I would like a Jewish perspective for this question that appeared in the New York Times Magazine,:"The Ethicist." Is it unethical to lie to your boss for the purpose of getting a job elsewhere?
[Administrator's note: A related question is found at http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=428.]
I read the piece from "The Ethicist" and was honestly surprised by the answer. I am not so sure I am comforted by a piece centered around ethics to be so callous in setting those ethics aside for expediency's sake. That aside, I think the question is a good one to raise. For many folks, the most difficult questions of ethics arise around job issues. It involves supporting loved ones, meaningful work, self preservation in a difficult job-market, and so much more.
Judaism has long understood the power of speech. Every rabbi has given a sermon telling the story of a man who spoke inappropriately and was instructed by his rabbi to cut a pillow open and then collect the feathers as they scattered. The authors of the siddur and the Bible itself teach us that the entire world was created through speech alone. Exodus demands that we "stay away from falsehoods." The question is not whether lying is ethical - it is not. However, here we are balancing the various needs.
Jewish tradition does acknowledge when lying can be an ethical place. The Talmud argues that it is a mitzvah to lie if it results in keeping the peace. Hillel and Shamai debate whether one can lie to a bride about her beauty on her wedding day. Scholars are able to lie about their own learning, as well as the quality of hospitality. And finally, one can lie to protect yourself from financial harm.
Jewish law recognizes that there are few, if any, absolutes in the world. In my opinion, it is not unethical to lie to a boss if you believe not doing so would cause irreparable harm and you have done nothing wrong to cause the harm. That does not give you unlimited freedom to lie because you are worried about being terminated. We have an obligation to be honest in our business practices.
Given what you have said, it is difficult to give you a definitive answer. But, if I take the example from the NY Times (lying to get time off for the interview) then I believe it would be unethical to lie for that purpose alone. Both you, and your boss, have an obligation to be honest. Without an extenuating circumstance, I believe it would be unethical to lie in this circumstance - given the limited scope of our tradition's acceptance of lying for legitimate purposes. In this case, I think the NY Times is off base. They are correct that it is unethical. I believe they are wrong in suggesting the employee should go ahead and do it anyway.
It is interesting that this was framed as an ethical question. Why did the person posing this not ask – Is it right to lie to your boss…?
Is lying “just” unethical, or is it also wrong? Perhaps the question itself betrayed an attitude to lying that is itself the problem.
The Torah is clear that lying is wrong, indeed prohibited. People who lie usually lie for a reason. There is something to be gained from it – material advantage, making an impression, getting off the hook, etc. Why is this case any different?
Put another way, if such lies are not unethical, as per the question, exactly what lies are unethical?
The basic answer to this question is that it is indeed unethical to lie to your boss for the purpose of getting a job elsewhere. It is hard to imagine an ethical system that slights honesty as a norm. Judaism teaches a high commitment to truth. 'Emet, "Truth", is considered one of the three pillars of the world. (Pirke Avot 1:18). The Rabbis, adopting the symbol of a ruler's signet ring, say that "Truth is the signet of the Holy Blessed One."
It may be that the questioner is motivated by a protest against an imbalance of power, in favor of the boss and against the employee. Perhaps the questioner is hoping for some flexibility that will help to correct that imbalance, and thus, build some protection against abuses of power on the part of the employer. One can be sympathetic with that desire, and yet not counsel that honesty is dispensable. I would suggest that "worker privacy" is a domain where some relief could be offered the questioner, although within fairly strict limits.
The frame of the situation may suggest some of the practical issues that could arise. Is the worker afraid to be honest about taking time off to look for other employment? Here, the specifics of the worker's leave policy come into play. I believe that a worker can be vague about the motivations for "personal leave" (as opposed to sick leave, which is a specific claim that the worker is indisposed.) I also believe that a worker has a right to privacy. If he or she is performing all required duties up to expectations, the employer does not have a right to know details about the worker's life that are unrelated to job performance.
But it would not be ethical to push these considerations beyond their proper domain. Essentially, the situations in Judaism where our tradition softens the rigors of honest reporting are to spare a third party, not to spare the person doing the prevaricating. Thus, Hillel counsels that every bride is beautiful (without specifying what defines beauty), and so it is correct to praise a bride for her beauty, even if conventional opinion would not judge that woman beautiful at other times-- as if conventional opinion really matters! The Rabbis noticed an intriguing nuance in God's conversation with Abraham concerning Sarah's laughter of incredulity, when the Three Angels visited the couple and foretold that post-menopausal Sarah would give birth. Sarah is reported as saying, "what, am I at long last to have delight, with my husband so old?" (Genesis 18:12) When God reported Sarah's speech back to Abraham (verse 13), he changed one crucial detail, and said that Sarah had described herself as being old-- herself, and not Abraham. The Rabbis infer that such a "white lie" is permissible in order to bring or preserve marital peace. But none of these allowable prevarications serve as foundation stones for any structure that we might wish to build to justify prevaricating so as to harm another. Leaving an employer represents at least a challenge, and possibly a harm, to the employer's interests. Workers are not slaves, and have a right to leave their employment for better circumstances. But they also have an obligation not to mislead the employer in the time period leading up to when they serve notice.
There are two aspects to the answer offered by the NY Times. The first addresses the question of lying to the boss for one's own benefit. Here the Ethicist responds that it is unethical and there is no way around this in reality. As you can read in a related question on JVO – noted alongside the question – Jewish ethics clearly would not endorse such a lie. The second question suggested by the response of the Ethicist is that there are occasions when, for pragmatic reasons, there seems to be no way to avoid a lie. While the Ethicist wishes to “contextualize the degree of real damage” and therefore allow the behavior, I would argue that Judaism would not agree.
The Sages taught that truth was the “seal of God,” one of the key names of the Holy One. In Exodus 23:7 we are specifically enjoined to “stay far away from falsehood.” That injunction includes speech, action and hearing. We should not speak falsely, act falsely or listen to falsehoods.
There is allowance for certain “white lies” – exemplified by the story of Sarah laughing at the idea of the aged Abraham fathering her child. God chooses not to pass the full content of Sarah's comment to Abraham in order to keep the peace. Similarly one is advised to praise the beauty of every bride, even if she may not be beautiful in your eyes. Such lies are characterized by the way they keep the peace and allow one to elevate everyone involved.
In this instance you are being paid for your expertise and time. If you are taking time off during the day or otherwise using company time to go job hunting, you are abusing the conditions of your employment. You are depriving your company of either the time or the expertise they are paying for in order to further your own ends.
I appreciate the dilemma – when can you go for a job interview that is not during working hours? It is better, however, to use your time – a personal day – than it is to use your company's time.
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