Kickbacks in Halacha
By: Rav Dovid Grossman, Rosh Bais HaVaad
I am an interior designer and I charge $100 per hour for my time. I spend time with the customer discussing his/her preferences, as well as visiting specific stores looking for the right tiles, furniture, and moldings, etc. As I was shopping around one day (without my client), one of the local vendors offered me a “kickback” of 10% for every customer that I bring through the door. This is obviously very enticing, as my customers spend tens of thousands of dollars every month. Presently, I am accustomed to shopping around at many different stores for my purchases. I assume if I had this arrangement I would use this store much more often, if not always.
Q. Am I allowed to take the “kickback“in addition to my fee from the customer?
A. Actually, as a matter of halachah, accepting kickbacks can lead to a number of potential problems. Whenever a decorator, builder, buyer, or referring professional entertains the thought of taking a kickback,he or she must use extreme caution so as not to transgress any of the following four potential issues:
1.Double Dipping. Many times, when a specific vendor is dealing with a decorator and offering a kickback, the added “expense” inhibits the vendor from offering the customer any type of reduction or discount, which they would typically offer the average customer. Consequently, the customer is “paying“ the decorator the lost discount on top of the negotiated hourly fee. Since that was clearly not the agreement, the decorator is receiving a higher fee than was negotiated at the customer’s expense. This is obviously gezel.
2.Embezzling the hourly fee. A decorator’s job is to represent and protect the client in an unfamiliar marketplace. She is expected to shop and negotiate on behalf of the buyer and work with the customer’s sole interests in mind. A decorator who allows her decision-making abilities to be influenced by a potential kickback is not fulfilling her obligation to the customer. The fee being charged would therefore be undeserved and must be returned.
3.Lifnei evar lo sitein michshol. A person who gives an eitza she’eino hogenes - a suggestion that is unsuitable – transgresses the issur of lifnei evar. The Toras Kohanim expounds and writes: “Lest you say ‘I am giving him a good eitzah,’ behold, the [truth] is in the heart, as it says: ‘V’Yareisa me’Elokecha’.” In addition, the Torah applies a unique curse to one who misleads the blind. Therefore, if a decorator recommends a certain vendor based on a potential benefit, if the eitzah is not proper, she would transgress this issur.
4.Shochad.The issur of taking a bribe, in its simple form, is directed at dayanim. However, the poskim write that the prohibition is carried over to anyone who has been put in an authoritative position of making decisions for or in relation to others.