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Stealing Business or Fair Competition?

DILEMMA

I am a student working summers (and part time throughout the year) for a landscaping company. Due to the economic downturn, our company’s business has dropped significantly, and the workers have had their hours scaled back. I need the work to enable me to pay for college. In my work, I have no employment contract and I receive no benefits.

Recently a former client contacted me personally and said he liked the way I worked and had another job, but didn’t want to go through the company I worked for. He asked me if I would be willing to take on the job myself, perhaps recruiting a few colleagues to help. The pay would be better than I would have received working for the company, and I don’t think this client would contract with my employer in any case.

I admit this feels a bit awkward, and wondered what you would recommend I do.

A Hard-Working Student

RESPONSE

Dear Hardworking,

Drawing an appropriate distinction between stealing business from your employer and fair competition is tricky territory to navigate. Many employers frown upon accepting side work from a client, considering it a cause for dismissal. Yet this occurs frequently, especially in your line of work or when people launch their own businesses in a variety of service industries.

While I sympathize with your need to pay for college, I don’t think it should play a role in determining right from wrong. People who make unethical choices usually have “good” ends they are trying to achieve.

That said, I believe several facts may make accepting this work fair. First, the nature of your relationship with your “employer” is critical in determining your duties. From your description, you appear more to be a contractor than an employee (no employment contract or benefits) with reciprocal rights. Thus, you may “owe” less than a true employee. Second, the amount of time that has elapsed between when your employer last worked for this particular client is also important to consider. While you do not state the time, a particular firm cannot “own” a client forever.

Although ethics may be on your side, if you take the work, you are also accepting the risk that your current employer may terminate any future work directed toward you. I think this risk is magnified by recruiting others to join you.

Kenman Wong
Professor of Ethics, School of Business and Economics
Seattle Pacific University

If you have an ethical dilemma at your workplace,
email Ethics at Work (eaw@ethix.org).
We will publish some of these in
Ethix along with our diagnosis.

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