A colleague (actually by now a friend) slightly below me on the company totem pole is about to get really unfairly screwed over (excuse my language) by another colleague, his direct boss. I know about it, but I am not supposed to know about it. I could say something, but I could easily get in trouble because it will be obvious it was me. However, if I do, he may be able to preempt the worst of it. Are there any Jewish ethics to guide me here?
To what degree can one choose self-interest over defending others against injustice?
What sort of ethical duties does friendship generate?
What sort of ethical obligations does membership in a corporate chain of command impose?
It must be noted that you do not give any details of the case, so I have no way of determining whether what will occur absent your intervention is in fact unjust, how confident you can be of your own evaluation, whether the boss in question regularly commits such acts of injustice, how severe the injustice to your coworker would be, and how severe the reprisal would be. You also don’t mention whether you would suffer for telling your coworker simply because your boss would be upset, or rather because s/he would legitimately feel that you had breached a formal or informal duty of confidentiality.
Given those constraints, it is difficult to say anything of concrete Jewish substance – I can only talk in generalities, and without rigorous sourcing. But here are a few very broad statements that I think are generally sustainable.
one is entitled, and possibly required, to give one’s boss the benefit of a plausible doubt as to whether his decisions are just or unjust, unless s/he has a pattern of unethical behavior
it is deeply problematic to remain in a job that regularly forces one, even passively, to collaborate with or ignore injustice.
Except possibly at the level of genuine and powerful intimacy, friendship does not generate an obligation of self-sacrifice. You are entitled to make your own decisions as to what costs you are willing to assume for the sake of a friendship, but you should be clear-eyed about those costs, and realize that your friend will be right to see your choice as a statement about the value of the friendship. In general, Judaism applauds reasonable altruism when it emerges from a deep sense of self rather than from a low sense of self-worth.
There is a prohibition against violating confidences that can be overcome only if it is very clear that the moral cost of maintaining the confidence exceeds the cost of violating it.
It is easy for me to suggest that, rather than telling your friend, you talk to your colleague's boss directly and explain to him why you feel that the decision is unjust, and let him/her explain why s/he disagrees. But it seems likely that you don't have confidence that this as well would lead to reprisals. I have to say that your lack of confidence is a strong indictment of the culture of your corporation.
I hope this is helpful, and wish you all success in working through this dilemma in the manner best for your soul and circumstances.
If you believe someone to be the (potential) victim of a crime you are certainly ethically bound to intervene. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 73a) says, for instance, that if you hear of thieves plotting against someone, you must intervene. And the fact that you weren't supposed to know of this unfair treatment in advance - just as in the Talmud's case, you weren't supposed to spy the thieves laying in wait - doesn't absolve you of this responsibility. Once you know and you could help, you must help.
But ... there is always a but.
First, how bad is this treatment, really? Is it a royal ... mistreatment? Something that could cost your friend a job? Or just a minor irritant - like a bad assignment. Or something in the middle, like a passed-over promotion? That might affect how much risk you should take on yourself to save your friend.
More importantly, how do you know that the boss (let's call him Reuven) is going to harm your friend Shimon. Are you sure that this is the case? Or does it seem likely to you that this is Reuven's plan, but you're not really sure. If based on mere conjecture or inference, you went to Shimon and said: You know that Reuven is a bad guy and he's gonna get you ... well then that itself could be an ethical failing, potentially slander (lashon hara) or even groundless suspicion (known as hoshed ba'kesherim.).
It's not easy, but I think you have to have an unpleasant conversation with Reuven, and ascertain his intention. If in fact Shimon will be at risk for losing a job or suffering lasting harm, then you should use the power you have, by virtue of your knowledge and position, to protect Shimon from exploitation.
This is one of those cases of ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t.’ Still, the reality is that what you are hearing is second-hand, possibly incorrect, and will ruin not only your relationship with your superiors but also jeopardize your job not to mention how it will affect your friend’s relationship with his supervisor. Your desire to protect your friend is admirable. No one can deny that. But you are operating on incomplete information and, even if it is accurate and you are privy to it, it falls in the realm of business. If it is legal and there is no criminality involved, you have no obligation to say anything. Indeed, you have a responsibility to your employer which is a legal contract.
Contracts are very serious things in Jewish life. There are tractates of Talmud devoted to contractual obligations including obligations of employees to employers and vice versa. The upshot of much of these arguments is that of mutual trust and respect. Where there is a difference of opinion, the parties work it out according to what is just and fair. However, when one party goes behind the back of the other, the relationship is permanently and irrevocably damaged. Your supervisor will never again be able to trust you and your will place your own future in jeopardy. As well, if the information was wrong, you will have been guilty of lashon ha-rah, evil speech which intends to create harm to at least one party.
Your friend may or may not be in the predicament you believe. If you intervene in the manner you are describing you are making things much, much worse for him and yourself. Your obligation is to be a ‘haver’ – a friend when and if things go badly for him. You should be there as a support for him and a shoulder – a friend with whom he can share his misfortune.
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