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The Jewish Ethicist: Rat or Rap?

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Should I turn in a colleague for inappropriate acts?

Q. My workplace has a "zero tolerance" policy for visits to inappropriate web sites. All employees are supposed to immediate report such behavior to management. Should I go straight to management with such cases?

A. It's a good thing your workplace is sensitive to the damage these immodest websites can do to the worker's own moral fiber, to the offense they can cause to fellow workers, and to the disruption they can cause to performance. However, the policy you describe to fight the phenomenon does not sound like a wise one.

In Jewish law and tradition, informing on someone is generally a last resort. The preferred first line of action is to turn directly to the wrongdoer with a gentle reminder. There are two different ethical principles behind this preference.

One reason for starting with the wrongdoer is that this fulfills the Torah commandment of reproof. "Surely reprove your fellow, and don't bear sin towards him." This commandment is not directed towards the protection of any third parties, but rather for the benefit of the wrongdoer himself, to gently remind of the right way in life.

Furthermore, informing on others is itself a forbidden activity, unless certain conditions are met. The Torah tells us "don't go about as a gossip-monger among your people", meaning we should not spread malicious information. This prohibition is superceded only when the disclosure meets certain conditions, which we have called the "ABC's" of forbidden speech:

Accuracy: we must relate the information accurately, without exaggeration or judgment.

Benefit: the revelation must be the only way to promote some constructive benefit

Certainty: we shouldn't relate hearsay.

Desire: our intention must be to bring about the constructive benefit, not to disparage the wrongdoer.

Equity: the steps the hearer will take to protect himself shouldn't cause immoderate and undeserved harm to the wrongdoer.

In many cases turning directly to the wrongdoer will rectify the problem, so informing would not be the only way to promote the constructive benefit; the benefit condition would thus be violated.

The certainty condition may also be violated. Any internet user knows how easy it is to get accidentally redirected to inappropriate sites, and it may be that the colleague in question never had any intention of entering forbidden web pages.

Depending on the reaction of management, the equity condition is also jeopardized. If disciplinary action is immediately taken against a worker for a one-time infraction, this sounds to me like an excessive reaction. The Talmud tells us that a worker shouldn't be summarily fired for minor mistakes on the job; only for severe and irreparable ones. A commensurability standard should also apply to reprimands.

An immediate reaction could possible be justified if for some reason your company would face immediate damage from inappropriate web visits of employees. (I don't know why this would apply.) In this case, the employer could be justified in taking action. Otherwise, it would seem that the only permissible response would be for them to issue a reminder; but in this case, it is hard to see what you gain by going to management instead of gently reminding your colleague by yourself.

For these reasons, it would seem much more appropriate to allow workers to respond to forbidden behavior by simply giving a gentle reminder to their colleagues.

The claim could be made that workers waive their right to protection by agreeing to the "rat first" policy, but I would be reluctant to sanction the waiving of such a fundamental right without compelling justification.

I would recommend asking those responsible for this policy what the justification is. If it seems that there truly is a "clear and present danger" to the workplace from employee visits to forbidden sites, and if their reaction to information is balanced, the policy could be justified. A balanced policy means that employees have a chance to defend themselves (insuring that the information acted on is accurate), that they are given the benefit of the doubt, and most importantly that the reaction of the management is commensurate. For example, the first report would involve a reminder, then a reprimand, and so on.

But if the policy dictates a draconian reaction to colleague reports, I personally would avoid policing my colleagues and instead just look the other way. (Actually, I always look the other way when I am confronted by these sites anyway.)

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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 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

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