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Safe Anchor or Risky Waters

Yael Schuster

A frum workplace would seem to offer a safe harbor from the stormy challenges of the secular job market. But smooth waters can hide treacherous currents

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

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Many frum companies have designed the physical layout of their workspace to define the necessary interpersonal boundaries. In some offices, the cubicles for men and women are at far ends of the room, and in meetings men and women sit at opposite sides of conference tables. Paradoxically, an absence of physical barriers can also enhance boundaries

L anding a job in a religious Jewish setting comes with some obvious perks: no awkward explanations about shaking hands, no pressure about missing work on Yamim Tovim, not feeling like a perpetual outsider for skipping happy hour.

Yet while many secular workplace travails fall away in a frum environment, other, more subtle challenges come to the fore. How can we identify the dilemmas underlying the benefits of a religious workplace, and how can we resolve those conundrums in the most elevated way?

Orthodox Jews of every stripe deal with similar pressures (think shidduchim, for one), and in a broad sense, share a lifestyle and value system. Put us in a room together and before too long we feel heimish. It can be wonderfully comfortable, but at the same time it carries an inherent risk — appropriate boundaries can become blurred. Maintaining these boundaries, say those in the trenches, is the single biggest challenge of the frum workplace.

Take Simi. She stepped off the plane from seminary and into a large frum accounting firm, thrilled to have found a job in a “kosher setting.” But it didn’t take long for her to realize that even here, it was all too easy to cross the line into impropriety. The lax atmosphere in her office engenders chatting, joking, and bantering that’s a clear breach of tzniyus, especially after 6 p.m., when the workday is officially over, the room begins to empty, and there’s a distinct shift in the atmosphere.

“My boss, who’s 36 and has six kids, has a very friendly nature,” Simi, 26 and single, says. “He’ll send me texts that usually start off work-related, but sometimes veer off in other directions. He’s involved with shidduchim, and will often text me for information about girls, in a schmoozy kind of way. He’s asked me to send him pictures when I’m on vacation. All this makes me very uncomfortable, and I try to limit it, but at the end of the day he’s my boss, and I need to tread carefully.”

Carefully, but also a bit more proactively, says Rabbi Yosef Viener, rav of Kehillas Sha’ar HaShamayim in Monsey, New York, who fields workplace sh’eilos from around the world on a constant basis. “Many of the shalom bayis issues I’ve encountered over the years started in the office, with some situations ending in disaster. Things can spiral out of control very quickly, so situations must be dealt with decisively as soon as they arise. People are afraid to speak up for fear of losing friends, but work isn’t a popularity contest, and that’s certainly not a reason to remain in a risky situation. Fear of being fired shouldn’t be a deterrent, either — it would be very unusual for someone to lose a job over dealing with untoward behavior.”

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Fresh-faced yeshivah and seminary graduates most often enter the workplace with a strong fidelity to Torah values, but the months and years sometimes have a way of wearing that down

How, exactly, should such scenarios be handled? Of course each set of circumstances is different, but ideally the person with the concern should address it directly to the other party. Margalit, 46, program director at an Orthodox organization, recently found herself receiving compliments from a yeshivish-looking male coworker on her clothing, and even on the color of her lipstick.

“I’d come home confused and upset,” she relates. “I’ve been taught that it’s never appropriate to comment on the physical appearance of the opposite gender. I got really creeped out when he offered to flick a bug off my sweater with his pen. I told him, ‘No, you should not,’ in a very firm, curt way. He got the message and backed off. Had it continued, I planned to say to him, ‘These kinds of comments make me uncomfortable, so please stop.’ If I had brought the issue to someone higher up in the company, he would’ve been mortified.”

Sometimes it’s one’s actual physical space that needs protecting. “One of the bosses in my company gets way too close,” Simi says. “If he needs to look at my computer, he’ll drape his arm on the back of my chair and lean in, making me feel like I can’t move. He’s an ehrlich guy and I’m sure it’s unintentional, but it makes me so uncomfortable.” 

