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The Jewish Ethicist: Should I Tell the Boss?

The Jewish Ethicist: Should I Tell the Boss?

A coworker is not a supervisor.


Q. My boss insists that no one smoke during working hours. He thinks it leads to a poor attitude. I have one coworker who sometimes smokes on his break. Should I tell the boss?

A. The usual rule for disclosing someone's misbehavior is that it may be done only if it is necessary to protect the potential victim of the behavior from a loss, and won't lead to disproportionate punishment for the perpetrator. So for example if the coworker was stealing from the employer, and ignored warnings to stop, then it would be appropriate to inform the boss. This is learned from the verse, "Don't go about as a talebearer among your people; don't stand idly by the blood of your fellow man." (Leviticus 19:16.) In other words, you shouldn't gossip gratuitously, but you shouldn't refrain from disclosure if silence would be standing idly by when someone is suffering a loss.

Your boss should not rely on co-workers to do his job for him.

Your boss has a legitimate interest in having workers refrain from smoking, since he believes it affects their performance. He has the right to demand that workers refrain, to supervise their compliance, and to discipline them if they break the rules. But all this is not enough to define this behavior as a loss. We could liken this to a worker who does his job, but lacks enthusiasm. The boss has every right to gauge his work, and to dismiss him if it is not up to par, but mediocre performance is not a kind of loss or damage. If the boss wants to discipline this kind of behavior, he must take steps to supervise it, and not rely on co-workers to do his job for him.

If the boss wants you to report to him on the performance of other workers, let him pay you a salary as a supervisor. As long as your job is defined as an ordinary worker, you need to inform your boss only of significant misconduct.

Taking this idea even farther, there are some activities that the boss has no right to sanction, because they have no relation to the job. This might include for instance religious beliefs or personal habits, if the worker's job is not an unusually representative one. Taking an interest in purely personal matters is an invasion of privacy. This is part of the rationale of laws in many locales forbidding certain questions during job interviews. Even a paid supervisor should refuse to report on behaviors of this nature.

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.

March 28, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) DaJoy, April 13, 2009 7:10 PM

incomplete A.

The question mentions that "it leads to a poor attitude" which its self is unclear, is this relevant information as in this is a valid reason? or just that he has some reason? Also is it relevant if a person smokes "on THEIR break" not "takes a break" (as in a break that is taking time from actual work) in which case that time is time they are being paid to be inside working not outside smoking an its stealing from the company. But if its their break then I do not see how smoking is different than telling an employee not to talk to their wife or mother-in-law during working hours b/c it might upset them! anyway i'm very anti-smoking but this seems to give undo license of a work relationship.

(3) Jerry S, March 31, 2009 9:07 AM

On premises???

"Tattling" may be acceptable if the violation occurs on premises. Consider the health of others from secondary smoking inhalation, as well as whether the insurance premiums are affected adversely..costs affect profit..Chad Gadyah.

(2) Rox, March 31, 2009 8:58 AM

There are smoke breaks and there are "smoke breaks"

I think the particulars of how much time is taken on a break and when are important too. I see no problem when the work is getting done, all coworkers are sharing responsibility, and the work is done reasonably well, to allow coworkers to take even many smoke breaks. What could be the problem in that? However, when it comes to a point where it is a busy time if the day and someone disappears for an hour, that I think can be a loss, not only for the company but also for that coworker that got left alone for the hour. Maybe this is the reason this boss disapproves of smoking? I work in retail, and I've worked with both types of people...the hour-long smoke-breakers and those who really are responsible about it. As a non-smoker, I don't care if someone uses their allowed break time for a smoke outside...but if they feel they are entitled to leave every half hour for a smoke, I should also be allowed the same, for example, to get a drink of water upstairs. If not, then I'd feel I have every right to report it.

(1) Alan S., March 29, 2009 3:24 PM

Does a boss own a "break"?

While the general answer is, as usual, comprehensive and informative, I'm not sure it adequately spoke to the specific question at hand. I understand that a boss can disapprove of smoking because it might interfere with work, in some manner that the boss believes is diminutive while on the job (though I've known many an employee who do their best thinking with a cigarette in their hand). However, is an employee's time (his 'breaktime') his own? I don't think that the answer addressed this issue, and it surely needs to. In this day and age when municipalities and 'bosses' want to control our deficiencies and lives, questions like these need addressing in this column (unless these have been answered and and I've missed them). Is this boss trying to correct behavior he does not approve of (the boss apparently finds smoking detrimental to job performance)applicable to both on and off the job performance? Does a boss get to regulate behaviors regardless of when and where it occurs? Though the answer states that a boss cannot sanction certain activities, the answer needs more fleshing out. As long as a breaktime's activity does not interfere with worktime performance, can a boss nonetheless sanction or approve it?

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