The following post is meant to generate discussion on a timely issue.
Its purpose is to state the need for each organization to develop its own ethics protocol, rather than to suggest any particular authoritative document.
People may violate ethical boundaries within an organization in ways that they would never do in their private lives.
This can be a function of sustained male-female working relationships, of resentment against the way the organization treats an individual (leading to theft in the name of correcting imbalances or just as an expression of anger), of lashon hara (in the name of professional evaluations), of tax evasion (in the name of dedicating more money to the cause), of defaming similar organizations to donors (in the belief that your organization is the one really saving the Jewish people), of undercutting the activities of other organizations (because they do not reflect your Torah hashkafos), of lying to donors (in the name of saving projects) and so on.
Even sophisticated thinking people will engage in self-deception on a grand scale when it comes to considerations and calculations within organizational life. Some are truly blinded by a disease called “institutional egocentricity”.
To imagine that, with such challenges, the heads of organizations will be accountable only to themselves, as they in turn monitor others, is to invite trouble.
Every organization needs to work out an ethics protocol that covers basic issues and that removes certain obvious temptations from the head of the organization. This should include what kind of car the director should drive (to avoid the indiscretion of buying too fancy a car) and whether the organization should be contributing to its purchase and or upkeep. It should address what kind of personal calls can be made using organization phones (both in terms of expense and time) and whether the head of the organization can use his personal assistant and other staff to help him with private issues.
It should define whether and under what circumstances staff can travel business class (an issue, like the car, both of “maris ayin” and “gizailah”); whether the person may travel at the organization’s expense to speak for another organization; and, if so, whether he can accept payment for doing so. What quality hotels can he stay in when on trips; can he add-on an internal flight to visit family members and what expenses does he pay if he takes his wife with? Is he, as the head of the organization, allowed to draw one-time expenses to pay for an apartment for himself, or for marrying off a child or for other necessities? Do his airline points belong to himself or the organization?
So too, an organization needs a protocol governing behavior between the sexes, use of Facebook (where necessary), and a whole host of other issues. The current climate is to regard sexual transgressions as worse than financial ones. This would appear to be correct, given the extremely painful and long-term consequences of the victim, especially if the perpetrator is left in a position of responsibility. One expert in the business field stated that these cases are usually resolved by the victim leaving their job rather than the perpetrator being sanctioned.
What about a person’s private life? Is it a requirement of an organization, for example, to fire someone who is being abusive to his (or her) spouse? In Orthodox institutions, there is surely an expectation that a person’s private life not contradict – at least in gross terms – the standards of the organization. What about violations that would not be grounds for dismissal, but could expose the organization to a lawsuit? What happens to someone who ceases to be Orthodox in private or who exposes his children to values which are antithetical to the organization?
While it may seem burdensome and even bureaucratic to develop rules for all these things, I have witnessed sufficient lack of judgment on these and other issues to conclude that this is prudent advice – advice regarding which the Jewish world has an embarrassing lag in fulfilling.
Torah-observant organizations should be exemplary not only in their ongoing behavior, but in their preparedness to meet the complexities of organizational life, both to avoid error and to know how to deal with it when it happens. Yet, we appear to have fallen behind the broader world in our commitment to dealing with this area.
Congress has a House Ethics Committee which monitors and takes action against members of Congress. The 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act requires senators and their staffs to undergo “ongoing” ethics training. Other rules require ethics training for members of the House. Another act, the Ensuring Trust and Honorability in Congressional Standards (Ethics) Act, would make continuing ethics training mandatory for all lawmakers. Moreover, the ethics code of Congress is long and complex and grows all the time to address new issues like information-sharing and use of social media. Certainly their laws are not ours. But, shall we allow our non-Jewish brethren to show us up in just the areas in which we ought to excel?
