From a Jewish perspective, what level of personal honesty is required for a job interview and application? For example, if they ask you “have you ever taken drugs?" and I tried them once in college, do I have to admit to this?
"A life of truth and justice should necessarily be more acceptable even if it might appear less profitable than one of falsehood and wickedness, as the Sages said in the Book of Proverbs, 'Buy the truth and sell it not' (23:23). Know that these qualities constitute the ornaments of the soul which endow the body with strength, confidence, and permanence."
So wrote Rambam in his Letter of Moral Instruction to his son, Abraham. And so defines the lives of moral decency and integrity which we should strive to live. The Torah is clear in its expectations: "You shall not bear false witness" (Exodus 20:13), "Keep far from a false matter" (Exodus 23:7), and "Neither shall you deal falsely nor lie to one another" (Leviticus 19:11). Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel, in Pirkei Avot 1:18, ranked the truth, along with peace and justice, as one of the fundamental principles of society; and the Midrash lists deception as the first of seven types of robbery. Deceiving another person tantamount to deceiving God. (For a general overview see my article, “Nothing But the Truth?" Judaism 37:2 (Spring 1988): 218-229.)
Easier said than done! Too often personal interests and selfish concerns get in the way, and deceit is all too often a tool in achieving personal gain and benefit. Deception can give us an unmerited advantage over those with whom we do business or with whom we deal throughout our day, making those dealings more profitable and advantageous. Anyone who deceives another by word or by action violates the proscription of geneivat da’at, which is, according to most authorities, a Torah prohibition. (Hilkhot De’ot 2:6; Hilkhot Mekhirah 18:1)
The source of the prohibition of geneivat da’at is either rooted in the verse, “You shall not steal” (Leviticus 19:11) or "Keep far from a false matter" (Exodus 23:7). Although, in the first instance, the stealing prohibition restricts illicit appropriation of money or property from another, since the Torah formulates it in the plural, lo tignovu, it is understood to include constraints on fraud and deception as well. This prohibition applies universally, without discrimination, making no difference whether the deceived is a Jew or a non-Jew. In fact, deceiving a non-Jew or a nonobservant Jew may raise an additional concern of Hillul Hashem, desecration of God’s Name. (See my article on Hillul Hashem at http://www.jsafe.org/pdfs/Hillul_Hashem.pdf.
When deceit is employed in the conduct of business, in addition to the geneivat da’at injunction, a deceiver may also violate the prohibitions against theft and ona’ah, “You shall not defraud one another” (Lev. 25:17). The prohibition of fraud maintains when a merchant overcharges for the merchandise he sells or when he misrepresents the quality or the nature of those products. (Bach to Hoshen Mishpat 228; Sema, no. 7; Responsa Rivash, no. 403.) Therefore, Jewish law requires a merchant to inform his customers of hidden flaws and imperfections in the merchandise that he is selling. (Hil. Mekhirah chapter 8; Hoshen Mishpat 228:6.) Likewise, he may not improve the cosmetics of older, used merchandise if his intention is to mislead the purchaser by giving the product a newer appearance. (Hoshen Mishpat 228:9.) This prohibition applies even when there is no financial loss to the consumer. And misrepresenting the quality or nature of a product is forbidden, even if sold at a fair price.
Not all of the restrictions are absolute. There are circumstances when deception is permitted—and even mandated. For example, if the deceiver’s intention is not to acquire personal benefit, but is, rather, to show honor and respect to another person, deception is permitted. Additionally, geneivat da'at, does not apply when the other person deceives himself; one is not necessarily obligated to correct a misimpression. (Hullin 94b. See Aaron Levine, “False Goodwill and Halakha,” Tradition 34:1, Spring, 2000.) The criterion is simple: what is it that a reasonable person would expect? If a customer’s mistaken assumption is in opposition to what is most reasonable, then there is an obligation for the merchant to correct his misimpression and to tell him the unvarnished truth. (Tosafot, Hullin 94b, s.v., inhu de-ka matu anafshaihu. See also Aaron Levine, Case Studies in Jewish Business Ethics (New York: Yeshiva University Press/Ktav Publishing House, 2000), pp. 21-22, 38-39, 120-121.)
One may also engage in otherwise forbidden deceit if one’s intention is to neutralize an unwarranted or unfair prejudice. For example, a man whose hair is grey and who is fearful that this may be detrimental in obtaining employment, may dye his beard in order to make himself appear younger. This is only allowable only if the individual is young enough and able enough to perform the required work, otherwise it is forbidden. (See Levine, Case Studies, p. 330.)
