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The Jewish Ethicist: Unethical Moral Leaders

The Jewish Ethicist: Unethical Moral Leaders

Despite their heavy responsibility to be good examples, spiritual leaders have the same human impulses as everyone else.

by

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

Q. I recently started work at a non-profit public interest organization. Surprisingly enough, some of the people who work in this establishment are not necessarily ethical. Although the head of our organization is a prominent crusader for public morality and social conscience, I have caught him in several outright lies during meetings, and I have also been shocked at his blatant, prejudicial statements against blacks and others at dinner parties. It bothered me that a moral leader did not live his morality.

Is there something I should do about this? I don't want it to appear I am the "moral police" there, but I would think honor and trustworthiness would be the hallmarks of a public interest leader. Do I say anything regarding my boss to the Board, or do I merely find another position where people lie but at least are not trying to lead people to moral perfection? VL, USA

A. The response that Judaism proposes to your situation is clear, but also challenging.

Jewish tradition emphasizes that the Torah was given not to angels but to human beings. God knows that we are imperfect and gave us the Torah to help us improve ourselves. Spiritual leaders, despite their heavy responsibility to be good examples, are no exception; they have the same human impulses as everyone else.

One of the commandments of the Torah is, "Don't hate your brother in your heart; reprove your fellow man, and don't bear a grudge towards him". (Leviticus 19:17.) We are bidden to confront our problems, and not avoid them. This commandment has many beneficial results:

First of all, it gives the suspected person an opportunity to explain himself. Many acts may look improper and unethical, yet there may have been a good reason for them. This aspect is reinforced by another directive of the Torah, "Judge your fellow man righteously" (Leviticus 19:15); according to Jewish tradition, this includes giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Second of all, gentle reproof is an act of human kindness. It helps the person become aware of his shortcomings and may pave the way for him to improve them.

Finally, this habit helps avoid festering bad feelings among people. It enables them to get their problems out in the open and resolve them - as the verse explicitly says.

Keep in mind that your reproof can be effective only if it is sincere - if you genuinely want to hear the other person's side of the story, and you genuinely want their improvement for their own benefit. This is true of any person, and especially so in the case of a respected person in a position of moral leadership.

Seek a non-threatening way to open the subject, and use neutral language like "I was surprised at what you said about so-and-so in our meeting" or "I know that what you said about black people was only a joke, but I thought you should know that it made me feel very uncomfortable."

It would be unfair for you to report your boss to the Board without getting his side of the story. Even if you do get his version, through gentle reproof as we discussed, ask yourself if your report will really be constructive.

You have no obligation to open the subject with your boss if you think it will hurt your work situation or your relation with him, or if it is quite uncomfortable for you. But this is the ideal course of action. You may be surprised at how your judgment of him will change once you hear his side of things, or once he has a chance to confront his actions.

Sources: Talmud - Brachot 25b; Shevuot 30a.

Q. As part of my company's "resizing", I've been notified that I have only two months left with the firm. In the meantime, I'm negotiating on behalf of my employer with a prospective client who is a friend of mine. I am sure my friend expects that if she gives us her business that she will be working with the people she knows in our workplace – most of whom have already been given notice. May I let my friend know that many of us are leaving imminently?

A. Let's sort out the different relationships here: the firm's relationship with the client, your relationship with the client, and your relationship with the firm.

Your employer is not acting unethically towards the client by not informing her that the company is being reorganized, as long as it will be able to meet its obligations and has not promised or implied that particular employees will be assigned to this contract.

As long as you represent your employer, you should do so in a loyal way. This means that in your contacts with the client you don't undermine the company's interests. The moral giants of the Bible were exemplars of employee loyalty. Jacob pointed out to Laban's daughters that "I worked for your father with all my might," even though Laban was not exactly honest with him. (Genesis 31:6.) And when tempted by his employer's wife, Josef first replied that this would be a sin against his employer, and only afterwards that it was a sin against God. (Genesis 39:8-9.)

