Personal phone calls at work

Q. My company officially allows employers to make one personal phone call a day. No one keeps to this limit, and everyone, including top management knows it. Since top management “turns a blind eye”, is it unethical to make more than one personal call? — Julia, Los Angeles

A. There are two different reasons management could be looking the other way. Perhaps they really have no objection to employees making two or three personal calls on company time; they are just afraid that if company policy explicitly allows two or three, then workers will start making nine or ten. If this is the case, then it is not unethical for you to make an occasional extra call.

The other possibility is that the managers are genuinely unhappy about the phenomenon, but are unable to control it. Sometimes supervisors have to turn a blind eye to small-scale pilfering, but it is certainly not ethical to help yourself to inventory.

Here’s one way to tell the difference. The first few times you want to make a second phone call, ask permission: “I’ve already made one personal call today; but now I need to talk to my dentist.” If permission is given grudgingly, it’s a clear sign that management is not thrilled about this drain on company time and resources. But if permission is given without a thought, and your repeated queries seem an annoyance to your boss, then it’s a safe bet that your employer doesn’t really mind if you make an additional call every so often.

Treading on the path of “everyone else does it” encourages others to follow in our footsteps, contributing to the creation of those norms in the first place. The Talmud tells of a youngster who rebuked a man for walking through his field. When the man pointed out that he was walking only on the path, the boy replied, “That path was cut by crooks like you”. (Eruvin 53b.)

Source: Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, 337:20.