A Jewish View on Greg Smith and the Goldman Sachs Affair
I’m sure that by now everyone has heard about ex-Goldman Sachs employee Greg Smith’s epic resignation letter as shared with the world through the Grey Lady. What, if any, could be some Jewish take-aways from this unusual maneuver? I thought of three:
Lashon Hara (negative speech)
While the Torah does enumerate a positive commandment (called tochacha) to give rebuke when others are doing wrong, there is a style and a methodology to it. By and large this means that we employ the “Oreo” technique – first saying something nice up front, followed by the carefully placed sticky stuff, and rounded out by a cookie compliment at the end – so it’s good, less good and good again. This is obviously a much gentler delivery mechanism, and one that is much more likely to be heard. Dale Carnegie, in his classic “How to win Friends and Influence People,” outlines, in case after case, how “calling people out” rarely works and even if it does will just create pent up hostility that will eventually come back to haunt us. It’s no wonder then that Goldman does not appear to be doing any intense reflection (ie: “guys, Greg is really right, we really have lost our bearing and change is long overdue. Let’s take the rest of the month off for client sensitivity training!”) Rather, like most people when stung by the barbs of others, they are just angry and defensive. Here’s one reaction that I read, “Greg Smith was an insignificant peon with no responsibilities.” Maybe they would have been more inclined to listen if Greg had sprinkled his commentary with a few positive statements as well. Just sayin’…
Dedication to one’s employee
While it’s never ok to cheat, shortchange, or misadvise anyone, an employee’s first responsibility is to his or her employer. This means that throughout the entire duration of one’s employ, one must be focused on fulfilling one’s responsibilities. If the job description is to make money for the employer, then the employee must utilize all of the (legal and ethical) resources available to make this happen. Greg made it sound like that primary responsibility is to the client and to the best of my knowledge that’s just not the case. Jewish law takes this mitzvah very seriously and would consider personal emails, Facebook use, unduly long coffee breaks and the like to be theft from the employer. It certainly is not a wonderful attitude to regard your clients as “Muppets,” but as long as you don’t take Fozzie, Gonzo or Beaker for a financial ride, I’m not sure what the issue is.
It’s ok to make money
Unlike some other spiritual traditions, Judaism has little issue with the accumulation of wealth. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were business men (among other things) and many of the sages of the Talmud did very well for themselves. It’s true that wealth can present its own set of challenges and obstacles that can hinder ethical development, but so can poverty. Our main responsibility in life is to bring about the greatest good we can with the tools that we have at our disposal. While our net worth does not correspond with our self-worth, neither does it make a wealthy person any more ethically suspect than anyone else. It could very well be that there are a lot of greedy and opportunistic people at Goldman Sachs (there are, sadly, in many places) but we should be careful not to reflexively equate the idea of the pursuit of wealth with greed and bad character as it’s not an accurate (or fair) way of looking at the world.