Q. My firm would have trouble filling an open position with a simple ad asking for CV's. But we know an existing worker at another firm who is suitable. Can we try to lure him away?
A. Jewish law has a healthy respect for existing business relationships and negotiations, and educates us to be reluctant to disrupt them. The Talmud tells the following story:
However, many commentaries limit this restriction to the case where the "poaching" is gratuitous or nearly so. They assume that Rebbe Abba could easily have found another property that suited his needs; in that case, it would have been unethical for him to undo all of Rav Gidel's concern and negotiation and make him start all over looking for a field. Rav Gidel is thus likened to someone "poor", who will suffer a loss if he has to look elsewhere, and Rebbe Abba to someone rich, who has many opportunities. If however Rebbe Abba had a special reason to want specifically this field, then it would have been proper. (2)
The same commentators also extend the analogy to the labor market. They state that a worker shouldn't try to offer himself to an employer who is already satisfied with his current employee. The assumption is that the unemployed worker has many work opportunities and that he shouldn't pick on the currently employed worker who is already invested in his current place of work. But it is permissible for an employer to hire away a worker from some other employer; again, the assumption is that good workers are hard to find. But these are only examples. If the facts were opposite – jobs hard to find and workers easy to find – the ruling would be opposite.
So given your statement that you would have difficulty finding a good worker through regular channels, it would be perfectly OK for you to offer a job to a person currently employed elsewhere. It is also OK to hire such a person if you solicit CV's and he sends one; then he has judged that it is in his interest to change positions.
However, in many lines of work there are unwritten agreements among firms not to poach. There is a kind of "golden rule" at work where firms agree that everyone would be better off avoiding a disruptive game of musical chairs. If this is the custom in your industry I would think twice before rocking the boat; your decision could come back to haunt you.
Another ethical issue to consider is the way of approaching this individual. It would be improper to approach or contact him at work, or through work channels (e.g., his work phone or e-mail). This would be adding insult to the injury suffered by his current employer. And it goes without saying that you shouldn't take advantage of any private information the worker obtained in his current workplace.
SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 59a (2) Tosafot commentary there
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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.