The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project with the JCT Center for Business Ethics.
Q. I made an unwritten agreement with someone to make him something in return for payment. When I told him I'd take back the equipment if he didn't pay me, he called my bluff and stopped using it! Now he claims that since he's not using my work, he doesn't owe me any money.
Well, I don't agree with him at all, and I found a way to steal the money from him a little at a time without his knowledge. But I wonder if this is really ethical. Can I keep on collecting my debt this way? Should I return what I've already taken? PG, Brooklyn
A. Your situation certainly proves the old adage, "An oral agreement isn't worth the paper it's printed on." When a contract is unwritten disagreements are much more likely to arise and much more difficult to resolve.
Another problem is that your agreement seems to be pretty ambiguous. If an agreement is unclear, then one side is likely to feel that he has been cheated; and even an ethical person may be tempted to extreme measures when he thinks others are taking advantage of him. Avoid this temptation by making sure that both sides understand their obligations in any contract.
While your frustration is understandable, stealing is not the ideal way to solve contract disputes. Try to convince your client to compromise or go to arbitration, but if he declines or if you lose the arbitration judgment, you should return the money.
Since informing your colleague that you stole money from him is likely to be embarrassing for both of you, you can return the money the same way you acquired it – without his knowledge. Jewish law recognizes that doing the right thing is sometimes easier when it's done in secret, and permits hiding payment in this way to encourage honesty and to maintain harmonious relations.
Sources: Ahavat Chesed I 10:13, note citing Sefat Tamim; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 4:1,70:1, 355:1.
MAKING UP TIME FOR DOING NOTHING
Q. I work for a consulting company. Most of the time I have nothing to do. Since our main client is the government, we have to fill out time sheets. I am allowed to make up time if I have to. My question is: how do I make up time for doing nothing? If I leave an hour early one day, do I have to stay longer the next day doing nothing? MH
A. Just think -- if you had my job then you could count as work hours the time you spend trying to figure out the right thing to do.
Getting to the point, falsifying time sheets is unethical, not to mention illegal. I presume you're wondering if it's really "falsifying" to record the time you spend filing your nails at home, since you are legitimately allowed to record the time you spend filing your nails at work.
This is not an ethical question so much as a contractual one – what does the government demand of its contractors? I checked this out and it seems that you do indeed have to stay longer the next day doing nothing if you want to get paid for a full week of work. I guess the rationale is that if you're getting paid to work, you can count hours spent at home if you're doing your work there. But if you're not doing any real work, then you are getting paid for showing your face at work and being on hand in case you may be needed.
Of course, you may want to consider if this job really involves the maximal use of your talents. God gives each person a unique potential, and the time we spend earning a living should also be part of our contribution to the world. Let's strive to make the best possible use of our time.
Sources: Avot 2:15.
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