The Common Good
January-February 2000

Beyond Legal Obligation

by Laura L. Nash | January-February 2000

Jack Feldbaile, CEO of a large firm, describes a business decision that he feels highlights the tensions he faced as a Christian in business.

"We were in the process of forming a new consulting firm with an employee of another firm that was going to close its doors. If we were to create the new firm, it would have to have some clients. There was a client base at the old firm, and the old contracts with these clients had run out.

"Using one of the best law firms in town, we determined that there was absolutely no legal obligation not to take on the [other firm’s] old clients. You couldn’t induce anyone to breach their old contract, but you could go after the client for new contracts.

"The owners of the old firm didn’t see it that way. They wanted money. What should we do?

"I stepped back and said, I know what the legal obligation is, but what is the ethical obligation from my set of ethics? We are taught very early in scripture that part of the fulfilling of the law is to treat others as you would want to be treated. So that becomes a standard.

"So I said to myself, If I were sitting on the other side, I might feel that I had created and nurtured these clients over a couple of years.

"I thought about this all weekend, and then made an offer to share the profit with the former owner for one year on these clients. She was ecstatic, and not only that, but she then got on the phone and helped us finalize the contracts.

"I don’t say it was hard or not hard. Just that I had to make a decision about what my standards were. And just because it was legal did not mean that it was ethical for me."

Feldballe describes a situation in which the rules of the game do not require any concessions to the former owner. Ultimately, however, he was moved to find a more just approach to the problem—an approach that involved self-denial, risk to the cash flow of his own firm, and respect for another person’s point of view, which he did not entirely share. He rearranged the terms of competition to take into account the interests of the other person, and it is this unconditional nature of his thinking that most clearly reflects the elements of Christian love.

Adapted from Believers In Business: Resolving the Tensions Between Christian Faith, Business Ethics, Competition, and Our Definitions of Success, by Laura L. Nash (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994).


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