 

A young, shy, newly married woman approached Rabbi Viener with this same problem, and he urged her to bring it to her boss’s attention. This was extremely difficult for her, but she did it, and it was well received. Their solution was to install screen-sharing on their computers so that he could see what was on her screen from his own, limiting their need for close interaction without compromising the work output.

If dealing with situations one on one isn’t effective, the issue must be brought to someone higher up, Rabbi Viener says. “Even when someone observes others crossing the line, he or she is obligated to bring it to the attention of the boss or whoever can best defuse the situation.”

In today’s legal climate, where suing for harassment is part of a day’s work, companies are highly sensitive to this and quick to help de-escalate such situations.

 

Executive leadership plays a key role in setting the tone for a workplace, and when team members have a clear understanding of the behavioral expectations, they tend to police each other, which determines the entire atmosphere at work.

Sarah Feldman is a TorahMates coordinator for Oorah in Lakewood. She describes a work culture that has been deliberately cultivated to be the epitome of tzniyus. “Men and women work in different areas of the building, and there are separate lunchrooms for men and women, as well as separate office parties. The company has a policy of using last names when addressing the opposite gender, and tzniyus in dress is a given. Men and women work together, with mutual respect and professionalism. I’ve worked in other environments that were more lax, and navigating through it can feel like walking a tightrope.”

“The earlier inappropriate behavior is reported to the proper person or department, the better,” says Shaul Greenwald, CEO of Riverside Abstract, a title insurance company with offices in Brooklyn and Lakewood. “Ignored problems will likely become worse over time. Dealing with an issue at its earliest stage is an easier conversation to have, and it’s also easier for the person to save face.

“While such issues are almost nonexistent in our company, I do recall one instance, many years ago, where a man and woman at work became a little too friendly. I spoke with each of them separately, and explained to them that our company operates on a higher caliber, and this wouldn’t be tolerated — they could either stop, or find another place to work. The behavior stopped immediately.”

Many frum companies have designed the physical layout of their workspace to define the necessary interpersonal boundaries. In some offices, the cubicles for men and women are at far ends of the room, and in meetings men and women sit at opposite sides of conference tables. Paradoxically, an absence of physical barriers can also enhance boundaries.

“We have created completely open floor plans in our offices,” Greenwald says. “There are only a few private office and conference rooms, of which the walls and doors are all glass, with no shades, so everyone can be seen at all times.”

Simi thinks that installing cameras in the office, with everyone knowing they were being monitored, would help limit the inappropriate banter that goes on at her workplace.

While many advocate using last names to maintain a respectful distance, Greenwald views it differently. “In our view, using last names just for the opposite gender creates a certain tension that emphasizes the gender difference. By using first names for everyone, gender is a nonissue,” he says.

By keeping their antennae up from the very beginning — that is, at the recruiting stage — employers hoping to maintain a professional, drama-free atmosphere have a better shot at achieving it.

“At Riverside, we only hire people who fit a certain profile. We are much more concerned about potential and personality than current skills sets — as long as the person is intelligent, he or she can be trained,” Greenwald says. “We look for an interviewee who gives off vibes of being a mature, good person who wants to do the right thing. We hire on a good-gut feeling, and baruch Hashem it works very well. The atmosphere in our offices is cordial and friendly, but always professional and appropriate.”

Some companies have so prioritized the spiritual climate of their office that they provide regularly scheduled shiurim for their employees. A vice president describes an initiative at Meridian Capital, a New Jersey mortgage brokerage firm. “A choshuve yungerman comes into the office every afternoon (other than Fridays) and learns with the men, in 20-to-30-minute time slots. Demand for his time is so high that people often have to learn together in small groups. I learn with him three times a week, 20 minutes at a time.”

In addition to the benefit of having Torah learning permeate the office, having a role model on site can be a positive influence, as well as a deterrent for inappropriate behavior.

