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The Jewish Ethicist: Monitoring Workers

The Jewish Ethicist: Monitoring Workers

How intrusive may employers be in monitoring workers?

by

Q. There was recently a high-profile case of a manager who lost his job because he was caught viewing improper web sites. How much intrusive monitoring is ethical, and how should management react to its findings?

A. There is no doubt that it is proper and even vital to keep an eye on workers to make sure they are doing their job. The Talmud suggests ironically that someone who inherits a lot of money and wants to lose it quickly should hire workers and fail to supervise them (Bava Metzia 29b). It also assures us that someone who personally surveys his affairs each day, including the behavior of workers, is guaranteed to benefit (Chullin 105a).

However, intrusive monitoring can violate a worker's privacy. The fact that someone is at work doesn't make his or her every move the concern of the employer.

Employers have an ethical responsibility to monitor in a responsible way. This responsibility has two aspects, the "what" and the "how":

1. Not to have an excessive amount of monitoring;

2. Not to use the information gleaned from monitoring in an inequitable or otherwise improper way.

We can get some idea of where to draw the line from a fascinating insight of the renowned 17th century legal authority, Rabbi Yaakov Chagiz. Noting that gossip is strictly forbidden in Jewish law, according to the verse, "Don't go about as a talebearer" (Leviticus 19:16), Rabbi Chagiz concludes that just as it is forbidden to disclose private information to others by gossiping, so is it forbidden to reveal such information to ourselves by prying. "It is forbidden to pursue and seek the private affairs of one's fellow, for what is the difference between gossiping to others or to oneself?" (Halakhot Ketanot I:276.)

We can complete the picture by presenting the basic ethical principle regarding gossip or slander: Only information that is essential to preventing substantive damage may be disclosed to the vulnerable party, and only if the information will be used in a responsible way.

For example, if I happen to know that a fellow worker is using drugs, I am allowed to reveal this to the employer only if the worker's drug problem is likely to damage his work, and only if revealing the information is the only way to forestall such damage. Furthermore, I must be certain that the employer's reaction will be equitable. Sending the worker for treatment or suspending him temporarily after providing a fair hearing is a measured response; but immediate dismissal or legal action would often be considered excessive.

Applying the criterion of Rabbi Chagiz, we would conclude that an intrusive drug-use monitoring program could be justified only if two conditions are fulfilled:

1. There is a reasonable presumption that this monitoring will uncover drug use that has a measurable impact on the company;

2. Results from the monitoring will be used in a measured and responsible fashion.

Employees need to know about the monitoring and be given a fair hearing if it seems to turn up damaging information.

Employers have every right to take reasonable steps to protect themselves from harm from malicious or careless workers. But this doesn't give them the right to be some kind of corporate "Big Brother." Any monitoring system should be designed to obtain only information vital for the company's protection, and needs to be accompanied by transparent and equitable procedures for using the information in a constructive way.

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

To sponsor a column of the Jewish Ethicist, please click here.

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 Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. 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.

Published: June 12, 2004


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