The Office Tyrant


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o[By Rabbi Yair Hoffman]

They exist throughout corporate America, in for-profit businesses and in nonprofits, in klei kodesh enterprises as well as financial. They are the office tyrants who abuse underlings, secretaries, and often coworkers. The secretaries and others who work under them are often helpless—they cope, and often barely so, by using avoidance and other workarounds.

The abuse can come in many forms: yelling, saying hurtful things, mood swings, giving hurtful looks, and much more. Office tyrants may be at the upper echelons of society. They may truly be brilliant, and hardworking assets to the community. And often, office tyrants will justify their behavior—because it keeps the office flow working.

No matter.

The behavior is still an issur d’Oraisah, a Torah prohibition. The Mishnah in Bava Metziah 58b states: Just as there exists financial abuse in business dealings, there exists verbal abuse as well. The Hebrew for this sin of verbal oppression is ona’as dvarim. And the verse one violates? Vayikra (25:17): “Do not afflict one another, but fear Hashem.”

The verse includes any form of undermining self-esteem.

The examples abound.

Public humiliation. “Miss Goldberg, this office is not your personal locker room! Please do not keep two extra pairs of shoes under your desk!”

Name-calling. “You idiot. What are you, deaf? I told you three times already to tell him that we will not move forward until he pays his past balance!”

Intolerance of error. “I thought you were smart! What is your problem?!”

Sarcasm. “Remind me? Why am I paying you again?”

Impatience. “I want it NOW! I cannot wait until you come back from your break. Do you know what NOW means?”

The Rant. “What? You dare defend yourself by saying it’s normal to make mistakes when learning something new? Once, twice, maybe. But five or six times? This isn’t normal. This is sheer incompetence! I have never had such idiots working for me. And you want to take off how many days now for yom tov? My gosh!”

Micromanaging. Interrupting employees’ work several times an hour to check up on them undermines self-esteem.

Seriousness of the issue.

The prohibition of verbal abuse is not a tiny, inconsequential prohibition. It is a very serious one, according to the Steipler Gaon, zt’l (father of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita). He writes in Kreina D’Igrasa (Volume I #57): “One must know that this is a grave sin and a horrifying transgression—indeed, even causing someone light pain with mere words is a Torah prohibition.”

Forms of the prohibition.

It is clear that the pain of ona’as dvarim can come in any form. The Sefer haChinuch (Mitzvah #338) says this explicitly. (See also the language used by Rabbeinu Yonah in Shaarei Teshuvah 3:24.) The poskim say that asking for the price of something you really do not wish to buy is an example of verbal oppression, as it gives the seller false hope for a sale. If that is the case, then “false hope” in an office setting is included in the category too. In his Biur Halacha (Orech Chaim 170:19 “Guests”), the Chofetz Chaim writes that dropping in on a party toward the end may be a violation of ona’ah, because the host may be embarrassed at the lack of available food to offer. The Yereim (Mitzvah 51) also gives an example of giving a dirty look as ona’as dvarim. We see from all of these illustrations that the prohibition of ona’ah takes any form.

Private castigation, not public.

The Talmud (Makos 24a) demonstrates clearly that when one corrects another, he or she must do so privately, and not in public or among other coworkers. Chazal tell us that this was Yeravam’s sin, that he castigated Shlomo HaMelech in public (Sanhedrin 101b).

Not just one verse.

There is also an additional prohibition that is violated if the boss successfully embarrassed the employee or coworker. The Torah tells us of the obligation to rebuke someone who is violating a Torah mitzvah—yet the latter half of the verse indicates that we shouldn’t cause him (or her) to be embarrassed, lo sisah alav chet (Vayikra 19:17). The poskim (see the preface of Sefer Chofetz Chaim) understand the latter half of this verse as an additional prohibition not to embarrass another.