 

Fresh-faced yeshivah and seminary graduates most often enter the workplace with a strong fidelity to Torah values, but the months and years sometimes have a way of wearing that down. Even when a company succeeds in creating an appropriate work culture, there still remains a role for each individual to define and maintain his or her own standards.

“We tend to identify ourselves by our social circle, so being part of a night chaburah, for example, results in a person viewing himself as a ben Torah,” says Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger, rav of Shaarei Tefillah of New Hempstead, New York, and author of Positive Vision, a book about shemiras einayim. “Being close to a rav has a similar effect. In turn, the way we self-identify has a major effect on the way we conduct ourselves.”

Men benefit greatly from the protection that learning and davening with a minyan provide, says Rabbi Viener. But in addition to that, he suggests, people should do a periodic reality check on themselves: Where was I one year ago, compared to now? How about three years ago? Doing this consistently can help a person maintain his standards.

“And don’t fool yourself by comparing your davening without a minyan to the guy in the office who doesn’t daven at all,” he advises. “Only compare yourself to yourself.”

One young single woman in her mid-20s was so capable at her job in a frum company that she quickly worked her way up to become team leader, often leading large meetings both in the office and on business trips. She was once asked to speak at a company awards ceremony, and to present the awards. Even though she ran meetings with men on a regular basis, she felt that speaking in public, when it wasn’t strictly mandated by her job, was crossing a line. After talking it over with her rav, she explained to her boss that she wanted to remain the Bais Yaakov girl she was when she first joined the company, and therefore preferred not to speak. Her boundaries were clearly defined, and her boss respected that.

But if a person doesn’t realize he’s in a minefield, he won’t be able to avoid stepping on a mine; every workplace carries its own occupational hazards.

Sometimes, Rabbi Viener says, the yetzer hara dresses up as a mitzvah. “A single person shouldn’t engage in detailed shidduch discussions with someone of the opposite gender — I’ve received many calls about such situations that have gotten out of hand. If someone has a suggestion, tell them to call your parents. There’s also a serious amount of personal therapy going on between coworkers, which involves getting into another person’s heart and mind; unfortunately, I’ve seen such situations deteriorate and cause much damage.”

What about networking, the name of the business game today? Becoming buddies, stoking egos… if that’s what it takes to close a deal, don’t I need to play by the rules?

“A fellow once came to me concerned about a married acquaintance of his,” Rabbi Viener relates. “He had been at a business meeting in a restaurant, and at the next table sat this acquaintance and another frum woman. He observed them share a long, leisurely meal. I encouraged him to delicately suggest to the man that he consult with a rav, because of the potential danger in such situations. He approached the man, who acknowledged that it wasn’t the first time they had been out together, as he was trying to cultivate a relationship in order to close a huge deal. Upon reflection he realized that he was venturing into dangerous territory, and that he needed to take a step back. A man and woman eating out together alone is very strongly discouraged — you may lose a deal, but you’ve kept your Olam Haba intact, as well as your marriage.”

Networking is necessary, but it’s a question of how, according to Rabbi Neuberger. “When it’s between a man and a woman, one must be exceedingly careful. At the end of the day, displaying professionalism — keeping your word, acting with decency and dignity — is what’s most impressive to the people you’re trying to court.”

Some degree of personal connection is necessary, he says, but all the backslapping and merry-making usually isn’t. And in cases where it is, and it can’t be done by someone of the same gender, you may need to walk away from a deal, he says.

But personal boundaries can sometimes cause discomfort. Simi says that one of her bosses, very sensitive in the area of tzniyus, has made it his policy to speak to women strictly for work purposes, and nothing else — not even a good morning. “It’s beautiful to see that he maintains his boundaries, but going this far makes me feel undervalued, like I’m worth nothing to him. The success of his company is dependent on us, his employees, and sometimes I feel unrespected.”