If the deceived should have known or could have reasonably known the true facts of the situation and either deceives himself or does not make the effort to discover the truth, it is not the responsibility of the second party to set him straight. It is considered as if he deceived himself. In addition, all of this applies only when the second party has a right to know the information. Business negotiations often depend upon one party having superior information to the other. Withholding such information is not necessarily deemed to be deceptive; it is only forbidden when the second party has a right to know what the first party knows and geneivat da’at obtains only when the information that is shared misrepresents the product or the facts. Therefore, lying explicitly when asked about prior drug use—if such questioning is legal in the first place—is a violation of the geneivat da’at prohibition; one must answer truthfully. Certainly one can explain the circumstances of the situation, one's further track record, any regrets, etc. But if you inhaled...
It is interesting to note that Rambam records the laws of geneivat da’at in two separate places in his code of Jewish law, Mishneh Torah. The first, in Hilkhot De’ot 2:6:
It is forbidden to accustom oneself to smooth speech and flatteries. One must not say one thing and mean another. Inward and outward self should correspond; only what we have in mind should we utter with the mouth. We must deceive no one, not even an idolater... even a single word of flattery or deception is forbidden. A person should always cherish truthful speech, an upright spirit, and a pure heart freed of all pretense and cunning.
And the second is found in Hilkhot Mekhirah, the section on business laws, 18:1, “It is forbidden to swindle anyone in business or to deceive them.” Why did Rambam separate these two paragraphs? Why did he need to mention this prohibition twice? Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein suggested that the purpose of Hilkhot Mekhirah is to teach us how a community is to be structured and addresses itself to how its members should interact within it. Hilkhot De’ot is addressed directly to the individuals themselves and is concerned about their moral integrity and welfare, and the impact of deceit on their own spiritual personalities.
And so, geneivat da’at and ona’at devarim have a double negative result. They harm others, obstructing the smooth functioning of social and business discourse. But they also damage the individual him/herself, significantly harming his/her own spiritual and moral wellbeing.
In Leon D. Stiskin, Letters of Maimonides (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1977), pp. 145-6.
Mikhilta, Mishpatim, parasha 13.
Tosefta, Baba Kama ch. 7.
Hilkhot De’ot 2:6; Hilkhot Mekhirah 18:1; Sha’arei Teshuvah of Rabbeinu Yonah, sha’ar 3, 184. Some authorities, however, maintain that deception is prohibited rabbinically, see Semak 261; Bah, Hoshen Mishpat 228; Shulhan Arukh ha-Rav, Hilkhot Ona’ah 12.
Ritva to Hullin 94a.
Sha’arei Teshuvah, sha’ar III, no. 184.
Ritva to Hullin 94a (quoting Ba’alei Tosafot). See Encyclopedia Talmudit, VI, 225-231.
Ritva to Hullin 94a; Mordekhai to Baba Kama, ch. Ha-Gozel u-Ma’akhil, no. 158 citing Ravia”h; Rambam, Hil. De’ot 2:6; Hoshen Mishpat 228:6. Some limit the prohibition of deceiving a non-Jew to monetary matters, but not to gifts; others disagree and include gifts as well. See both opinions in Tosafot, Hullin 94b s.v., amar Abaye. Ramban and Rashba agree with the former opinion, as does Shakh to Yoreh De’ah 117, no. 13. Rabbeinu Tam, Rif, Semag, Tur and Rosh maintain the latter. Bah to Hoshen Mishpat 228, no. 7, posits that one may deceive a non-Jew with words.
See my article on Hillul Hashem at http://www.jsafe.org/pdfs/Hillul_Hashem.pdf.
Hil. Mekhirah 18:1; Hoshen Mishpat 228:8; Perishah to Hoshen Mishpat 228, no. 5.
Bah to Hoshen Mishpat 228; Sema, no. 7; Responsa Rivash, no. 403.
Hil. Mekhirah chapter 8; Hoshen Mishpat 228:6.
Hoshen Mishpat 228:9.
See Maharsha to Hullin 94a where he discusses the interdiction against selling shoes made from the hide of an animal that died of natural causes while claiming that they were made from the stronger hide of an animal that was slaughtered. He explains that seller violates geneivat da’at even if the shoes were sold at a fair price.
Hullin 94b. See Aaron Levine, “False Goodwill and Halakha,” Tradition 34:1, Spring, 2000.
Tosafot, Hullin 94b, s.v., inhu de-ka matu anafshaihu. See also Aaron Levine, Case Studies in Jewish Business Ethics (New York: Yeshiva University Press/Ktav Publishing House, 2000), pp. 21-22, 38-39, 120-121, "the seller's disclosure obligation consists not only of a duty not to mislead in an affirmative manner but also of a requirement to disabuse the customer of his reasonable misperception about the product."
Levine, Case Studies, p. 330.
Hullin 94b; Hoshen Mishpat 228:6; Responsa Maharit, II, Orah Hayyim, no. 8.
