Question: I sometimes feel disrespected by my bosses but am hesitant to defend myself. What does Jewish law say about how employers should treat employees? Are there a set of rules that one should follow?
“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” So goes a rhyme learned in childhood. It is a means of teaching children character and pride. The negative names others cruelly use to hurt or denigrate should not be allowed to inflict pain. Words are simply empty, meaningless gestures. No one should be depressed over such words. Physical abuse is a problem to fear. Verbal abuse should have no impact upon a person.
These sentiments are noble but contrary to reality. Verbal abuse can seriously hurt another. It can deflate ego, denigrate self esteem and depress character. It can be remembered for ages and cause the victim to harbor visions of revenge. In fact, to some -verbal brutality is more onerous and painful than a physical attack. The humiliation crystallized can seriously alter a lifestyle. Especially painful are the disrespectful verbal abuses emanating from an employer; Such experiences transform a daily work session into a grueling nightmare.
What does Jewish law say about this situation? How should one respond to verbal harassment and disrespect?
It should be noted that Scripture classifies verbal brutality as a sin, a violation of Jewish law. The Bible states, “V’lo tonu ish et amito”(Leviticus 25:17) A number of translations of the Bible miss the essence of this verse. The Jerusalem Bible(1980-Koren)says,”You shall not, therefore, defraud one another.”The old Jewish Publication Society version(1947) and the Menorah Press edition of the scriptures (1957) state ”and ye shall not wrong one another.” These translations are too general. They simply do not clearly state the specific wrongdoing that the Bible prohibits. The Talmud rules that this verse condemns the verbal slighting of the feelings or sensitivities of another.Jews, for example, are prohibited to make reference to a dubious past., to call someone jeering, nasty names, or even to arouse false hope such as by asking the price of an item that one does not intend to buy. (Bava Metzia 58b-59a)
Based upon the above Talmudic concerns, Samson Raphael Hirsch translates the verse to mean, “Ye shall not hurt the feelings of another.” In other words it is a Biblical command to not hurt the feelings of another. Just as Shabbat is important, so too are the sensitivities of another. One is prohibited to steal. So too is it a crime to make a person feel badly .In other words verbal abuse is comparable to physical abuse. Coupled to this is the position of Hillel who ruled that “what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. (Shabbat 31)
The difficulty is that the Talmud and Codes contend that rabbinic courts cannot rectify cases of verbal abuse.(See Bava Metzia 58b, Choshen Mishpat 228:1) In the event that an employer withholds wages, rabbinic courts are the proper vehicles to protect the rights of the employees. In sensitive issues involved with hurting the feelings of others, the problem is that an employer may argue that he never meant to hurt the feelings of his employees.. He may also contend that he truly respects the employee and that his words are really a form of endearment. Such arguments simply mute the power of the courts Accordingly, the Codes state that the recourse of the victim is to cry out to G-d, who is able to detect the true intentions of the employer and will punish him accordingly.(Choshen Mishpat Ibid.,) In other words, Jewish law does not provide to the victim any practical legal recourse..
There is, however, a pragmatic resolution which requires judgment as to whether it galvanizes a positive reolution or a probable negative reaction.
Biblical Jewish law mandates a reaction to the observance of a violation of a positive or negative commandment. One is required to privately admonish the sinner .(Hochai’ach To’chiach et amitecha- you shall reprove your fellow- [Leviticus 19:17])To the extent that it has been manifested that verbal abuse is a sin, this suggests that one may treat the person who is heaping verbal abuse upon another just as one would treat any violator of Jewish law. Namely, the so-called sinner is to be questioned and reproached about his actions.Such a discussion may be gentle and entail the following by a friend.“Are you aware that some of your statements about X really hurt his feelings? You probably do not realize his sensitivity to your behavior which is affecting his attitude during the workplace. I know you do not wish to simply hurt his feelings, so could you be so kind as to refrain from any negative tones or name calling. Please, you will see a changed person should you change.” These words may positively impact the employer. It may also incite him to further treat his employee with contempt. This is the judgment decision.
I’m so sorry that you are facing a painful situation with a difficult employer. It seems to me that the bigger issue here is not how employers should treat employees but how human beings should treat one another. Judaism begins with the premise that all human beings are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, and, therefore, should treat one another with respect and dignity.
Of course, being treated with dignity does not imply that all people have the same social status or position in the work place. Some people give orders and others must follow. A good employer not only manages his business but sets an example through his or her own behavior. Tensions inevitably arise because some people have more authority than others. Aware of the possibility of abuse, halachah – Jewish law - seeks to redress these differences by providing protection and certain rights for the worker. For instance, a boss is not allowed to delay payment for services rendered by an employee. Withholding wages was considered not only a social misdemeanor but a sin against God. Employers also have certain social responsibilities to their workers; he or she must safeguard their safety and provide a wholesome atmosphere in which to work. Similarly, an employer cannot force his employees to take on responsibilities such as coming to work earlier than similar workers in the local community.
The former chief rabbi of Israel, HaRav Uziel understood that responsibilities in the work place are mutual. He writes: Both employer and worker require each other. The worker labors for his own self-interest than for the benefit of his employer. The law, therefore, does not place any specific responsibility on the latter for the worker’s welfare or make him liable for injuries suffered (except the responsibility placed on him by custom). At the same time, however, the Torah obligates him to make every effort to protect his worker from injury; failure to do so make him liable to the moral crime of, “You shall not spill blood in your house.” I suspect that American law would go farther than Jewish law in this regard.
In the Mishnah, the first codification of the Oral Law, we learn of the case of an employee who is hired to perform a task but dismissed when his employer finds that he can hire other workers for less money. While the employee has no legal recourse in such cases, the Mishnah says ‘he can hold a grudge’ and publicly complain about the improper treatment by his former employer. This is no small matter – reputation can go a long way in effecting the success or failure of a business.
In the end, all we can say is there is a fundamental moral issue here but nothing in Jewish law that can protect the worker. The best recourse might be to initiate an honest and open dialogue with ones’ employers. And if they do not recognize the destructiveness of their behavior than the best decision might be to find a better place to work!!
Jewish law has quite a bit to say about the relationship between employers and employees. The basic source is Deuteronomy 24:14-15: “You shall not abuse a needy and and destitute laborer… you must pay him his wages on the same day… else he will cry to the Lord against you.” Furthermore in the Mishnah Bava Metzia 7:1, it is clear that employers are to follow local customs and practices in dealing with their employees. There is more, of course, but those are most relevant to this question.
From these two sources, we can extrapolate that an employer has a responsibility to treat workers with a basic level of respect and dignity according to basic standards and local custom. Workers are assumed needy and/or destitute because if someone is independently wealthy they do not need to work for someone else.
While these laws would be considered binding in any way only on a Jewish employer, they are also good ethical guidelines for anyone. Of course there is much that can happen in a workplace that falls in the category of “disrespect” but falls short of any standard of “abuse”. Here we can fall back on the basic laws of kindness, most especially “love your neighbor as yourself,” as a guideline.
If you feel disrespected, speak with your boss, let him or her know how you are feeling and that while you want to do your best work for the company, your boss’s words and actions harm your ability to achieve that goal. Depending on the type of company, you can also go to your boss’s boss to make a complaint, but the Jewish value of reproving your neighbor (pointing out a violation of law that they are committing or are about to commit before reporting that person to the authorities), would dictate that you should approach your boss first before going over his or her head.
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