Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
After I worked at my job for three months, my manager suddenly, without warning or discussion, tried to change the terms of my employment, to give me additional responsibilities, and to take away from me my vacation. This was directly contrary to the terms we had agreed upon when I accepted the job.
I was shocked. What can, or should, I do about this?
Blindsided in Bergenfield
Our Torah clearly defends the basic rights of the worker, “You shall neither steal nor deal deceitfully or falsely with one another… You shall not defraud your fellow; you shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning” (Leviticus 19:11-13). And more recently, many of our grandparents, in the spirit of our traditions of justice and fairness, in the United States and in Europe, led the global movements for unionization and for social justice to protect the rights of workers worldwide.
But today, though, I assume that you do not have a union to represent you. Given the power differential in your case, there is not much effective unilateral action that you can take. If you stand your ground against your boss, chances are that you will find no compromise and be forced to resign and walk away. If you seek compromise, likely you will be met with blank stares or glares from your bullying manager.
And if you give in, you may be able to remain in your job, but at significant personal costs to your dignity, and potentially to your happiness and health.
If your financial circumstances allow for it, your best course of action is to make it clear to your boss that he or she acted in an unprofessional way that you cannot tolerate, and to walk away. Once a manager violates basic trust by unilaterally revising your terms of employment, you must consider if it makes sense to stay. If you do stay, you will be on edge every hour of every day in case some unknown new edict or fiat is issued, ordering you to do this or that, changing your days off, and generally jerking you around. Nobody should be subjected to that kind of workplace abuse, and no one should abide or tolerate it.
Should you bring civil legal action against your employer for violating your original contract? That’s not my purpose here in this column to counsel you on legal matters. To answer that I recommend you consult an experienced employment lawyer for some good American non-talmudic legal advice.
My advice is for you to reflect upon your experiences and learn for the future how to anticipate and react to bad actions brought against you. Since you have suffered from an egregious awful dirty trick, or worse, you have a useful opportunity to review some of the principles of negative actions that unethical people attempt in general in negotiations.
Some folks might want to remind you that from stories in Scripture or the Talmud you could learn some lessons about “The Art of the Dirty Deal” and distributive negotiating tactics.
To be sure, Bible stories recount how our forefathers used deceptive negotiating tricks and all kinds of creative deceptions. Jacob was a master of such deals, making a deal with Esau for the birthright, and deceiving his father Isaac for a blessing. He made a deal with Laban for the speckled livestock, which appeared generous to Laban on the surface, but ultimately favored Jacob economically.
I guess we might claim that a lesson from our biblical heroes is to be a savvy or tricky negotiator, even if many of the Bible examples appear to be ethically questionable. Yes, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, an outright dirty deal. No tricks involved. But wait, down the road of history that deal led to saving the Israelites at a time of famine, and Joseph ended up forgiving his brothers and providing for them.
Moses tried to negotiate with Pharaoh, but his take-it-or-leave-it approach fell on deaf ears, as Pharaoh rejected all Moses’ attempts to win the freedom of his people. Until, that is, Pharaoh’s very flesh and blood was a stake. Then Moses said he’d take the people out of town for a while. And he switched gears, and they kept on going to freedom.
I say we put the Bible stories aside, and turn to clearer, more useful contemporary sources for more in-depth guidance. I will give you some examples in a canonical catalogue of dirty tricks that people may try to play on you as you negotiate your way through life. I learned about these in a magnificent course in negotiations in the MBA program at a major research university.
The brilliant professor who taught the course prepared a summary for students to remind them about how to respond in a negotiation to the prevalent issue of distributive tactics, or what we often call “dirty tricks.”
Note well that these are generally encountered actions that people face today. They are not the dirty tricks of deals that were used in the stories of our biblical heroes.
Here’s the top ten list of today’s dirty tricks that you may encounter during negotiations, with an eleventh that I have added to highlight your specific predicament.
1. Good Cop/Bad Cop
2. Emotional Intimidation
3. Lowball (or Highball) Offer
4. Opening with a “Take It or Leave It” Offer
5. Exploiting the Trappings of Power
6. Increasing an Offer’s Appearance of Legitimacy
7. Pretending to Have Limited Authority
8. Playing a Game of Chicken
9. Lying about Priorities
11. Bait and Switch
Look carefully at the summary table for more details of what you can expect, and what you can do, if you encounter dirty tricks in your negotiations, in business, or in your personal life, whether for employment or in your purchases, or with adaptations, for any of the other transactions in your life.
To be certain, I’d like to refer you for detailed advice to the laws of our Talmud, which has a whole order of tractates that deal with civil damages. No doubt even if biblical stories seem to condone tricks, our rabbinic law strives for fairness and justice in all business dealings, from an ox that fell into a pit, to reparations for accidental injury of your fellow human being, and many other liability issues. But those talmudic discussions are hard to apply to modern contexts, so it’s better to seek out modern standards and specialists to address today’s issues.
By learning principles from experts in the field of business administration, you will gain a slightly better advantage in the future as you go into the next minefield in your career and in your negotiations of other relationships. Anticipate, as best you can, the worst-case scenarios, the dirty tricks; stipulate what you expect in your position, and get it spelled out in writing.
And never agree at the end of a negotiation, to ambiguous terms or, worse, to blank-check-sounding language in clauses like, “Your job duties will include 1, 2, 3…. and other activities to be named later.”
I warn you that smarmy manipulative managers will resist being pinned down. If you get the sense that your potential employer is a weasel, or a bully, or any other negative human entity, your best course of action is to walk away at the start, before you find yourself trapped later — as you have been — in the messy, unpleasant, unhealthy tangled web of your manager’s deceit.
And be sure that what you face now is not just a dirty tactic, it is also a blatant violation of professional standards. Had you been more attentive to aspects of your initial negotiations at the outset, you might have picked up the potential for this later tragic action by your manipulative manager. Or you might not have. The dirtiest tricksters are good at hiding their deceits.
Whatever course you take now, do not blame yourself for the place you are in. It is not your fault. Look ahead to your next challenges. I’m sure you have worthy talents that will be recognized at your next job. Go confidently ahead and leave your unfortunate experiences with dirty tricks behind you.
The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on Talmudic reasoning and wisdom. It aspires to be equally open and meaningful to all the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard or email them to email@example.com