JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review May 17, 2001 / 24 Iyar, 5761

Employee Hired From Competitor

By Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- Q. I just hired a programmer who previously worked for our competition. Our rivalry with this firm is so intense that informing ourselves of the strengths and weaknesses of their products is a major activity at our company. Naturally I would like to take advantage of the new hire's intimate knowledge of our competitor's product. May I put her in charge of "competitive intelligence"? What about asking her to review the conclusions reached by my current CI worker?

A. Law and custom are clear about the obligations of a worker to a former employer. He may take along any skills he acquired, but must leave behind any secrets. If a pitcher gets help perfecting his fastball and then gets traded, he doesn't have to slow down his pitches but he may not reveal the old team's signals!

Your new programmer may be very skilled at using the product sold by your competitor, but to be honest I don't think that this is why you value her contribution to your competitive analysis, whether direct or indirect.

Modesty and discretion are paramount values in Judaism, and correspondingly Jewish law is extremely strict about the obligation to keep secrets. Information of a private nature, including business secrets, shouldn't be revealed even if the teller did not specifically say that the information is secret. So don't encourage your new employee to go against these moral principles.

You may still engage in competitive intelligence in order to improve your own competitive position, but stick to sifting through information revealed by publicly available sources.

Sources: Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 4b; Chafetz Chaim, Lashon Hara 2:13.

Q. As part of my company's "resizing", I've been notified that I have only two months left with the firm. In the meantime, I'm negotiating on behalf of my employer with a prospective client who is a friend of mine. I am sure my friend expects that if she gives us her business that she will be working with the people she knows in our workplace - most of whom have already been given notice. May I let my friend know that many of us are leaving imminently?

A. Let's sort out the different relationships here: the firm's relationship with the client, your relationship with the client, and your relationship with the firm.

Your employer is not acting unethically towards the client by not informing her that the company is being reorganized, as long as it will be able to meet its obligations and has not promised or implied that particular employees will be assigned to this contract.

As long as you represent your employer, you should do so in a loyal way. This means that in your contacts with the client you don't undermine the company's interests. The moral giants of the Bible were exemplars of employee loyalty. Jacob pointed out to Laban's daughters that "I worked for your father with all my might," even though Laban was not exactly honest with him. (Genesis 31:6.) And when tempted by his employer's wife, Josef first replied that this would be a sin against his employer, and only afterwards that it was a sin against G-d. (Genesis 39:8-9.)

However, by asking a terminated worker to negotiate with a personal friend on behalf of the company, your employer is putting you in an awkward position, to say the least. You should tell your boss that you feel uncomfortable representing the company in these conditions, and ask that somebody else negotiate with your friend. You can cite personal reasons (the fact that the client is a friend), professional reasons (you don't want to damage your professional credibility), or merely the fact that you're already halfway out the door.

It is true that when you inform your friend that someone else is going to negotiate with her, she may infer that something is amiss. But it's not your responsibility to actively give the client the impression that you will remain at the company, and there is no reason for you to accept this assignment given the awkward situation it puts you in. Your boss will have to do the explaining.

Of course if you refuse to work on this contract you could lose your job...

Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, formerly of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Reagan administration, is Research Director of the Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology. To comment or pose a question, please click here.



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