How much loyalty do I owe my boss?

March 22nd, 2017 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 18 comments

Thank you for your valuable insight into how the world really works. It has proven true time and again in my life as you would expect. 

I have been offered a position with a competing company in my industry that pays more and offers a benefit package. In addition my new partner is a harder worker then my current one and also better connected in my city. 

I was hired in my previous position being told that eventually I would be approached like this and would I have the integrity to stay with the company I am currently employed at.

Do I owe my current employer a debt of loyalty since they gave me the position I currently have?




Dear Gregg,

Thank you for affirming the value of our teachings in terms of how the world REALLY works!  We love hearing that readers enjoy our work but when people tell us that they found our teachings not merely interesting or enjoyable but actually useful, the fireworks go off for us.

Congratulations on the job offer. It’s always nice to receive validation that your work is recognized. Your letter raises a number of very interesting issues but omits some of the information we’d need to answer your question definitely. Nonetheless, we’ll try to be useful to you.

It isn’t clear to us if your present boss asked you to commit  not to accept an offer from this specific company or to make a general commitment of loyalty. It’s also not clear to us what your response was at the time you were hired.

We’re sure you can see that no employer should ask you for lifetime loyalty. (A commitment never to leave is nonsensical in all circumstances other than marriage.) That would make an employee into a serf, with no ability to better himself. Some firms do have non-compete clauses where employees agree not to join competing firms within a certain location or time. Even these agreements are being regularly challenged in court, because the idea of restricting someone’s free movement is problematic. A company retains good employees by offering inducements such as good working conditions, salary increases and a path to advancement, not by shackling them.

On the other hand, training a new employee is both dollar and labor intensive. An employee often doesn’t earn his salary in terms of adding to a company’s bottom line until a period of time has passed. It is possible that a competing firm has established a legal but unethical policy of poaching newly skilled workers just when they know enough and have enough experience to be valuable in their chosen field.

You aren’t asking us for legal advice, of course. You, admirably, want to do the right thing. We want to emphasize that we reject your current employer’s notion that remaining in this job is a measure of your integrity.  It’s your prerogative to seek to improve your situation always, including by seeking superior employment. In our view, if you gave a general commitment and you have been at your company for a reasonable time, let’s say two years, we think you should feel that you have discharged that commitment.

If, instead, you specifically gave your word not to move to the specific company that has approached you, then we think you should learn a lesson to be more careful with commitments, but that the ability to look yourself in the mirror means that you cannot accept this offer. It all depends upon what commitment you made – but doesn’t everything?

We hope this is helpful.  Let us know what you decide.

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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Carmine Pescatore says:

This could be a time to remind the present employer that you are loyal, but received a good offer to switch firms. If you are worth more because of your skills, then you can be compensated for them at your next review.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Yes, Carmine-
as we said, we were a little short on information but tried to answer comprehensively. As usual, it is obviously much easier for us outsiders to give advice. Carrying it out is always harder. Much.

David Altschuler says:

Excellent, as usual. But:
If there is only 1 major competitor in that area, is the employer’s request not to take a job from one particular competitor, in effect, a request never to work elsewhere in their field?
Secondly (you touched on this indirectly), mustn’t any restriction go both ways? A serf is permanently stuck, but he is permanently fed and housed. Is our inquirer bound any more strongly than his employer is bound to keep him through the ups and downs of profitability and office politics, after considering the investment the firm made in training him?

Mark Lampe says:

Consider what Rabbi Lapin said, he has the very best advice, I also think Carmine has raised a good point. Be honest with your current employer and tell them about the offer you have received and ask them if they would be willing to match or exceed it. “Ask and you shall receive,” the converse of that is also true if you don’t ask you can’t expect anything to happen. Loyalty is a fine attribute up to a point, but anyone trying to support a spouse and family now or in the future has to take a pragmatic approach with their own needs in the forefront.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

I’d only caution you, Mark,
that trying to support one’s family is never a justification for morally reprehensible conduct. Either it is okay to do this thing or it isn’t. How badly he wants to support his family, or buy a Bugatti Veyron, or give money to a mission is all irrelevant. The point is not so much loyalty, it is contractual. Loyalty is vague–even friends sometimes argue about what loyalty entitled one to expect from the other. Business relationships work best with contracts. That is why we expressed interest in precisely what Gregg might have agreed to.
Thanks for your input – always good to hear from you.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Thank you David,
Interesting that the courts nowadays are reluctant to enforce a non-compete clause because of its baleful effect on a person’s right to self-improvement; so much a part of American tradition. Of course we rejected the notion that he should view himself as a serf. It all depends on whether he committed to anything. I hope we’ll hear back from him. We often do

David Altschuler says:

Call me cynical, but perhaps our courts are less concerned with “baleful effects on a person’s self-improvement” than with a) wanting salaries to go up, thus generating more tax revenue or b) wanting to avoid somebody losing a job and collecting unemployment or disability claims.
I have no evidence, it just seems more in keeping with the mindset of government-employed judges and bureaucrats.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Cynical,
Sometimes judges rule a certain way chiefly because they feel it is in accordance with the law as they see it. Other times they might, say, negate a contract because a greater good, perhaps constitutional, must be protected. Let’s say A signs an agreement to become B’s slave. The court won’t uphold the contract. And not for either your reason a or reason b.
Notwithstanding this, I agree that widespread politicization has corrupted the courts (see 9th circuit) and eroded the nation’s trust in this third leg of government.
Means a lot to Mrs Lapin and me to hear from you.

