I’ve recently become aware that there is widespread altering of signed applications, forgery and misrepresentation in my workplace. Those most successful in the office say the job cannot be done without some “creativity.” I don’t know if the unethical practices hurt anyone, but I really want to tell the management. The problem is, I may be putting many people out of a job, or worse, ruining their careers.
Should I impose my understanding of what is ethical on the company, or should I wait and see if a gray area emerges?
I understand your dilemma. It is painful to stand by while others behave unethically, but as you have noted, before we take action we must ensure that it will not have unintended consequences.
With so many recent high-profile cases of whistle-blowing, modern ethicists have been busy debating under what circumstances it is appropriate to inform on others. For the most part, the debate has centered on the balance between one’s loyalty and obligation to the employer on one hand, and freedom of speech, as well as the duty to try to stop wrongdoing, on the other.
As we will see, Jewish law has an entirely different perspective. In fact, “freedom of speech” and “loyalty to the employer,” as we understand them, do not really exist in Torah thought.
Before getting to the issue of whistle-blowing, however, halachah may require you to first confront the wrongdoers personally.
Obligation to Admonish a Wrongdoer
If you see your friends doing something wrong, Torah requires you to confront and admonish them. As the verse states, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your fellow, but you shall not bear a sin on his account.” This obligation exists regardless of whether the action harms others, and the requirement lasts until the wrongdoer begins to curse or scream at you.
Halachah, however, provides a range of exceptions to this law. First, the obligation applies only to close acquaintances or friends with whom you feel comfortable (even if they won’t necessarily listen to you). If the wrongdoers are not your friends, then in all likelihood your rebuke will only provoke them to hate or to take revenge against you (both Torah prohibitions in their own right).
Second, if a) the sin is unintentional, b) it is not a violation of a biblical prohibition, and c) you believe that the person will not heed your rebuke, then it is not proper to admonish the wrongdoer.
Finally, if rebuking the person will result in a financial loss for you, you are not obligated to do it.
In the ideal situation, the wrongdoers are your friends, and after you politely approach and admonish them, they realize their error and correct their ways. Unfortunately, things don’t usually work out that way.
In a situation where there is no harm to others, you can usually leave things be. But more often than not there is a third party being harmed, either physically or financially, and in that case Torah may require you to inform others so that corrective measures can be taken.
Blowing the Whistle
In general, repeating an evil report, even a true one, about someone else violates the biblical commandment, “You shall not go around as a gossipmonger amidst your people. You shall not stand by [the shedding of] your fellow’s blood. I am the L‑rd.” In fact, depending on the situation, lashon hara, or talebearing, can violate up to 31 Torah commandments.
Nevertheless, in a situation where the wrongdoing will result in physical or financial harm to others, it is mandatory to report it.
Halachah makes a distinction, though, between the obligation to report a physical, life-threatening harm and the obligation to report a financial one.
If you are in a situation where you can save someone from physical danger, then you are obligated to do so even if it means incurring financial loss. As the verse states, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” But you are not obligated to save others from a financial loss at your own expense, though it is praiseworthy to do so.
Additional Guidelines for Whistle-Blowing
Having ascertained that a situation may call for whistle-blowing, it is important to keep in mind that the prohibition of talebearing is still in effect. In light of this, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (commonly known as the Chafetz Chaim) outlines certain conditions that, when met, suspend the prohibition of talebearing:
- The objective of revealing the wrongdoing must be a legitimate benefit, such as righting the wrong done to the victim.
- You must be certain that the information you have about the wrongdoing is factually correct, and know for certain that the person you are accusing is guilty.
- You may report only the relevant facts objectively, without exaggeration; any exaggeration violates the prohibition of speaking falsehood.
- Before telling others, you must first satisfy your obligation of admonishing the wrongdoers yourself (as outlined above).
- The disclosure should not cause greater harm than is necessary for the achievement of the whistle-blower’s objective.
- There must be no other means by which the desired effect can be achieved.
- The report should be motivated solely by the desire to right a wrong. If the motivation is a long-standing grudge or a desire to ridicule the wrongdoer, the report should not be made.
Whistle-blowers face a harsh dilemma: do they reveal the wrongdoing and face the consequences, or do they keep quiet? Contemporary society has not treated whistle-blowers very well. Unfortunately, many are either fired outright or passed over when it comes time for promotions. Nevertheless, in many instances Torah requires us to inform the proper authorities when someone does wrong.
Hopefully, the above guidelines can serve as a starting point to bring clarity to your dilemma. No two situations are alike, however, and you should consult a rabbi regarding your specific circumstances.