November 18, 2009: Jewish Ethics in the Workplace

The handout for our second installment in the ethics course can be found here. The chat transcript from the class can be found here. You can click on the icon below for the full audio recording of the class:

Workplace ethics is such a vast topic. With only an hour together, it would be impossible to even survey the issue in its entirety. Thus, choices have to be made.

Reluctantly, our discussion will not include issues of gender discrimination/sexual harassment in the workplace. Indeed, we will skip almost entirely the ethical issues surrounding the power differential that inevitably exists between supervisor and supervisee.

We will skip, as well, the ethics of financial propriety and transparency, which are really better situated under the heading of Jewish business ethics.

What then will we talk about?

It seems to me that the biggest (ethical) challenge in spending time in the dealing with our co-workers and customers: the people that we are obliged to interact with on a daily basis, as we go about the business of simply doing our jobs.

Think about it: in most of the other realms of our lives, we have some kind of choice about who we spend are time with (for example, there's no rule that requires us to spend Thanksgiving with our nutty relatives!). But, with our jobs, we're kind of stuck with the people that we're surrounded by. Unless we are willing to quit our jobs(an unlikely scenario in this economy - especially given that there's no guarantee that our next job will be an "annoyance-free zone") just to avoid certain annoying or difficult people, we have to figure out a way to deal wtih them.

On a humorous level, there's no better exploration of these issues than on the TV show "The Office" (I'm a huge fan!). Check out this clip for just a small example of the kind of antics that these co-workers engage in as a strategy for dealing with each other's personalities.

In our class, we'll discuss the Jewish sources surrounding the notion of tolerance, and of pluralism.  Will it be a challenge for us to buy into these age-old Jewish ideas?  Our secular society, at the moment, isn't particularly pluralistic, at least when it comes to politics and our consumption of political news

We will come to see that Judaism celebrates the notion of the minority opinion.  As an illustration, we'll be discussing the landmark Supreme Court rulings of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Brown v. Board of Education (1954).  Do take the time to read the Harlan minority opinion in Plessy (we'll look at one excerpt during class).  It's remarkable (for its time anyway).

We'll conclude by exploring some of the theological implications of pluralism, including a remarkably progressive piece by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, (Orthodox) Chief Rabbi of Great Britain.  I'm a big fan of Sacks' writing.  Check it out here and here.