However, by asking a terminated worker to negotiate with a personal friend on behalf of the company, your employer is putting you in an awkward position, to say the least. You should tell your boss that you feel uncomfortable representing the company in these conditions, and ask that somebody else negotiate with your friend. You can cite personal reasons (the fact that the client is a friend), professional reasons (you don't want to damage your professional credibility), or merely the fact that you're already halfway out the door.

It is true that when you inform your friend that someone else is going to negotiate with her, she may infer that something is amiss. But it's not your responsibility to actively give the client the impression that you will remain at the company, and there is no reason for you to accept this assignment given the awkward situation it puts you in. Your boss will have to do the explaining.

Of course if you refuse to work on this contract you could lose your job...

Q. Clients at my chiropractic clinic can get a discount by signing up for a ten-visit course of treatment. I usually refund patients for unused visits, but sometimes I am convinced that a client has a genuine medical need for the full course of treatment. When this happens, can I tell the patient that she can't get her money back and has to finish her regime? After all, I only want to do this when it is in the patient's interest from a medical point of view. YF, Jerusalem

A. Even though medical practitioners like to think of themselves as the boss, let us recall that ultimately you are being hired by the patient for the course of treatment she is interested in. When she doesn't want to finish the treatment, this is another way of saying she wants to fire you.

Jewish law is very protective of the hired worker, and many laws shield him from being exploited by his employer. For example, the fired worker does not get paid "pro rata" according to the amount he worked. If his current employment deprived him of earning opportunities, then his compensation must reflect this. So you may adopt a refund policy which reflects this, like charging for the used visits as if they were single visits and not part of the plan.

But you can't compel someone to hire you. Even if someone is hired for an agreed-upon period of time, like your ten-treatment plan, if the employer decides she doesn't need the work or doesn't like the worker, she isn't locked into the agreement. Her only obligation is to make sure the worker gets fair compensation. It's not fair for you to exploit the fact that the money was paid up front to take away the patient's right to choose or decline a treatment program.

There is another consideration in your case. The relationship between the treatment provider and the patient needs to be based on trust. Using monetary sanctions as a way of enforcing your medical opinions is bound to erode your patients' confidence in your professional judgment. Even chiropractors should avoid this type of manipulative behavior.

Source: Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, 333

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to jewishethicist@aish.com

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 Aish.com 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 www.besr.org.

JCT Center For Business Ethics

Copyright © JCT Center for Business Ethics.

Published: March 24, 2001


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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) Golz Arvintin, July 5, 2009 4:20 PM

About the leader`s ethicism.

the fenomena described in the article indicates a very sad fact, that the leadership is given to unappropriate persons. the mediocracy is common in these days. Look at the politicians that are ruling the country, their behaviour and their scills and intellectual levels. They undergo series of trainings, but when they open their mouth and have to speak spontaniously , you see the very poor situation. the unethical bosses should not be from the beginning, but mistakes could happen, then they should be replaced by someone more talented. Usually bosses are other people`s yes-mans. it happens everywere.

(3) Chris Martin, September 15, 2001 12:00 AM

Much wisdom

I came across your website by searching "ethics" and "boss*". I'm not Jewish but I think your response is wise. I am considering it, for my own work situation. Your suggestion is one that shows kindness and fairness to the unethical boss. One comment I will make is that it is so difficult to be kind to a boss who is unethical, especially when their actions are unjust and hurt vulnerable people.
Thanks

(2) Anonymous, March 26, 2001 12:00 AM

Absolutely fantastic feature; a very needed addition to the business community.

Once again Aish.com has hit the nail on the head! The timing of the Ethics feature could not have been better!

(1) marie guay, March 25, 2001 12:00 AM

principle or job.

Fearing a job loss should be no reason not to slightly admonish a leader, especially if we ask about it - the ball is in our court. In fact, we should no matter.

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