 

Then there’s business travel, with its abundant down time coupled with a sense of freedom to act without being seen by a familiar face. “The absence of the normal safeguards makes for a potentially volatile situation,” Rabbi Neuberger says. “It’s a good idea, when traveling, to take on something extra as a shemirah. For example, if one isn’t makpid to daven with a minyan or learn every night, he can commit to doing these things when he travels.”

Frum companies have come up with some good ways of minimizing the risks of travel — having men and women fly on separate planes, stay in different hotels, drive separately to meetings, and permitting their employees to attend conventions on the condition that they bring their spouses along.

Rabbi Viener stresses the importance of knowing what your red lines are in advance. He once received a call from a young married woman who had just gotten back from a business trip. The group she met with was comprised of a number of non-Jews, one frum man, and herself. After the meeting the frum man told her that there was a kosher restaurant in the area, would she like to go with him? Caught off guard and very hungry, she agreed, and they spent a few hours together. Back home and feeling guilty, she asked her rabbi what she could have done differently.

“Anticipating these situations makes it much easier to do the right thing in the moment,” he says.

 

Working on Chol Hamoed presents its own host of halachic complexities. The basic principle is that work is permissible if there’s davar ha’avud, an incurred loss by staying closed. However, the application of this principle is dependent on many factors, and even when working is permissible, halachah dictates the ways in which the work can be done. Both employers and employees need to find out how the halachos that apply to their specific situations.

“You may assume certain things are okay, but it’s often more complex than people realize,” Rabbi Viener says.

The Manhattan photo video superstore B&H, owned by frum Jews, receives over 5,000 daily visitors, and the website garners upward of 12 million visitors each month from around the world (Saudi Arabian sheikhs are reportedly among their customers). And yet, twice a year, Pesach and Succos, they close for over a week. “This is a huge kiddush Hashem,” Rabbi Viener says. “And they clearly have siyata d’Shmaya, as the company keeps on growing.”

Yichud is another potential halachic blind spot, with people often unaware that everyday situations may be problematic.

In Simi’s office, there’s a young, married male accountant who’s an overachiever, notorious for haunting the office until the wee hours. There’s also a young, single female junior accountant who’s equally ambitious. They sometimes find themselves alone together in the office, well past dinnertime. He’s starving, she’s starving, and so they do the obvious — order in supper and eat it together in his office. It may seem harmless to them, but the situation is in clear violation of halachah.

“I once received a call during tax season, at about midnight,” Rabbi Viener relates. “A young woman told me that she ‘might have a sh’eilah.’ She was on the 20th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper, alone with another frum guy, and no one could get into their office without an access code. I told her to head toward the elevator and we’d continue the discussion once she was outside. She gets credit for realizing there was a potential issue — but it’s imperative for everyone to know the basic halachos of yichud.

 

“Today more people are working off-site, and I’ve received sh’eilos from women who were scheduled to meet with men in their home offices. There are multiple factors to consider, such as if the meeting room has a window facing the street, or if anyone might walk in. People don’t need to have all the answers for every situation, but they do need to be aware of when to ask.”

There’s another complicating factor in the frum workplace. Everyone is a neighbor’s sibling, a cousin’s daughter-in-law, a friend of a friend — we are, in essence, one big mishpachah. This makes it easy for men and women to fall under the category of libo gas bah — having a comfortable relationship with each other. When that’s the case, the rules of yichud become more stringent, and certain conditions that normally make yichud permissible, such as the possibility of someone else walking in, may not apply.

 

When hiring frum people, employers get credit for following the Torah injunction of v’hechezakta bo, which includes helping Jews to help themselves. They get extra credit for willingly signing up for a built-in challenge.

