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The Jewish Ethicist:  Personal Phone Calls

The Jewish Ethicist: Personal Phone Calls

Is it ethical to break company policy if no one, including top management, keeps it anyway?


The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project with the JCT Center for Business Ethics.

Q. My company officially allows employers to make one personal phone call a day. No one keeps to this limit, and everyone, including top management knows it. Since top management "turns a blind eye", is it unethical to make more than one personal call? -- Julia, Los Angeles

A. There are two different reasons management could be looking the other way. Perhaps they really have no objection to employees making two or three personal calls on company time; they are just afraid that if company policy explicitly allows two or three, then workers will start making nine or ten. If this is the case, then it is not unethical for you to make an occasional extra call.

The other possibility is that the managers are genuinely unhappy about the phenomenon, but are unable to control it. Sometimes supervisors have to turn a blind eye to small-scale pilfering, but it is certainly not ethical to help yourself to inventory.

Here's one way to tell the difference. The first few times you want to make a second phone call, ask permission: "I've already made one personal call today; but now I need to talk to my dentist." If permission is given grudgingly, it's a clear sign that management is not thrilled about this drain on company time and resources. But if permission is given without a thought, and your repeated queries seem an annoyance to your boss, then it's a safe bet that your employer doesn't really mind if you make an additional call every so often.

Treading on the path of "everyone else does it" encourages others to follow in our footsteps, contributing to the creation of those norms in the first place. The Talmud tells of a youngster who rebuked a man for walking through his field. When the man pointed out that he was walking only on the path, the boy replied, "That path was cut by crooks like you". (Eruvin 53b.)

Source: Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, 337:20.

Q. My advertising firm just won a lucrative contract with a cigarette company. Is it unethical according to Judaism to create an advertising campaign for a cigarette company? -- P. Wolfson, Toronto

A. Judaism considers protection of health and life a supreme value. The Torah commands us "Be very careful of your souls" (Deut. 4:15), meaning your well-being. And this duty of care extends to our fellow human being as well. The commandment "Don't place a stumbling-block before the blind" figuratively means that we should never encourage others to do something against their interests. (Lev. 19:14)

But that doesn't mean you have to become a crusader for every new health fad that appears in the papers. Jewish tradition's unique approach doesn't view danger as something which can be measured statistically; perceptions and attitudes are just as important(Shabbat 129b). Attitudes towards danger embody a kind of folk wisdom which can be more stable than ever-changing scientific views. And respecting them is an important way of showing reverence for life.

In the case of smoking, scientific research and popular attitudes concur that it is a danger, so ads encouraging people to start smoking are certainly problematic.

Encouraging current smokers to use a particular brand may be different. Since smoking is so addictive, advertising doesn't necessarily affect the amount they smoke. There is no unambiguous answer if the aim of the ad campaign is only to create brand identity among current users.

Your attitude is also important here. Encouraging something that you personally think is ethically wrong is bound to compromise your integrity. Ask yourself how strongly you feel about this issue and adopt a policy consistent with your views.

While you didn't ask, it is important to point out that lewd or immodest ads are inappropriate no matter what is being advertised.

Q. If you are entitled to sick days that you don't need, can you claim to be sick and use these days as paid vacation time? -- Anonymous, New York

A. Sick days are exactly that – a provision for the employee who is genuinely unable to work. Think of them as a kind of insurance policy provided by your employer. Would you fake an illness in order to collect from your health insurance? Claiming bogus sick days amounts to the same thing.

You shouldn't take even unpaid sick leave if you are healthy. Your employer can't afford to have employees take days off whenever they please; unpaid sick days are meant to avoid hardship for the genuinely ill worker. (If you don't get paid sick leave, you also shouldn't show up when you are too ill to work.)

Besides, how will you feel the next day when everybody asks sympathetically if you're feeling better and offers you their fool-proof home remedies?

Source: Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, 337:19.

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at

JCT Center For Business Ethics

Copyright © JCT Center for Business Ethics.

March 6, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 2

(2) Anonymous, March 14, 2001 12:00 AM

I tried the advice

As the official work policy limits personal phone calls to on per day, I asked the person who is in charge of setting the policy on phone calls if I could call my wife a second time today. He said this is the most ridiculous question he has ever heard and then hung up on me.

(1) Devorah Weitzman, March 11, 2001 12:00 AM

I love this column

I love the simplicity - to the point - easy to read format - large type - and variety of these issues. I look forward to them. Keep up the great work.

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