Getting Undeserved Goodwill

Q. Even though my company doesn't pay workers for overtime, it still records times of arrival and departure at the office. If I step out in the middle of the day for errands, it looks like I worked extra hours that day. But even though that makes me look good, the company doesn't really lose out since I don't get any extra pay. Do I need to tell my boss that some of my recorded hours are spent at the dentist and not at the office? 

A. Jewish tradition has a special term for deceiving others without causing them a loss. Obtaining undeserved good will in this way is called "stealing judgment" (geneivat da'at), and is strictly forbidden. We believe that G_d seeks to increase mutual understanding among people; we shouldn't on the contrary try to create and exploit misunderstanding.

Still, that doesn't mean that we have to go to any possible lengths to ensure that our actions won't be subject to misinterpretation. Just as we have a responsibility not to mislead others, others have a responsibility to be reasonable in interpreting our actions. Jewish law gives a useful criterion for striking a balance, avoiding unfair deception without requiring obsessive openness.

An instructive example is found in the Talmud. As a noted Rabbi approached a town, he found two scholars walking towards him. Assuming that the two men had come specially to greet him, he thanked them for their efforts. One of the scholars felt obliged to explain to the Rabbi that they hadn't known of his arrival and the meeting was a mere coincidence. But his companion though that such a disclaimer was not really required.

The commentators explain that if the assumption of a "welcoming party" is reasonable and anticipated, then it is necessary to refute it – as the first scholar thought. But if almost all people would have realized that the meeting was a mere coincidence, then the second scholar was correct – in this case, there was nothing in the circumstances of the meeting which really contributed to misunderstanding.

We can apply this criterion to your case. If many workers take occasional breaks, so that your employer should reasonably be able to figure out that your many recorded hours don't necessarily mean that you are slaving away overtime, then you don't have to inform them that your nine recorded hours of presence really mean eight hours of work.

But it most workers are pretty careful to record only actual hours of presence, so that your employer would be pretty much justified in assuming that nine hours at the office means nine hours of work, then you should mention to your manager that you frequently take off in the middle of the day. Then your boss can decide how to adjust his or her evaluation of your work.

However, before rushing ahead to apply this criterion, let's take a step back. It's clear from your question that you would prefer not to tell your boss. Perhaps you should ask yourself why. If it's because you are somewhat embarrassed to do something off the beaten track (perhaps you disappear for afternoon prayers, and your colleagues wouldn't necessarily understand) then the above criterion is appropriate. But if the reason is because you are hoping to benefit from the extra hours, then you're intention is to mislead; in that case, you should go right ahead and inform your boss.

SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Chullin 94b, Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 228.