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The Jewish Ethicist: Supervising Workers

The Jewish Ethicist: Supervising Workers

How much worker supervision is too much?

by

Q. New technology enables employers to keep tabs on workers' every action. How much surveillance is ethical?

A. The relevance of this question was brought home to me recently in the form of a new twist on the old evening news line, "It's ten o'clock. Do you know where your children are?" A huge billboard advertising GPS tracking equipment read: "It's 11:00 AM. Do you know where your workers are?"

We related to this question in an earlier column from the point of view of the rights of the worker. We pointed out that on the one hand worker oversight is certainly necessary and appropriate; the Talmud tells us that someone who has inherited a lot of money and wants to lose it fast should hire workers and not supervise them. (1) On the other hand, employers shouldn't try to dig up private information about workers unless they need the information for a specific constructive purpose, and will use the information in a fair and equitable way. (Example: giving the worker the right to respond; not summarily firing the employee unless there is clear and present danger from worker behavior.) These are the same criteria they would have to apply if they had the information and were considering whether to pass it along to someone else. (2)

This week I want to focus on another aspect of the question: not whether surveillance is legitimate, but whether it is effective. Excessive oversight may be counterproductive for a number of reasons:

1. It limits the employee's freedom to use judgment and thus robs the employer of much of the worker's unique ability.

2. As a consequence, it can stifle the worker's creativity, reducing his ability and morale.

3. Ultimately, lack of trust in the worker may be reciprocated by a lack of commitment towards the employer, resulting ironically in less compliance rather than more.

The great American general George Patton was a stickler for iron discipline. He is quoted as saying, "There is only one kind of discipline: perfect discipline." Yet this same manager is known for the words: "Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity." Employees have to carry out orders, but employers have to know how to give directives that don't stifle their worker's abilities.

We can find a model for this approach in the construction of the Tabernacle at the time of the journey of the Children of Israel through the desert over 3,000 years ago. The Tabernacle, or Mishkan, was the main vehicle for spreading consciousness of God's presence in the world. Its construction is considered in our tradition as the archetype of all constructive labor, so much so that when the Torah prohibits "labor" on the Sabbath day, our Sages learned that the particular labors forbidden were precisely those needed for the work of the Mishkan.

On the one hand, we find that the plan of the Mishkan and its utensils were described to Moses in a detailed prophecy. Yet Moses delegated the actual handiwork to the people in a way which gave maximum latitude to their individual talents.

This began with the donations of raw materials by all the people. Moses did not dictate who should give, rather "Then came each man whose heart inspired him, and everyone whose spirit moved him" (Exodus 35:21). He also did not provide an exact inventory of materials and quantities; rather "Every man and women whose heart moved them to bring for all the work that the Lord commanded through Moses to do, the children of Israel brought as a donation to the Lord"(Exodus 35:29). Ultimately, the Torah tells us that they brought far more than was necessary.

Likewise, the handiwork was not dictated but rather delegated. The chief workmen, Betzalel and Oholiav, were endowed with "skill, insight and inspiration" (Exodus 35:31). But they also did not merely dictate to their subordinates, for the Torah tells us that the individual laborers were also "every wise hearted person, whom God endowed with skill and insight, to know how to do all the handiwork of the sanctified labor which God commanded" (Exodus 36:1).

When the Torah tells us that Betzalel did "everything God commanded Moses" (Exodus 38:22), Rashi comments that he didn't do everything Moses commanded him; rather, his inspiration and insight led him to fulfill God's original plan even when Moses' instructions differed slightly.

The Tabernacle in the desert is considered a model for all our efforts to apply human ability to make the entire world a suitable abode for God's presence. Its construction can likewise serve as a model for an ideal workplace, where the employees are fully dedicated to the success of the project at hand and apply all their individual talents and abilities, rather than merely serving as automatons carrying out precise directives from their superiors.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 29b. (2) Chafetz Chaim volume II chapter 9; Responsa Halakhot Ketanot 1:276.

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

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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 Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem at www.besr.org.

Published: April 8, 2006


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Visitor Comments: 1

(1) David Talbot, April 16, 2006 12:00 AM

Finally, I agree with you completely on an issue. Good article with applications in personal relationships as well as business. I especially liked your reference to General Patton. Thanks.

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