Work Ethic

Q. My business is in an extremely competitive industry. Is there anything wrong with demanding long hours and hard work from my employees?

A. There’s no question that hard work is an admirable trait. While it is true that the decree made to the first man, “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread” is presented as a curse, the sages of the Talmud explain that it also contains a blessing: directed work which refines and improves nature, like the cultivation and processing of wheat until it becomes bread, is a unique expression of mankind’s special intellectual level.

But we must also admit that this trait can be overdone. In the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath day is given to the Jewish people specifically so that it may be a day of rest for everyone among us, including ourselves, our beasts and our servants (Deuteronomy 5:14). And the Torah tells us that we should not give our servants “crushing work” (Leviticus 25:43).

How do we draw the line between admirable and excessive work? According to Jewish law, this distinction is not based only on how much exertion is involved. Rather we have to be careful not to assign work that is gratuitous. Rashi ‘s commentary on the above verse explains that the definition of crushing work is “work which is unnecessary, in order to dominate him. Don’t tell him, ‘Warm this cup’, when you don’t need it.” It goes without saying that busy-work is demeaning, but Rashi goes on to explain that this is improper even when the servant doesn’t know the work is unnecessary.

The average employer probably doesn’t need to be told that giving busy work is not the best way to show respect to employees, but many modern workplaces, especially the 24/7 variety, exhibit various kinds of hidden busy-work. These can violate the spirit of Jewish law, and also can be very counterproductive. They are the type of overtime that encourages employees to take “undertime.” This is the term coined by Tara Parker-Pope of the Wall Street Journal for all of the tricks employees have learned to pretend they are on the job when they’re really taking care of personal affairs.

For example, among large corporations in one country it used to be the custom that in the early evening all the managers would leave the office. But they didn’t head home to their families; they all went together to a local bar. And woe to any aspiring manager who would dare skip this nightly ritual! It goes without saying that not much work was accomplished in these jaunts, but an employee who skipped them was sure to be passed over for advancement.

While this is an extreme example, employers in high-pressure workplaces would do well to review the demands made on workers. Most tasks are probably needed, and there certainly is a place to make certain demands in order to create a professional and collegial atmosphere. For instance, dress codes and occasional company social gatherings are certainly not gratuitous.

But if there is an ongoing pattern of norms that exist only to display assiduousness, then there is a chance that you are imposing “crushing work” on your employees. An example would be if employees are ashamed to be the first to leave the office, even if they’ve finished their work satisfactorily.

Generally, if the employer is careful not to demand gratuitous sacrifices from employees, the other aspects of a balanced workplace, including providing adequate opportunities for family life and personal development, will take care of themselves.

SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 118:1; Sefer HaChinukh 346.