The Jewish Ethicist: Cake Calumny.
How can I protect the reputation of my baked goods?
Q. I deliver fresh baked goods to a number of workplaces. One influential manager has been slandering my wares, claiming that someone got sick from my cakes. How can I protect myself?
A. Fighting unsubstantiated rumors is the nightmare of any business. In many previous columns we have discussed the very strict approach of Jewish law to slander, especially slander which can harm someone's livelihood. Unfortunately, many people are still careless when it comes to maligning others, whether through carelessness, ignorance, or occasionally malevolence.
Yet great care is needed in formulating an effective response. The main problem is that there is a natural tendency to fight fire with fire - to respond to slander with slander. It's just so hard to maintain objectivity when reacting to someone who has unfairly maligned us. Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen, in his classic work on slander "Chafetz Chaim", warns that a person is almost certainly going to have vindictive motives in this case (Chafetz Chaim I 10:11).
A practical problem is that giving too much attention to this person's attacks may give the interchange the appearance of a mutual vendetta. This will only hurt your sales further; if people give the slander even a little bit of credence they may avoid your merchandise, and furthermore a shouting match will hurt goodwill.
The best solution is to engage this person directly and conduct a balanced discussion on the reasons for his behavior; then you have dealt with the problem in a direct way and also fulfilled the Torah obligation of giving gentle reproof. But it is understandable if you are worried that this might only deepen the animosity.
Probably the most practical and non-judgmental way of dealing with this problem is not to frame it as an ethical problem but as a marketing problem. Many firms are faced with crises of product-safety rumors; they employ various strategies to deal with these rumors and in most cases are successful in navigating these passing storms. Elements of these programs usually include specific safeguards. In your case you could publicize specific steps you already take to ensure that your goods are always fresh and healthful, or introduce additional safeguards to reassure customers. You may want to formulate some kind of guarantee or customer pledge.
Additional elements generally include inducements and endorsements. Think of holding a special sale for a limited period, and getting recommendations from satisfied customers who are also in positions of influence.
The business environment confronts us with many challenges, many with an ethical component. Very often when we frame these obstacles as ethical ones, we are drawn into a maelstrom of hurt feelings, vindictive sentiments, judgmental attitudes, and a general feeling of powerlessness against the existence of evil in the world. Reframing the problem as a business challenge tends to lead to a sense of empowerment and optimism, and may open the way to a more effective and less judgmental response.
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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 JCT Center for Business Ethics website at www.besr.org.