Jewish Ethicist: Denying a Raise

hero image
28 Dec 2011

Q. I have a hard-working worker who is demanding more money. Do I have to negotiate with him?

A. This is probably the most common question I get: workers who feel they are underpaid and would like to compel their employers to pay what they are truly worth, and employers who face employees who insist on it.

Most authorities agree that the underlying employment paradigm in the Talmud and Jewish law is at-will employment, meaning that the sides are obligated only by their work agreement. The employer is free to discharge the employee at any time, assuming the agreed-upon employment period is done (usually this is a month, though often there is a requirement for more than a month of notice), and the employee is free to quit any time, even before the employment period is over.

Another principle of Jewish law is that work agreements are assumed to be according to local law and custom. Since most common law countries also have a rule of at-will employment, if you live in such a country, then the underlying paradigm and the validation of secular law would give two reasons to give you the right to discharge your employee according to your best business judgment.The Talmud relates in a number of places the situation you describe: where the employee is convinced that the true value of his work is higher than that agreed upon.In one case, the Talmud speaks of a case where a wage of four zuz is common and it is possible to demonstrate that the employer would have been willing to pay four zuz had the workers insisted. But the workers agreed to work for only three.

The conclusion is that the workers are not entitled to four zuz; rather, the payment is according to the original agreement. However, the passage also relates that if the employer was freely willing to offer four and the manager, of his own initiative, decided to squeeze the workers down to a wage of three, the workers are justified in harboring resentment towards the manager.(1)In another place, the Talmud relates a case where the wage bargain was made at the going rate, but in the middle of the contract period the wage rises. As a result, the workers begin to complain, and the boss convinces them to stay on with some vague non-committal comment. (We may imagine that he says something like, “I’ll make some changes to make it worth your while to stay.”) The conclusion is that this does not constitute a promise to match the new market wage; rather, the employer can fulfill his obligation with some minor improvement in working conditions. (The Talmud gives the example of giving larger meals.)(2) We learn that the boss is not obligated to re-open the original agreement, but is also seems that some degree of meeting the employee halfway is justified.I think the conclusion for your case is as follows: If you think there is some merit to the employee’s demands – he is, in fact, making less than the going wage, like the workers in the Talmudic passages – it is a good idea to agree to negotiate. In both cases the Talmud seems to indicate that the ideal outcome involves some concessions to the worker. But the worker is in no sense entitled to a raise, and he cannot demand or insist on one. If you don’t think the demand is justified, there would not seem to be any ethical requirement to discuss the matter.

Of course the worker is a free actor is well, and is totally within his rights to make whatever demands he likes and to quit if they are not made. If your worker does a good job it is may be simple good business sense to make him happy. But he does not have the ability to agree to stay on yet compel the employer to meet his demands, even if they are reasonable ones.


  1. BT Baba Metzia 76a; Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 332:
  2. BT Baba Metzia 77a; Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 332:5.

This article originally appeared on OU Torah.

Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir is one of the Jewish world’s best-known lecturers and educators in the area of business ethics. Rabbi Dr. Meir is known by a wide audience from his “Ethics@Work” column in the Jerusalem Post, through the popular syndicated column “The Jewish Ethicist,” and through his lectures and books. His extensive background includes a Harvard education and obtaining a Ph.D. in economics from MIT. 

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.