Not every case that requires an investigation involves an ethics violation per se. It may simply be that the sensitivity of the case requires one to confirm that there were no compromising facts. In one case, the woman who worked for an organization died at a young age. Her parents claimed that the organization she worked for had tolerated abuse. This turned out not to be the case. But it was important that it wasn’t simply the organization’s word against the parents.
The extraordinary complexity of some of these cases and the time consumed doing due-diligence and then bringing everyone into the circle suggest that this type of activity cannot always be undertaken by someone in their spare time. It may not require full-time resources, but it does require someone with experience who can dedicate whatever attention is needed when such issues arise.
All of these protocols require a shaila from an Adam Gadol and everything I have written below presumes that an Adam Gadol is actively being consulted.
Moreover, as such ethics protocols emerge, and more and more organizations ask shailos to determine their content, a market standard for practices ought to emerge. The average organizational head is expected to be competent in a range of areas that is far more extensive than almost any other professional. He needs to be counselor, manager, fundraiser, programmer, speaker and politician. He needs to know elements of branding, of logistics, of education and of life-cycle issues. That he would not only be competent in this vast range of issues, but also have had the insight to anticipate all the ethical dilemmas and protocols that go with them, is to have an unreasonable if not unattainable expectation of almost anyone in the field today.
An institution becomes ethical first and foremost when it becomes accountable – to the Ribono Shel Olam, to oneself, to one’s employees and to certain oversight people or bodies like a board of directors or donors. Many heads of organizations hate being accountable to outside parties. They feel that this is their organization, that they know what they are doing, that a board represents “Daas Baal Habatim” sometimes in opposition to their values or thinking as a Ben Torah. “If I have any issues, I will ask a shaila,” the logic goes. Yet we know that this approach fails frequently with often disastrous consequences. Accountability to a Daas Torah is only partially successful as it relies on the integrity of the person running the organization to bring issues with frequency and accuracy to the Daas Torah. It is quite rare to have a Daas Torah who is actively involved in the organization at a level where he really knows what is going on, speaks to staff directly, etc.
We are not used to thinking of accountability when it comes to ethics. Accountability today is used almost exclusively with respect to performance, rather than ethical standards. We may be even offended by the idea that we, as rabbis, are held accountable to people who are not our Torah equal. Even if the board is comprised of our colleagues, we see this as a kind of arrogance on their part, that they would choose to judge us. We therefore standardly opt for self-regulation.
Self-regulation sounds good in theory, but, most often, a shailah is not asked on most of these issues as they unfold. People either don’t realize that the issue is of significant importance to begin with, or don’t realize that they have given in to their yetzer hara and are not inclined to ask a shaila. Often, the head of the organization stands to be blamed by his donors and/or board for allowing something to happen (and he may indeed have been negligent) and this clouds his judgment.
Significant ethical violations within organizations – be they financial or sexual – are mainly done by people in authority. Most often they are done by people who are doing a tremendous amount of good for the Jewish people, but who had no check on a particular yetzer hara and plenty of ways of expressing it.
Men counseling women within a communal or kiruv context, when the woman is emotionally vulnerable is a particularly thorny issue, one we will just mention in passing here. Therapists spend significant time learning how to set boundaries. They learn how to have insight into the dynamics of such a relationship and how to have insight into their own behavior within the relationship. As a part of this, they must undergo their own therapy while training. Yet, most rabbis just wing it on their own.
In fact, elements of this training are necessary for male-female working relationships as well. We males often respond to signals, which we over-interpret to mean that the female sitting opposite us is looking for a romantic or sexual relationship. Not all of us know the appropriate male-female boundaries to be balanced with a warm and friendly working environment. We often welcome some extra excitement in lives, without recognizing where it will go to. And so there is no better way to guarantee that standards are maintained – and dealt with when they are not – than to build accountability into the organization. Accountability not only sets the expectations for a particular standard of behavior, but helps those expectations to be maintained.
At its core, accountability is about trust. And it is trust that is broken when there is an ethical/halachic violation, often exacerbated by a Chilul Hashem.