There is absolutely no question that telling the truth is a firm and central value in the Torah, Talmud and throughout Jewish tradition, thus generally making uttering a falsehood forbidden. The Bible instructs us repeatedly: "Keep far from a false matter" (Exodus 23:7); "You shall not steal, neither shall you deal falsely, nor lie to one another" (Leviticus 19:11); "Speak the truth to one another" (Zechariah 8:16); "Remove all false ways from me" (Psalms 119:29), etc. The Mishnah, an early Rabbinic anthology of Jewish law and ethics, adds: "The world rests on three pillars: on justice, on truth and on peace" (Avot 1:18). Further, the Talmud, a vast compendium of Jewish law, thought and ethics compiled in the 6th century, discusses this value in several places. Finally, the Shulkhan Arukh, and other codes of law since, have codified clear and practical guidelines regarding lying as well.
Yet, it is also clear that Jewish tradition does not take an absolutist approach to lying; there are times when our tradition allows for it, even demands it. The Talmud cites at least four such instances that one could use to extrapolate various categories that relate to each example. In summary, without a detailed analysis of each text, lying seems to be permissible on some level: 1) to preserve the cause of peace, not to hurt another person’s feeling, or to provide comfort; 2) for the sake of modesty or in order not to appear arrogant; 3) for the sake of decency, i.e., not telling the truth about intimate matters that would embarrass; 4) to protect one’s property from those you have reason to believe are unethical or mean you harm.; 5) to save a life.
These categories aside, the default position is that lying is forbidden and further that creating justifications for lying can lead to a slippery slope that has the potential to sink a community into a moral downward spiral. The extreme importance of honesty in this regard is appropriately summed up by the Talmudic belief that the first question a person is asked in the hereafter during the final judgment is, "Have you been honest in your dealings?"
Thus, how liberally we apply these exceptional categories to our real-life situations is a serious business. As I read the texts and the commentaries, there seems to be little justification for lying in a job interview without the presence of major extenuating circumstances. I say this because most of the reasons that our tradition gives for the permissibility of lying revolve around protecting others and/or specific ethical values (ex. modesty, decency). Lying to protect or advance oneself seems to be relegated for use only when material harm is evident, particularly at the hands of people known to have caused harm, or to have acted unethically, in the past.
Therefore, if we are asked if we have done drugs and the answer is “once in college”, we seem to be obligated to answer as such. The belief seems to be in such a case that the potential employer will be able to contextualize the answer and hopefully conclude that such a fact only minimally impacts one’s fitness as a potential employee. The possible harm such a statement might have on one’s success in securing a job does not outweigh the moral obligation to tell the truth. Following what I wrote previously though, the exception to this might be if a) you have strong reason to believe that the interviewer will not give that piece of information the proper context, or b) you know that the interviewer has it “out for you” for whatever reason and will use that information improperly, or c) if you don’t get the job, you or your family could starve, for example, or be directly and seriously harmed. In the last case, since the fact that you tried drugs in college won’t really impact your ability to do your job, the material import of your being hired may outweigh the prohibition of such a falsehood. As you can see, this issue is very complicated and there is no stock answer that can be given. How to apply these ethical values should be determined on a case by case basis.
Forthright honesty is appropriate for a job interview and application.Jewish tradition does not forbid lying in all cases, but the situation you describe is not one in which lying would be approved by tradition.
Aristotle, in the Ethics, wrote that it is never permissible to lie. Plato, in the Republic, wrote that occasional lies serve a higher purpose (though we would have cause to question his examples: physicians and politicians). Jewish tradition is neither so strict as Aristotle, nor as lenient as Plato.
Torah recounts numerous examples of deceptions and outright lies: the serpent in the Garden of Eden; Abraham claims Sarah as his sister; Rebecca and Jacob deceive Isaac; Laban substitutes Leah for Rachel on her wedding night; Jacob’s sons tell their father of Joseph’s “death” and deceive the men of Shechem; Joseph deceives his brothers in Egypt. We would do well to consider the consequences of these falsehoods.
On the other hand, Shifrah and Puah lie to Pharaoh and are rewarded by God for saving innocent lives (Exodus, chapter 1). No less than God instructs Samuel to lie to Saul to save his own life (I Samuel, chapter 16).
While truthfulness is highly prized in Jewish tradition, it is not an absolute value. Certainly in the case of pikuach nefesh (saving a life) we are required to lie because, as the Sages remind us, when Torah says “live by [the mitzvot]” it means “live by them, and do not die because of them” (Yoma 85b). Hillel and Shammai disagree (Ketubot 16b-17a): Shammai favors the pure, unvarnished truth, but Hillel condones and even lauds white lies that save people’s feelings.
George Orwell wrote, “At a time of universe deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” It is sadly all too common these days to find people lying on resumes and in job interviews. There is nothing in our tradition that would permit this: it is not a matter of pikuah nefesh, nor would a lie on an application or in an interview save anyone’s feelings. It would merely be a self-serving falsehood and a poor way to begin a relationship we hope will be long-term and meaningful.
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