Showing Racism the Door

Q. Should I fire an employee who continually makes offensive racist comments?

A. Without question, there’s no place in the enlightened workplace for racism or other offensive behavior. Indeed, in many countries the employer has a legal responsibility to make sure that the workplace is free of these baneful phenomena, so that all workers are free to work in a supportive environment.

However, firing the offending employee should not be the first line of action. Rather, we should first strive to encourage this worker to amend his behavior and, if possible, his views. A variety of insights from Jewish tradition lend support to this approach.

The Torah commands, “Don’t hate your brother in your heart; surely reprove your fellow, and don’t bear sin towards him” (Lev. 19:17). When someone is acting improperly, we shouldn’t write him off and assume he is incorrigible; we should gently explain to him how his acts offend. The great Medieval commentator Nachmanides explains further that we should focus on how we personally are affected by his acts: “Don’t hate your brother in your heart when he acts against your desires; rather, reprove him: ‘Why did you do that to me?'” Modern psychology confirms Nachmanides insight; people are far more offended by being told they acted against some principle of ethical behavior than they are by being informed that someone individually was hurt by them.

So a good place to begin would be to take this worker aside and tell him in a non-judgmental fashion that his comments make some other workers feel uncomfortable, and that the work environment would be improved if he would be more careful with his speech. If his racist comments are against the law, it would certainly be appropriate to explain that the employer has a legal responsibility to keep such comments out of the workplace; this too is ultimately non-judgmental, since the criteria are objective and not personal.

If this approach is ineffective, a summary dismissal is still not called for. But it is appropriate to “read the riot act”. Inform the worker that continuing his offensive behavior will lead to dismissal. This is appropriate on the professional level because in Jewish law employees should not be dismissed without being given a warning and a chance to improve their performance. (1) It is also appropriate on the personal level. Even though the worker is now only changing his actions because of external pressure, Jewish tradition affirms the value of a change in behavior even when it is not accompanied by a change in character. In Judaism the emphasis is always on the practical act; it is noteworthy that Jewish communities never developed a “catechism” or unified, obligatory statement of belief and ideology. Of course there are certain basic Orthodox beliefs, and great scholars such as Maimonides have elaborated them; but membership in the community was never based on expressions of belief but rather on acceptance of religious norms.

If all of these means are ineffective, then you may have no recourse but to fire the worker. You may even have a legal obligation to do so. No worker has the right to make his fellow employees miserable and to hurt their feelings.

The Talmud tells us that the great scholar Rabbi Meir was constantly harassed by ruffians in his neighborhood. He was thinking of protecting himself by praying that harm should befall them. His wife, Bruria, reproved him, citing the verse from Psalms: “Sins will pass from the earth, and the wicked will be no more”. (Psalms 104:35.) The verse begins by stating that sins, rather than sinners, will pass from the earth; this is our responsibility. Once the sins pass, the wicked are no more – not because they have come to harm, but because they are no longer truly wicked. Rather, we should do everything we can to improve their behavior. (2)

(1) Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 306:8. (2) Berakhot 10a.