It is too late to pay attention to accountability after a problem arises. People are on the defensive; they may be angry and unforgiving that did not have mechanisms in place, and one is left dealing with the situation oneself. It is terribly difficult to think straight in such situations. The corrective actions taken are often done without provision of clear reasoning or explanations. This often fuels speculation, suspicion of a cover-up, and conspiracy theories. At best, it doesn’t allow people to understand whether the authority figure acted reasonably or not, and certainly doesn’t allow for anyone to hold a dialogue over the issue.
The net result is not only the trust deficit created by the actual incident, but the feeling amongst victims and other members of staff that this behavior is condoned and may be repeated.
Staff who may know about an ethics violation by the head of the organization may feel intimidated to be a whistle blower, or may not take action simply because they did not know what to do, knowing that actions they may take might destroy the entire institution. The recent seminary scandal in Israel has elements of both of these factors.
Trust is a precious commodity.
Once it breaks down, it is very hard to rebuild. Everything then gets filtered and interpreted through the new glasses of mistrust – even years later.
Therefore, the operating principle of accountability is transparency – not to the whole world – but to those who need to know. Transparency can exist with varying degrees – but minimally it means that information can and will be made easily available to those who need it. Many ethical problems are avoided by the knowledge that if they occur, they will become known. And many ethics violations are turned into much more serious events not by the event itself, but by the cover up that comes in its wake. I am not suggesting that such information be made public, but that it be readily volunteered, in a proactive manner (without having to be asked), to the relevant parties.
In addition, some things are crimes which, if one knows about, one is obligated by law to report to the police. If he doesn’t, he himself may be charged with covering up or worse with aiding and abetting a crime. The current climate of the broader society is that sexual violations of a certain sort have to be reported to the police (as do serious instances of theft and bribery).
The perception that the Orthodox world tries to cover up certain types of violations has created a backlash whereby reporting requirements have become more stringent. In the USA, more and more frum employees are inclined to go directly to local law enforcement instead of to their bosses or even to their rabbis, feeling that their bosses and rabbis have too much of a vested interest to hush up claims.
This issue is not particular to the Orthodox world. College administrators have received bad press over what seems to be their inability to deal properly with an increase in sexual assault allegations on campus. In the US Army, the decision over whether to prosecute cases of rape and sexual assault is being moved away from the chain of command whose officers, it’s been proven, rarely act with dispatch or fairness.
Since the future reputation, careers and families of the alleged perpetrators are at stake, one has to balance the desire to thoroughly investigate and ask shailos with the impatience of the broader community for such an approach. In today’s world of social media, scandals spread within hours, and responses are expected soon after. In today’s world, the Orthodox community itself has its own scandal-making press and many glean their opinions from websites rather than halachic authorities in such cases. The ability to manage the public relations side of a scandal is part and parcel of the ethics protocol that has to be drawn up.
In addition, great care should be taken not to show insensitivity to the victims, to keep them informed of the process and give them a chance to express themselves in a managed situation which they do not see as hostile.
When rabbinic authority is approached on such cases, it is vital that the shaila-process include knowledge of the dina demalchusa – including the reporting requirements of the secular law, an accurate picture of the Chillul Hashem implications, and the projections of how the public will respond to this issue.
Independent of the jury of the public and the press, any process of ethics violations must have a clear set of different sanctions or consequences, depending on the severity of the issue. Most organizations operate with only two options – rebuke or dismissal of the violator with nothing in between. Since the violation usually doesn’t warrant being fired, it means that most people will get off with just a rebuke. Often they are immune to feeling any guilt from a rebuke, and are thereby certainly not compelled to correct their behavior as a result.
In such instances, the head of the organization actually becomes an enabler to the behavior, because the violator feels protected. The victim feels helpless – that there is no one to turn to. The head of the organization has failed his staff; he has failed to be accountable downwards. Many heads of organizations are not strong enough to follow through with a clear set of sanctions for non-compliance (short of firing the person). This is but one reason why these sanctions are best imposed by an outside ethics committee.
