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The Jewish Ethicist: Supervising Workers

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

How much worker supervision is too much?

Q. New technology enables employers to keep tabs on workers' every action.
How much surveillance is ethical?

A. The relevance of this question was brought home to me recently in the
form of a new twist on the old evening news line, "It's ten o'clock. Do
you know where your children are?" A huge billboard advertising GPS
tracking equipment read: "It's 11:00 AM. Do you know where your workers

We related to this question in an earlier column from the point of view of the rights of the
worker. We pointed out that on the one hand worker oversight is certainly
necessary and appropriate; the Talmud tells us that someone who has
inherited a lot of money and wants to lose it fast should hire workers
and not supervise them. (1) On the other hand, employers shouldn't try to dig
up private information about workers unless they need the information for
a specific constructive purpose, and will use the information in a fair
and equitable way. (Example: giving the worker the right to respond; not
summarily firing the employee unless there is clear and present danger
from worker behavior.) These are the same criteria they would have to
apply if they had the information and were considering whether to pass it
along to someone else. (2)

This week I want to focus on another aspect of the question: not whether
surveillance is legitimate, but whether it is effective. Excessive
oversight may be counterproductive for a number of reasons:

1. It limits the employee's freedom to use judgment and thus robs the
employer of much of the worker's ability.

2. As a consequence, it can stifle the worker's creativity, reducing
his ability and morale.

3. Ultimately, lack of trust in the worker may be reciprocated by a
lack of commitment towards the employer, resulting ironically in less
compliance rather than more.

The great American general George Patton was a stickler for iron
discipline. He is quoted as saying, "There is only one kind of discipline:
perfect discipline." Yet this same manager is known for the words: "Never
tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise
you with their ingenuity." Employees have to carry out orders, but
employers have to know how to give directives that don't stifle their
worker's abilities.

We can find a model for this approach in the construction of the
Tabernacle at the time of the journey of the Children of Israel through
the desert over 3,000 years ago. The Tabernacle, or Mishkan, was
the main vehicle for spreading consciousness of God's presence in the
world. Its construction is considered in our tradition as the archetype
of all constructive labor, so much so that when the Torah prohibits
"labor" on the Sabbath day, our Sages learned that the particular labors
forbidden were precisely those needed for the work of the Mishkan.

On the one hand, we find that the plan of the Mishkan and its utensils
were described to Moses in a detailed prophecy. Yet Moses delegated the
actual handiwork to the people in a way which gave maximum latitude to
their individual talents.

This began with the donations of raw materials by all the people. Moses
did not dictate who should give, rather "Then came each man whose heart
inspired him, and everyone whose spirit moved him" (Exodus 35:21). He
also did not provide an exact inventory of materials and quantities;
rather "Every man and women whose heart moved them to bring for all the
work that the Lord commanded through Moses to do, the children of Israel
brought as a donation to the Lord"(Exodus 35:29). Ultimately, the Torah
tells us that they brought far more than was necessary.

Likewise, the handiwork was not dictated but rather delegated. The chief
workmen, Betzalel and Oholiav, were endowed with "skill, insight and
inspiration" (Exodus 35:31). But they also did not merely dictate to
their subordinates, for the Torah tells us that the individual laborers
were also "every wise hearted person, whom God endowed with skill and
insight, to know how to do all the handiwork of the sanctified labor
which God commanded" (Exodus 36:1).

When the Torah tells us that Betzalel did "everything God commanded
Moses" (Exodus 38:22), Rashi comments that he didn't do everything Moses
commanded him; rather, his inspiration and insight led him to fulfill
God's original plan even when Moses' instructions differed slightly.

The Tabernacle in the desert is considered a model for all our efforts to
apply human ability to make the entire world a suitable abode for God's
presence. Its construction can likewise serve as a model for an ideal
workplace, where the employees are fully dedicated to the success of the
project at hand and apply all their individual talents and abilities,
rather than merely serving as automatons carrying out precise directives
from their superiors.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 29b. (2) Chafetz Chaim volume II chapter 9; Responsa Halakhot Ketanot 1:276.

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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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