According to some Rishonim, there may even be a third prohibition. Rashi tells us that the verse concerning afflicting a widow and an orphan (Sh’mos 22:21) is only using these two scenarios as an example, but the prohibition is all-inclusive. Other Rishonim (See Rambam Hilchos Deyos 6:10), however, maintain that the verse refers strictly to widows and orphans. Yet a third group understands it to mean anyone who does not have someone looking out for them in that venue, such as a traveler or immigrant (see Ibn Ezra).

What can the victim do?

What are some practical ways of dealing with this situation? When the violator is an office tyrant, the issue is particularly troublesome, because often the victim feels stuck and has nowhere to go. It is further confounded by the fact that more often than not office tyrants do not recognize their own behavior. Secretaries and other underlings are left with several options (which can be used in combination) for averting, dealing with, or perhaps even remedying the situation.

They could privately let the office tyrant know how they feel, being careful to keep the focus on themselves rather than the misdeeds of the office tyrant. In other words, instead of saying, “You embarrassed me in public and made me feel pretty rotten,” say, “I think I could also have gotten the message if the point had been made a little more privately. Thank you for keeping this mind; I guess I am not as tough as other people.”

They could ignore the behavior or look out for triggers so as to avoid it. Humor can be an effective way of lessening the impact on oneself of abusive behavior.

They could also be sure to model the correct behavior, and to prompt better behavior by inviting suggestions of ways to correct people in the office without embarrassing them, chas v’shalom.

Alternatively, they could just hope that office tyrants will read this article and make the change by themselves. Unlikely, perhaps, but to quote the New York State Lottery, “Hey, you never know.” v

The author can be reached at [email protected]

(Source: 5TJT)


  1. If Yeshivos would teach Onaas Devorim in the elementary schools as they did Shmiras Haloshon, the next generation would be totally different. People would treat each differently – with more respect. It would encompass everyone – Parent/child, Husband/Wife, Employer/employee, friends, roommates in Yeshiva and the list goes on. The same way a child todays grows up knowing it is wrong to speak Loshon Harah, if we taught Onaas Devarim in schools, they would know that it is wrong to berate someone in the fashion described above. Rav Pam spoke about it in one of the Videos of the Tishaa Baav Event from the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation. Also, I think Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation is starting to introduce a curriculum to Schools – as I have seen in their booth in the Torah Umesorah convention. But we need the Roshie Yeshivas, Menahalim to want to do it, and to encourage the schools to put it in their regular schedule. A small allowance of ten minutes a day can produce a different generation. As we have seen happen with the limud of Hilchos Loshon Harah.

  2. I worked with someone like that a while back. He was about to take over a small school for a special group of young ladies. He contacted me had we had a sit down. He convinced me that he “could not do this without me, and that it was imperative that I join him in this venture” What does that mean to you? Yes that is what it meant to me as well. Partners. I gave of myself 24/7. I was told that he couldn’t pay me yet because there was no money in the budget, so I did it anyway, but low and behold there was money in the budget to pay himself and everyone else.

    That wasn’t the worst of it. Instead of respecting me, and showing me hakaros hatov for my devotion and dedication for working “with” him because he told me that he couldn’t open this school and run this school without me, he treated me as a volunteer and allowed others to treat me as a volunteer with not only less authority than the paid employees but no authority at all. My devotion to the children and the school meant nothing even though it usurped all my attention away from my own family.

    The “faculty” even told the children that I “was ONLY a volunteer” and actually caused a battle of loyalties between us. Even through all of this I had his back even though he did NOT have mine. In the end, the Faculty that he supported and promoted instead of the “partner” he pumped up to join him in this venture, left him mid-term and took more than half the students with him. So much for loyalty from the paid employees. But even that did not teach him a lesson in loyalty to me and how to treat those you work with, with the same respect you expect of them. When I had my fill of being stepped on and stabbed in the back, I quit and took everything I bought with my “OWN” money with me.

    I am still very connected to the students in that school and the other. Many are still a part of my extended family and I am “bobby” to their children. I don’t believe I can say the same for him.