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Question 131: May a man use an executive-training program to prepare for another job?

I am completing my Master of Business Administration degree and am engaged to a wonderful woman. She is the only surviving child in her family, because her three brothers and a sister were killed two years ago when a small plane, piloted by the eldest brother, crashed. Her father owns and manages a fairly large business, and he already has told me he hopes I will come to work for him and eventually take over as chief executive officer. But first, he thinks, I should work elsewhere for a few years to get experience.

There are various possibilities. The most appealing would be a stint with a major corporation in its executive-training program. I probably could make more money elsewhere while still gaining useful experience, but I doubt that anything else would provide such a solid background. My professors assure me that with my record and their recommendations, I am almost certain to get more than one attractive offer from corporations with good training programs.

Many executive trainees switch jobs when they have a few years experience, just as their training begins to pay off for the employer, and I am sure I would do enough useful work to earn my pay. Still, training programs and the opportunities to which they lead obviously are not meant to give people experience so that they can take over their in-laws’ businesses, and I plainly would not do enough work to compensate my employer for the cost of training me. I have some qualms of conscience about going this route, but would like to do it. Frankly, I hope you will tell me there is no moral problem!


This question calls for application of norms excluding lying and deception, and judgment by the Golden Rule. The questioner’s expectation that he will go to work for his prospective father-in-law does not of itself morally exclude as unfair applying to corporations with good training programs. However, in the application process, the questioner not only must not lie but should communicate candidly to any company that makes it clear it wants to know about his plans. Moreover, he should not apply for any job that probably will generate serious conflicts of interest and duty for him if and when he resigns to work for his father-in-law. Therefore, the questioner should consider the other, less appealing possibilities he refers to but does not describe.

The reply could be along the following lines:

I do not think it necessarily would be unfair for you to apply for a place in an executive-training program while planning eventually to go to work for your prospective father-in-law.

Like many young people, you seem confident that you can look into the future and plan your life, much as you might plan some fairly simple project, such as a vacation. In reality, our lives are subject to many contingencies, and God alone is in a position to plan them for us. By constantly trying to discover God’s plan, we can learn enough to take the next step in following it. We must do this constantly, year by year and even day by day (see LCL, 113–29). It is a mistake to imagine one can know with certainty what the future holds.

Perhaps God not only is calling you and your fiancée to marry and form a family of your own but will call you and her father to form a business relationship in which you can put your talents to good use serving all those in any way involved in the business. If both things really are elements of your vocation, your working elsewhere for a time would contribute to your subsequent career only as a way of obtaining training and gaining experience. At present, however, you need a job and your prospective father-in-law is not offering you one. You must look elsewhere, taking into account that the future may not work out as you expect.

I do not suggest that there is anything wrong with your hopes to marry your fiancée, gain business experience, go to work for her father, and eventually take over the management of his business. After your marriage, though, you and/or your father-in-law may have second thoughts. Your better-informed assessment of the prospective benefits and burdens of working for him, based on how your relationship with him develops and affects your marriage, might lead you to judge that it would be better for your marriage if he and you avoided a business relationship, given that tensions in such a relationship could be stressful to your wife and any serious difficulty would be heartrending for her. At the same time, your father-in-law’s better-informed assessment of your talents, based on longer acquaintance and your development as you gain experience, might persuade him that the business and you both would be better off if you continued to work elsewhere.

These contingencies would be in play even if your fiancée had been an only child, but as matters stand I believe there is an additional reason for uncertainty. Her parents suffered a terrible loss. The death of even one child brings on a special grief, hard for anyone who has not experienced it to understand, comparable to suffering the loss of part of oneself. Far more painful to your fiancée’s parents, I am sure, was the loss at once of four children, including all their sons, whom they had raised and cherished for many years. Even without that grief, they no doubt would hope that their daughter’s marrying you would mean their gaining a son; but considering the grief they have experienced, it is virtually inevitable that some of their hopes for their lost sons are being transferred to you, so that your future father-in-law is likely to expect far more of you than he otherwise would. You may not be able to satisfy his expectations or perhaps even willing to try.

Not only that possibility but others should be taken into account. The marriage you now plan might never take place; your father-in-law’s business might fail; your work with the company that first employs you might be so satisfying that you decide to remain with it rather than going to work for your father-in-law. I repeat: I do not wish to discourage you about your prospects. My point simply is that you are more confident that you foresee the future than you have any reason to be. In this respect, your enthusiasm and optimism, which lead you to suppose you can make calculations about the future, are generating a false moral problem for you, much as many people offer specious solutions for real moral problems on the mistaken assumption that they can calculate future benefits and harms. Set aside that mistaken assumption, and you will partly overcome what looks to you like the inevitable unfairness of going to work for a corporation with a good executive-training program, for you will no longer say: “I plainly would not do enough work to compensate my employer for the cost of training me.”

Perhaps the rest of the basis for your supposing that you will inevitably act unfairly can be removed by considering the limited nature of the implicit commitments expected of people who enter such training programs. There is great mobility in contemporary business; a morally questionable individualism is pervasive, and stability in relationships is not expected. All this surely is taken into account by corporations running executive-training programs. They gamble on holding good people whom they train. If they ask for no explicit commitment that trainees will stay for a certain length of time, that no doubt is because doing so would only exclude some of the most desirable candidates: those both creative and candid enough not to feign a commitment they do not seriously undertake. Then too, corporations wish to avoid committing themselves to retaining trainees who turn out less satisfactorily. And if this is why no commitment is sought, then surely the same assumption will rule out the existence of some sort of implicit commitment making it unfair for you to seek a place in an executive-training program.

But even if you need not be unfair, still you are likely to encounter moral problems in applying for a place in an executive-training program while planning to work for your prospective father-in-law. You say: “There are various possibilities,” but you describe only one. Whatever the other possibilities are, I suggest you examine them very carefully and perhaps choose one that would serve your purpose about as well, without morally problematic features. Moreover, if you do apply for a place in an executive-training program, take care to anticipate and forestall the moral problems.

In the first place, in applying for positions and being interviewed, you are likely to be asked about your career goals, your expectations of the corporation’s training program, and so on. Your answers must be strictly truthful. You may not deceive a potential employer about your plans. If anyone asks you for an explicit commitment to remain for a certain period provided the results of the training program are mutually satisfactory, do not make that commitment unless you believe you can keep it and really intend to do so. Moreover, you not only must refrain from lying about your plans. You also must speak candidly and describe your prospects, including their contingency, as accurately as you can whenever the interviewer’s questions or other elements of a selection process make it clear that this information is wanted. In entering into a relationship that calls for mutual commitment and ongoing cooperation, not only lying but evasiveness would be gravely unjust both to the employer who might thereby be misled into hiring you and to a competitor who might miss out on a position you would win by dishonesty.

In the second place, you should take into account and, probably, discuss with your prospective father-in-law your duties to the corporation where you might obtain your training and experience. Since you already foresee the likelihood of resigning after only a few years, you ought to take into account the harm that might do to all the participants in the company that will train you, and plan ahead to limit it. Moreover, you may not appropriate that company’s secrets and proper expertise; you must not abuse the opportunity it gives you by betraying its legitimate interests. Therefore, shaping your plans in view of the probable demands your prospective father-in-law’s business will make on you, you should not apply for any job you foresee is likely to generate serious conflicts of interest and duty for you.