“We made a conscious decision to hire frum people whenever possible,” Greenwald explains. “Aside from the fact that they are extremely dedicated, hardworking, and honest, we want to give jobs to people in our community. At the same time, our employees are raising large families, and have many more responsibilities than the average American worker. Mothers have Yom Tov to make, more maternity leave, babysitting crises, etc. All this creates a constant need for us to be flexible and juggle our staff, while maintaining consistency and reliability for our clients. It’s a considerable challenge, but one we’ve taken on knowingly, out of a desire to provide opportunity for our own community.”

Rebbetzin Shoshanah Schachter, wife of Yeshiva University rosh yeshivah Rav Hershel Schachter, is an administrative assistant at the Orthodox Union. Because Orthodox businesses have higher visibility, she says, they have an extra obligation to be scrupulous in their ethical conduct.

“If a frum company is caught doing something shady, there is a potential for a huge chillul Hashem,” she says. “At the OU, we have a system of checks and controls, and everything is audited, from the big things to the very small.

“My husband, Rav Hershel Schachter, feels strongly that there is not enough emphasis on this. He makes it a point to speak annually to his talmidim, as well as to communities he lectures in, about all aspects of being honest in business.”

Read as a whole, the list of halachic concerns to bear in mind when entering the workforce or starting a business seems daunting. There is, after all, an entire section of the Shulchan Aruch devoted to the subject. Getting it all right may seem like a formidable undertaking, but keeping in mind that each potential pitfall brings with it the opportunity to be mekadesh Sheim Shamayim barabbim, the ultimate avodah can be achieved from your very own cubicle. —

 

Beware the Water Cooler

A significant halachic matter in the frum workplace all too frequently overlooked is shemiras halashon. Such lashon hara can be particularly pernicious, with the potential to harm someone’s parnassah. The number of issurim involved can be frightening.

“Obviously, trying to get ahead by denigrating others is in clear violation of halachah,” says Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger. “But the halachos must govern the more subtle situations as well. If you’re a manager and your job is to keep the people under you productive, you have a very fine line to walk. If someone’s not performing his job up to par, or is wasting time on social media, you have an obligation to protect your boss, but it must be negotiated according to the rules of lashon hara — warn him first, and if that doesn’t work, bring it to the attention of the boss, provided that all the conditions of toeles are met. It’s incumbent on anyone in this position to learn the relevant halachos.”

Lashon hara presents pitfalls in other areas as well. “How’s the new son-in-law working out?” and “How was your daughter’s date last night?” seem like normal questions when working in a heimish environment, but lashon hara aside, how much information is too much? Ask yourself: How would my family members feel if they knew that the intimate details of their lives were fodder for water-cooler conversation? Would they want candid photos of themselves shared with strangers? Would keeping a professional distance bring me more respect at work?

“Maintaining boundaries between work and family is one of the biggest trials in a frum workplace,” says Margalit, who is responsible for personnel issues. “It’s best to decide in advance how much of your family life you want to share with work colleagues, and what remains private.

“It goes the other way, too. When my children were younger, I barely breathed a word about work to them, not wanting them to feel that my work affected our time together. As they’ve grown older, they’ve become genuinely interested in hearing about different projects I’m working on. But office tensions are not to be shared with kids, just as kids’ issues or struggles aren’t to be shared with the office.”

Ann Zeilingold is Branch Manager of FM Home Loans, a mortgage bank in Pomona, New York. She negotiates mortgages for many of her neighbors, which often brings her home life and work life within a hairbreadth of each other. “In my line of work, I see people under intense pressure as they engage in huge financial transactions. People’s cores are revealed at such times — many shine as humans, but some expose another side. The same person who displays terrible middos in my office may sit next to my husband in shul, and his child may invite mine for a playdate. I struggle mightily with keeping this negative information to myself when it encroaches on my personal life, but it would be lashon hara to share it, even with my husband. I may not let my child go on that playdate, but I wouldn’t say why.

“Our office has a family feel,” Ann continues. “We have open, friendly relationships with each other, and know what’s going on in each other’s lives. Even so, there’s no place at work for certain discussions, such as relationships between spouses.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 712)

 

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