven’t been able to solve. It could be a number of issues, including poor project definition, office politics, inadequate technical resources, insufficient human resources, shifting business or industry demands. It’s important to ask what you’re expected to do differently and why the other contractors weren’t able to finish the job. In the process, you may turn the project down or discover you have the ideal expertise and experience to complete the work effectively.
  • The project doesn’t align with your career goals. When considering a new project, keep your long-term career goals in mind. If the proposed job is an 18-month software integration project in the pharmaceutical industry—and you’re interested in gaining networking expertise within financial services organizations—you may want to reconsider taking the role. However, weigh all aspects of the position before making a decision. Even if the project doesn’t match your goals, certain aspects of the work may be beneficial. The job may provide new skills or lead to future projects that point in the direction you’d like to go.
  • Here today, gone tomorrow. You never know when a firm is going to close its doors or fail to pay you for your work. Try to find out as much as you can about the background and financial health of the potential client. Good sources of information include corporate Web sites, trade publications, business newspapers and former and current employees. Numerous rounds of layoffs or negative company or industry news may be signs the company is in jeopardy. If you believe a potential client’s future is uncertain, try to get a good portion of your payment upfront.


If you decide to decline a project, do so graciously and be straightforward about your job-related concerns. By being honest and expressing your interest in future projects, you’ll keep the door open for the client to call you down the road.

While you can’t always predict if an assignment will be too much trouble to take on, staying alert to some of these scenarios and gathering as much information as possible beforehand will help you make the most informed choice.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals for initiatives ranging from e-business development and multi-platform systems integration to network engineering and technical support. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia and offers online job search services at


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