Grading the level of the transgression/violation is vital if we are to determine the appropriate consequences. These consequences may be perceived as too lenient or too strict by the violator, the violated and/or others. Being able to defer to a set policy protects you. It allows you to refer to persons who will not suffer the same pressures as you will, whose relative objectivity will allow them to apply the rules already agreed upon.
For this same reason, it is better that the head of the organization not sit on the ethics committee (where he is not the one being accused of the violation). As the head of the organization, the fact that he is doing the firing or sanctioning will cloud his judgment. It is much easier if he can say that the ethics committee has made a decision and he is required to implement it. It is also better, for the same reason, that it be a committee of at least three people and not a single person who could come under withering pressure to change his mind. And it is certainly better, that the organization has worked out, with a Daas Torah, the basic protocols of at what stage does one fire the person, warn him, allow the affected party to deal with it quietly, etc.
While it has become popular in the USA for an organization/school/business to state that is has adopted a zero-tolerance approach to this or that transgression, this is inappropriate. It ignores the many different levels of transgression. Ethics protocols perforce make graded distinctions linking a certain level of transgression with a certain level of sanctions.
Take sexual abuse: Level one can be labeled “inappropriate” – sitting too close to a female employee, putting one’s arm around a woman’s chair, calling someone “my dear”, inviting a female staff member to a restaurant for a business meeting. Level two would involve elements of active flirtation. Level three would involve an actual attempt at physical contact of an affectionate or sexual nature. Level four would involve engaging in an ongoing relationship of a certain type with a single member of the staff. In all of this, one would have to determine whether the transgressor engaged in such behavior only with respect to one member of the staff, or whether there was a pattern. This would inform us whether he “fell” for someone or whether he has a problem with members of the other sex in general.
In addition, one would have to understand whether there were additional elements of emotional manipulation, controlling behavior, and the like. In the latter case, there are often elements which reflect deep-seated problems in the person and not simply the giving into a taava. Here, corrective actions will involve long-term therapy and, in some cases, may be a life-long challenge for the perpetrator.
In one case, a boss appeared to use level one behavior to intimidate a female staff who had been independently hired. Although the objective behavior, rather than the motivations behind the behavior, must be the primary determinant of sanctions, it is also important, if the person stays on, to create situations where the behavior will no longer be triggered.
The recognition by the person of what he has done wrong, whether he is seeking help or not, whether the staff can now feel safe in his presence, whether his activity was criminal, and what the court of public opinion will say – all have to be factored in.
In contrast to financial transgressions, sexual transgressions – or the mere accusation thereof – tend to ruin a person’s reputation, sometimes for life. Therefore, managing the information flow becomes highly sensitive. Failing to deal with the issue (often to avoid hurting the person) often backfires, as it forces the victims to go to outside parties to deal with it and this hurts the transgressor more. Sometimes, failure to take action can come back to haunt one years down the line, either because the victim decides at that stage to go public, or because of a repeat offense, or because of someone else’s offense which then gets combined with the first one to reflect on your inaction.
Sometimes a perpetrator with a long term problem may be severely warned and scared off for a while. The employer, lacking experience in recognizing when a problem is a deeply rooted one, may be lulled into a sense that the problem has now been taken care of. This is especially so, since many perpetrators know that they are very useful to their bosses, are very responsive to their needs, and are highly competent. They may be quite discriminating about which staff people they pick on, with a distinction sometimes made between those whom they employed and those staff members whom they inherited.
In any case, certain offenses are serious enough where, even if the person corrects his behavior, it may be recommended that he quietly leave and find employment elsewhere. This is especially true in cases of abuse, where the staff who have suffered the abuse may feel very vulnerable and exposed just by this person’s daily proximity to them. The issue of what information one is obligated to tell a future employer of this person is a very delicate one and requires the advice of a posek on each individual case.