Rebecca says:

What happened to, “A man’s word is his bond”? The Bible talks about making a vow and then breaking it. What happened to keeping your word? In today’s society it’s perfectly all right to give your word one day and then break it tomorrow, because you changed your mind. I admit that more money, benefits, etc can be tempting, especially when trying to support a family. But I was taught that the rewards for honoring your word, in this world and the next, are far more important than what is here today and gone tomorrow. And what kind of lessons are we teaching the younger generations? I believe that this is a moral and ethical question that can only be answered by the man asking it and his decision is between him and God. But it should not be taken lightly. What are you willing to pay, in the long road, for breaking your word? I know I’m old fashioned, but this is just my opinion………

Susan Lapin says:

Rebecca, we agree with you which is why we couched it as being able to look himself in the mirror. Since we didn’t have all the facts, we did not know if he gave his word or not. However, we doubt he gave his word to stay with this employer for a lifetime no matter what happened. As we said, if he agreed not to move to this competitor, we think he does need to stand by his word. We could definitely use some more old-fashioned commitment to one’s word which includes being very careful with what you say, since it does matter.

Mark Lampe says:

Rabbi Lapin,
I hope you will correct me if I’m out to lunch here but I believe there is an order of what should be most important in a man’s life; first is his relationship to and responsibility to God. Next is his love and protection for his family and meeting their needs, thirdly is his relationship to his church or synagog. Then his loyalty and responsibility to his employer, beyond that fall friends and acquaintances.

I spent the last twenty years of my life self employed, but allow me to relate something that happened prior to that which resulted in me terminating my relationship with an employer instantly. Following a lot of flattery and praise the management of a large company asked me why I failed to attend their periodic employee/management dinner meetings. I politely explained that it was clear to me having attended a few that management was trying to offload things on the backs of employees that could only be solved within the ranks of management. A case of too many overcompensated mid-managers and an insufficient workforce. I reminded them that I spent over ten hours of each day from the time I left for work until I returned home and that I had a wife and two little boys who expect me to be there with them at dinner and bedtime. The manager then became ugly and reminded me that I owed all that I have to my eleven years with the company. I replied asking, “Then according to you this company is the vine through which all blessings flow in my life?” The manager said, “You might say that!” At which point I terminated my employment immediately and rightly so.

Susan Lapin says:

Mark, we don’t disagree at all. Our hesitation on telling Gregg to immediately snatch the new opportunity was that we heard him saying that he had verbalized a commitment and would be going back on his word. That makes his decision between him and God. The employer/employee balance is one that should be a win/win for all. If everyone feels that the arrangement is good, each side can weather even temporary difficult times. Neither should see themselves as a martyr for the other (which is why government interference is problematic).

Bryan Johnson says:

I agree with both the implied loyalty to the employer and the non-competition clause that is standard in most employment contracts. Still, a man has a duty to himself and his family to make the best of his abilities and his opportunities. It would seem to me that anyone who honors his contract and is willing to sit down with his employer (as awkward as that may feel) and discuss his other possible employment might just be surprised by how much they are suddenly appreciated — “I had had no idea!”

If not, then not. Certainly, I’d not suggest a dramatic storming out of the office — we’ve all seen those videos of people hiring brass bands to make a great statement about quitting — but that is just pride. Instead, try to separate as gently, rationally and personalbly as possible.

In the end, there is a balance between self-interest and ethics. Whatever happens, even if the “exit interview” is nasty, just tell yourself — I’ve heard it many times — “I’ve been kicked out of better bars than this!” It may not be the best exit line, but it is memorable.

Susan Lapin says:

I’m not sure I agree that there is a balance between self-interest and ethics. Doing the ethical thing is in one’s self-interest. Clearly, the ethical thing is sometimes hard to determine and no one should be at the mercy of someone else dictating what ethical must mean. In general, there is no reason not to leave a job if that is in one’s interest. Gregg’s specific question came because it seemed that he felt he had given his word, though we weren’t clear on exactly what he had promised.

Dear Rabbi and Susan,

Thank you for choosing this question. The many comments, and subsequent responses from you have been as helpful to me as the initial answer.

It is tempting to try to ‘balance’ values and priorities that really ought to be subordinate to higher principles. Thank you both for standing firm and reminding us of that, keeping us focused on the questions we ought to be asking.

Susan Lapin says:

When we get pushback on an answer, not only do we learn and have an opportunity to see things from a fresh perspective, but it tells us that the issue is one that many are grappling with. We’re glad it was valuable to you, Byron.

Gregg says:

Hello and thank you for choosing my question to be featured. It gave me the insight to make what I believe to be the right decision easier.

To answer your questions in the original reply first.

A) It was a general commitment of loyalty and not specific to the competitor I will be working for.

B) I have worked for the current company for 5 years with growth beyond my initial guaranteed salary.

C) There is a non-compete clause in the contract but it is a legal issue as you stated and is also not an uncommon occurrence in my industry. These usually tend to be a non factor in the decision making process.

The new company has also allowed me the leeway to make the transition easier for my current employer.

In the end all of the incentives you listed of how employers keep employees where offered to be by the new company and I accepted the offer.

Thank you again for the insight and I look forward to learning much more from both of you through the years.


Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Gregg–
As you can imagine, we love hearing back from folks whose questions we selected and answered. Especially when we were blessed to be useful. So we appreciate you taking the time to let us know.
It certainly sounds as if you made exactly the right decision. May you be blessed at home and at work. (Deuteronomy 28:6)

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