How to create a Code of Ethics for your web design business

9 min read
Lisa Stambaugh

A Code of Ethics is a guiding set of principles used by professionals to run their businesses with integrity, honesty and accountability.

Beyond describing details as to what the professional shall or shall not do, the code also describes how problems are approached and solved, decisions are made, standards are upheld, and how you put your values to work in your business.

Related: Where to find your next web design project

Why have a Code of Ethics?

If there’s no one to dictate the Code of Ethics, and no one to enforce it, why bother? I view it as doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.

But equally important, we can educate clients to better understand how to evaluate who they partner with on their website. In my opinion, the two most important reasons are:

  1. Pride in running an above-board business
  2. Differentiation from your competitors

Why should web professionals care?

Certainly we should all be familiar with laws pertaining to businesses, as they relate to working on the web.

Legal standards around websites are evolving daily, as issues are taken to court and resolved, and as legislation is introduced.

However, many practices appear legal but aren’t necessarily ethical, based on professional standards of behavior.

In concert, all web professionals should strive to promote our industry as one that is honest, trustworthy, sensitive to legal issues, and willing to be held accountable to acceptable standards of conduct.

When some individuals display unethical or deceitful behavior, it hurts all of us via generalizations and assumptions.

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Why should clients care?

There are universal expectations when hiring specialists or experts in many fields and professions — whether you’re talking about doctors, lawyers, auto mechanics, hair stylists, caterers, DJs, or landscapers.

You want to trust service providers and believe they will:

  • Treat you fairly
  • Communicate honestly
  • Charge you appropriately
  • Deliver work meeting professional standards and your expectations

In the case of web design, clients are putting their reputation on the line, and engaging with the wrong person can have a catastrophic effect on one’s business and reputation.

Related: 5 surprisingly effective tips for promoting your web design business

What to consider in setting your own code of ethics

One simple approach to creating your own ethical code is to create a bullet list outlining commitments you will make, and steps you will take.

Think about expectations you have of other professionals, and you’ll realize many of them also apply to web designers and developers. It helps to break them down into a few categories:

What you will do while acquiring and managing clients

  • You will honestly present your qualifications, and what you are capable of delivering.
  • You will offer fair pricing.
  • You will make every effort to meet budget and schedule constraints spelled out in proposals and contracts, and will communicate promptly with clients if those commitments can’t be met.
  • You will protect sensitive client information.
  • You will have reasonable contracts that treat both parties fairly.
  • You will do your best to ensure clients are satisfied with your delivered solution, and if not, will take steps to resolve issues.

Related: Website design services — making the move from freelance to full-time

What you will not do while acquiring and managing clients

  • You will not sell or share client info.
  • You will not artificially inflate information reported to clients.
  • You will not promise to deliver something you know you can’t control (for example, even the best SEO experts can’t 100% guarantee first-page Google placement for every desired keyword).

What you will do when designing, developing, and maintaining sites

  • You will be truthful in terms of what is published on a client’s site -- to the best of your ability, given clients provide this information.
  • You will not use unlicensed or pirated software.
  • You will not use black hat SEO methods, link farming, web rings, or other questionable activities specifically designed to artificially improve search engine ratings.
  • You will not knowingly publish or spread malicious code.
  • You will deliver original work created specifically for each client, which doesn’t infringe on or violate the copyright or intellectual property ownership of others.
  • You will not resell products or services at prices with unreasonably inflated profit margins.
  • If a client requests something you are unable to deliver, you will say so, and help them find the appropriate resource within your network of skilled professionals.
  • You will make sure you use standard approaches and include appropriate documentation, so a site could be handed off to be maintained by others.

How you will work with clients to avoid unethical behavior on their part

  • You will not use “stolen” images or use licensed images without the required attribution.
  • You will not publish anything you know to be plagiarism.
  • You will not publish anything you know infringes on copyright or intellectual property ownership.

Additional administrative areas

It’s not uncommon for web designers to handle numerous administrative details on the part of clients — often perceived as a willingness to “protect” them from having to deal with the nitty-gritty details.

And yet this could be a direct conflict with the popular advice that clients maintain ownership of products and services to avoid issues.

Fortunately, many service providers now include the ability to let clients own their account, but grant administrative rights to others (which they can then revoke as necessary).

Upon request, you should be willing to:

  • Provide login details to a client’s site or WordPress account.
  • Allow clients to register their own domains.
  • Set up clients as the owners of their domain/hosting accounts, and add yourself as administrator
  • Set up clients as the owners of their Google Analytics accounts and add yourself as administrator
  • Hand over relevant logins, information, and documentation when the relationship with a client is terminated.

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What would you do?

Once you’ve identified items important to you, consider possible situations you may find yourself in, and think about what you’d do.

It’s best to prepare for these scenarios before they happen.

  • A potential client approaches you and they are an existing client’s competitor. Will it be possible to work for both clients without conflict? If you say yes, will you notify both of the situation?
  • You provide a quote and finish the project in substantially less time, Would you be willing to explain this to the client and offer a price adjustment?
  • A client rejects your advice and insists you should do something unethical. If they are paying you, do you quit and offer a partial refund? Or do you keep quiet and do as you are told?
  • A client asks you to alter an image to present themselves differently. Is a bit of Photoshop Botox acceptable? What about creating a fictional version of an award the client did not earn?
  • A client presents content or materials you know to be plagiarized. Would you be willing to help them paraphrase and substantially re-write, in order to produce original content?
  • Would you accept a client whose own reputation might influence others’ perception of you or your business?
  • Would you accept a client who is selling a service or product you feel is unethical? Would you explain why you could not accept the job?
  • Would you accept a client whose product or service promotes politics or causes you don’t support or agree with? What if the product or service is acceptable, but the client has expressed a view you don’t agree with?

No matter how much you prepare, you will encounter situations you had not anticipated.

Consider these illustrations from my past:

  • A potential client asked for a discount if he paid cash, suggesting I wouldn’t have to declare it as income, and could avoid paying taxes. For me, the net income would be the same, but of course the client would pay less. I said no and explained why. Fortunately, the client understood my perspective and was willing to back down.
  • A potential client once came to me to redesign and manage their site. They owned about 60 domain names. Their current web designer had purchased all of the domains on his own account, was paying the domain registration renewals annually, and then charging the client twice the going rate per domain, for virtually no added value. I could have duplicated the scenario in my own account; they’d be none the wiser. By moving the domains to their own account at the registrar, I was able to save them hundreds of dollars per year. It was a delicate balance to avoid outright accusations of unethical behavior on the part of their previous pro, while simultaneously doing the right thing to protect my client.


As a fairly unregulated industry, web pros are not generally held accountable to a formal Code of Ethics. As there is not one universal code currently in place, why not articulate your own?

Once you take the time to create your personal Code of Ethics, be sure to work it into your collateral:

  • Add a page or section to your website. Check out my website as an example.
  • Add information to your proposals.
  • Reiterate key concepts in your contract.

You’ve articulated what you stand for. Now put it to work, confident that you’re better serving clients, living your values, and bumping up the overall level of legitimacy of the web profession.

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