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The Jewish Ethicist - Slander in Self-Defense

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

Can I bad-mouth an employee who suddenly quit to go into competition?

Q. An employee resigned suddenly to compete with our firm, leaving us in the lurch. Am I allowed to tell inconvenienced customers the reason for our disarray? This would both take the blame off me and my remaining loyal employees, and also warn the customers about this person's questionable character.

A. A sudden departure in these circumstances is almost always an ethical breach. Jewish law is adamant about the freedom of a worker to leave his place of work, as an employee is not a slave. The Talmud cites the Biblical verse (Leviticus 25:55), "For the children of Israel are servants to Me", and concludes: "Servants to me, and not servants to other servants [human beings]". (1)

But this freedom is subject to reasonable limitations. The Mishnah explains that when a sudden departure causes a substantive loss to the employer, it is an ethical breach. (2) The Talmud adds that only very compelling circumstances can justify a sudden departure which results in such a loss. (3) Furthermore, employment contracts today customarily include a "notice period"; such a customary contractual obligation should certainly be honored.

However, now that the employee has already left, the question is what to tell others. Obviously there is a strong temptation to tell the whole story, but this temptation needs to be tempered by a number of ethical considerations.

Certainly you shouldn't bad-mouth the employee vindictively. The Torah permits us to take measures to obtain satisfaction from someone who has caused us loss or harm, but never to act in a vindictive or vengeful fashion. "Don't take vengeance and don't bear a grudge against the children of your people" (Leviticus 19:18).

However, in this case mentioning out the bad behavior of your former employee is not gratuitous, as it does serve some constructive purpose. As you point out, it takes the blame off of you for falling behind schedule in providing service to your customers, and also gives them important information about this person's reliability.

Even so, unusual caution is necessary in this case. First of all, your motivation is likely to be colored by extraneous motivations. The classic Jewish book on clean speech, the Chafetz Chaim, mentions both that competitors are tempted to slander each other (4) and that someone who is wronged is tempted to slander the wrongdoer (5) Even in these cases reporting is permissible if indeed the objective is solely for benefit, as in the case of self-protection. (6)

But even if your motivation is solely to protect yourself and your customer, you must keep in mind that your customers don't know this, and any negative statements are likely to be interpreted by the listener as self-interested slander. After all, they are unable to verify the exact circumstances of this person's departure, and one possible result is a race-to-the-bottom cycle of mutual recrimination.

Given this reality, the most prudent policy, and the most common among reputable firms, is "silence is golden". Customers will probably have to be informed that this worker has left your employ, and you may have to tell them that the departure may cause some minor inconvenience. But for the sake of your own reputation it is best not to state that he left without notice or mention any other unsubstantiated claims you have against him.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 10a (2) Mishna Bava Metzia 6:1. (3) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 77b (4) Hafetz Haim I 4:11 in note (5) Hafetz Haim I:10 11-13. (6) Hafetz Haim II 9:14-15.

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.


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