MONEY

Never go against the family

by JEANNE FLEMING, PH.D. and LEONARD SCHWARZ

Question: For five years I worked for my sister’s husband Jeff at the market research firm he owns. A year after I quit, I started a research firm of my own. I’ve abided by the terms of my contract with Jeff, but my whole family is mad at me because now I’m competing with Jeff for business. Are they right? Just because he once gave me a job, am I obligated to get this guy’s approval for every move I make?

Answer: That depends. If Jeff did you a favor by hiring you – if you got the job because you’re family – then competing with him now is an act of betrayal. In accepting a favor of that magnitude, you incurred an obligation to treat Jeff as more than an employer with whom your relationship was arm’s length. Of course he has no right to oversee your career, but he has good reason to expect you not to start a competing enterprise.

On the other hand, if Jeff hired you simply because he valued you as an employee, he’s on thin ice insisting you have obligations that extend beyond the employment contract you signed. Had he expected you to never compete with him, he should have specified that in the contract. In short, if your hiring was strictly business and you’re playing by the rules Jeff spelled out, his outrage is unwarranted.

So what was it, personal or business? Therein lies one answer to your question. Either way, though, you’ve shown a remarkable lack of family loyalty in starting a business aimed at taking customers from your brother-in-law and bread off your sister’s family’s table. Any way you slice it, that’s a hostile act.

Questions? Email Money Magazine’s ethicists – authors of “Isn’t It Their Turn to Pick Up the Check?” (Free Press) – at FlemingandSchwarz@right-thing.net.

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