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The Jewish Ethicist: Office Boredom

February 27, 2011 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

In my down time I do crosswords to keep my sanity. Do I have to tell my boss?

Q. I sell in a store. When there are long stretches without a customer I do crosswords to keep my sanity. Do I have to tell my boss?

A. Your question is very widespread. While many people have a business-only attitude, many see nothing wrong with turning to private affairs during "down time". Some employers tolerate this; one example is internet policy. When businesses first found the need to introduce internet access to employees' computers, they generally adopted very strict business-only policies. But over time many firms adopted more flexible rules as they learned that the sky did not fall if employees would occasionally check the sports news or make an urgent bank transfer.

That being said, employers do have good reasons to be concerned about this kind of conduct. The main ones are:

  1. Employees may be careful to do crosswords, read novels etc. only during "down time", but these pastimes have a tendency to stretch the amount of downtime employees perceive. Maybe when there are no customers your boss expects you to be folding garments or doing paperwork.
  2. Pastimes can be absorbing; when a customer comes in you may be in the middle of a challenging clue and not turn immediately to the customer. This is extremely unbusinesslike and is certain to turn away customers. Even if you do put down your crossword immediately the customer is likely to get the impression that your attention is not sufficiently focused on your work.
  3. Doing other things during work hours can lead to a bad attitude towards work. Just as employers demand specific work attire they generally demand a specific work demeanor.

There is nothing new about these considerations, and the rabbis of the Talmud dealt with this issue. We learn in the Tosefta (a collection of legal aphorisms parallel to the mishna):

One who employs his fellow in a store for half the profits, if he [the hired storekeeper] is a workman he should not practice his trade, because his attention is on his work; and if [the owner] is in the store with him it is permissible.

One who employs his fellow in the store for half the profits, he may not buy and sell other things, and if he did the profit must be shared.

The Tosefta is discussing an employee who is really a partner and gets a share of the profits, thus he has an incentive to make the business successful. Even so, the rabbis tell us that the partner has the right to expect that he will not engage in other activities that are likely to distract him.

And Maimonides writes:

Just as the employer is warned not to steal the wages of the poor [worker] or [even] to delay them, likewise the poor [worker] is admonished not to steal the work [effort due to] the boss,  idling a little here and a little there and [ultimately] passes the whole day in deceit.  Rather he must be strict with himself regarding time.(2)

It is true that you are not "idling" but only passing time that is in any case idle, but while this pastime may be harmless you should get the permission of your employer if you want to continue.

SOURCES: (1) Tosefta Bava Metzia chapter 4:12-13 (2) Maimonides' Code, laws of hire 13:7

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