Business ethics 88.
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The ongoing Tiv Taam controversy illustrates a common business ethics dilemma: the legitimate limits of industrial espionage by competitors and news media.
Tiv Taam is an Israeli supermarket chain that produces and sells its own brand of meat products. Recently, the chain was the subject of an expose on the popular Kolbotek television program, which claimed to document severe sanitation violations. Tiv Taam, in turn, launched an aggressive counterattack on Kolbotek and defense of its policies.
I cannot discuss the relative merits of the Kolbotek claims and the Tiv Taam counterclaims. These claims continue to be clarified in the courts, in regulatory bodies and in public opinion, and I have nothing to add. What is of particular interest from a business ethics point of view is the fact that Kolbotek used at least one "mole" in the Tiv Taam plant.
While much footage was obtained by conventional methods including anonymous interviews with regular workers and footage shot by cameras outside the plant, Kolbotek also planted reporter Chai Rekach in the Tiv Taam plant, where he was hired as a warehouse worker. While at Tiv Taam, he did carry out his official duties but was mainly occupied in digging up dirt at the company.
The case has interesting parallels to a case brought to a UK court some years ago.
The UK case was one of pure industrial espionage. While we tend to think of industrial espionage in the context of hi-tech secrets, this was a very low-tech case of competing car garages, one of which evidently had a uniquely efficient way of parking cars, thus giving them a dominant position in the UK garage industry. Their frustrated main competitor took one of their own employees and hired him to work as a parking attendant for the dominant firm and to report back to them on the more esoteric aspects of valet parking. The subterfuge was discovered and the firm being spied upon sued the mole's company. However, they lost the case; the judge ruled that the parking attendant did nothing wrong. The employer did not make him sign a non-disclosure agreement; he was not in a position of trust (such as a manager, who may be required to advance the employer's interests), and he was an exemplary worker (and no doubt a quick study).
The Tiv Taam case is at once more and less severe than the car-park case. It is more severe because, according to Tiv Taam, the Kolbotek reporter was not an exemplary employee. A Tiv Taam lawsuit describes him as "a tireless busybody." If these claims are correct, Rekach wasn't hired by Kolbotek to be a good employee and then report about his experiences; rather, his work as a warehouser was only a ruse to secret him into the plant. Tiv Taam claims that he obtained employment under an assumed name.
However, the fact that Rekach was a reporter can be viewed as a lenient consideration; it is generally accepted that there is a salient public interest in enabling reporters to act as a public watchdog by performing exposes. Official organs of law enforcement are limited by budgetary considerations as well as legal ones (including equal protection of the law) that do not apply to the news media. The news media don't need to be subject to these restrictions because they don't have the power of prosecutors or regulators, and anyone accused has the right to reply - a right that Tiv Taam exercised with a vengeance.
Still, I can't see the justification for departing from the "car-park" standard in this case. A reporter is completely justified in taking a job solely for the purpose of gathering information for a story, and a number of famous exposes were made possible by this exact technique. But he is still getting a salary for doing a job, and the technique is used in bad faith if the reporter not only wants the job for an extraneous motivation, but in fact doesn't intend to perform the job at all. Perhaps some leniency is called for if the required information could not be obtained otherwise, but it seems to me that enough information could be obtained by a normal employee to make a respectable expose.
Muckraking has a long and respectable history and it is understandable to bend the rules a bit to enable reporters to serve the public. But its proper role is to expose the practices of its subjects, not to victimize and exploit them. In this particular respect, Kolbotek's expose tests the ethical limit of investigative journalism.
The author is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (www.besr.org), an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.