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The Jewish Ethicist: Conflict of Interest

The Jewish Ethicist: Conflict of Interest

Is it ethical for me to promote my own company in shul building committee discussions?

by

Q. Our synagogue needs to hire a contractor. I am both a member of the building committee that will choose a contractor and also a partner in one of the companies under consideration. Is it ethical for me to promote my own company in committee discussions?

A. In your dual role as synagogue representative and partner in a contractor, you face a conflict of interest. Conflicts of interest are nearly unavoidable in every day life, but they need to managed in an ethical fashion.

The Torah states: "Don't curse the deaf, and don't place an obstacle before the blind. Fear your God; I am the Lord" (Leviticus 19:14). Our sages interpret both subjects figuratively: the deaf person is just an example of a person who is vulnerable (1), while the blind person means one who is blind to his own best interest.

Rashi's commentary states:

Before one who is blind to the affair, don't give advice unsuitable to him. Don't tell him, Sell your field and buy a donkey, and you are scheming to take it from him.

The key word here is "scheming". The problem is not the conflict of interest, but rather the hidden conflict of interest. The solution is to disclose the conflict of interest.

Another possibility that could occur to us is to simply suppress the conflict of interest and determine to judge objectively, without regard for your interest. But the sages of the Talmud did not have much faith in this ability.

The Torah warns against bribery in the following verse:

Don't distort justice, and don't show favoritism. And don't take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the wise and distort the words of the righteous. (Deuteronomy 16:19)

On the words "for bribes blind," Rashi's commentary states: Once a person accepts a bribe, it is impossible that his judgment shouldn't lean towards him to justify him.

The Talmud tells the story of Rebbe Yishmael the son of Rebbe Yosi, whose sharecropper brought him his share of the crop on Thursday instead of Friday, since he had a lawsuit and Thursday was the day the court sat. Rebbe Yishmael recused himself from the case. Even though the produce actually belonged to him, his natural feeling of delight at having it brought, and brought early, distorted his judgment. (2)

Exploiting your position to advance your business interests would certainly be an abuse of your position of trust. It would involve "placing an obstacle before the blind". Making the decision while pretending to ignore your interest is not realistically possible.

The best solution would be to recuse yourself and let others make the decision; then you would be free to act solely as an interested party and make the best case for using your own firm. If that is not practical (for instance, you have unique expertise the committee needs), you must at the very least disclose your conflict of interest so that the synagogue membership can evaluate your recommendations in the proper context.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 66a (2) Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 105b.


Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to jewishethicist@aish.com

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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.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of Aish.com and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem at www.besr.org.

Published: December 5, 2009


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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) Anonymous, December 9, 2009 6:28 PM

My father used to tell me, "It's better to not do business with friends or family". To do otherwise may damage the relationships. And people are more important than buisness. I also agree with #2 below.

(3) David, December 9, 2009 2:35 AM

The conflict of Interest Resolution

I partly disagree with SusanE. Why give business to a company not connected to the shul? Having a contractor on the Bldg committee is a huge asset. The contractor should participate in the technical aspects of the project, and then recuse himself from the selection of possible contractors suitable for this project. I have been on the BOD of our community and no project, over a set size, could move forward from the committee stage to consideration by the full Board without a minimum of 3 bids by competing contractors.

(2) ChatzkelS, December 8, 2009 10:23 PM

Great Answer, Susan

I agree thoroughly, and can even amplify it; your experience as a contractor makes you uniquely qualified to evaluate the bids as they come in. In this way, you're providing real tseadakah to the community - you're using your expertise, on your own time, at no cost.

(1) SusanE, December 6, 2009 7:59 PM

The Conflict of Interest is Too Great.

It would be lovely if every institution had an in house contractor. Then a committee would not be needed. In this case, there is a definite conflict of interest. You should stay on the committee and your company should not be considered as one of the bidders on the job. Your expertise can be better used to help decide on another company that isn't connected to the shul.

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