The Jewish Ethicist: Stealing Customers
Can I ask someone at my old place of employment to obtain a customer list?
Q. I recently opened up my own business after deciding that I could give better service to customers than my former employer provides. Of course I would like to find out who might be interested in my services. Can I ask someone at my old place of employment to obtain a customer list?
A. It's certainly praiseworthy that you want to provide your superior service to as many customers as possible. But you should be careful to contact potential clients in an ethical way.
Customer lists are considered confidential information. Companies keep them a closely held secret. Let's examine if we have an ethical responsibility to respect this secret.
One reason firms guard their customer lists is that they don't want their customers to be approached by potential competitors. You don't have to respect their desire for a monopoly on their customers, and if you obtain customer information in an ethical way you are permitted to approach them. It's true that at one time it was common for businesses to divvy up customers, but today it is accepted that firms compete for business on the basis of the best service and prices.
But there is a very good reason that customer lists do deserve to be secret: they reflect a significant investment on the part of the merchant. Your former employer sunk a lot of money and effort in identifying potential contacts, in developing their interest in the product, and in maintaining updated contact information. It would be very unfair for you to merely “pluck” this list from him after he devoted so much effort to cultivate it.
The Mishna discusses a person who climbs a wild olive tree and starts shaking the ripe olives from the branches onto the ground below. Since the olive tree doesn't belong to anybody, the olives on the ground don't belong to him; yet the Mishna states that taking them is like stealing. The reason is that the person who climbed the tree invested effort in obtaining them. The ethical course of action is for the second person to make the effort to find another tree and take its olives. By the same token, for you to take your former employer's customer lists would be almost like stealing. You should invest your own independent efforts in cultivating customers who will be drawn to your superior service.
Another reason to respect the secrecy of customer lists is to avoid creating a row over customers. The sages of the Talmud ruled that once a person gets within a short distance of a lost object, others should allow him to take it, and not push their way in. This rule maintains order and dignity and keeps people from brawls. A constant state of competition to obtain customer information would create a charged atmosphere of excessive competition, which would make business unpleasant for sellers and buyers alike.
SOURCES: Mishna Gittin 5:8; Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 59a, Bava Metzia 10a.
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