Ask the Rov: What precautions must I take when working with coworkers of the opposite gender?
By Rabbi Chaim Hillel Raskin – Rov of Anash in Petach Tikvah
Chazal teach that the yetzer hara works intensely to facilitate forbidden connections between men and women, and one must therefore be vigilant whenever interacting with members of the opposite gender outside of one’s immediate family. (“Immediate family” in this context includes a man’s mother, sister, daughter, or granddaughter, but not his mother-in-law and sisters-in-law. In fact, extra vigilance is necessary with people with whom one feels close.)
The posuk instructs us to not even “come close” to forbidden relations, which prohibits any form of affectionate speech or touch. Since it is related (abizraihu) with forbidden relations, one is obligated to sacrifice their life rather than transgress.
Affectionate talk includes inquiring how the other is doing — even via an emissary — or asking any question that creates a personal connection. Examples include: Where are you going on vacation? How is your husband doing at his work? Did you sleep well last night?
If the question is work-related or chesed-related — e.g. she wasn’t feeling well — it is allowed as long as it isn’t asked in an affectionate manner. A man may ask a woman’s husband how she is doing, like the malachim asked Avrohom about Sarah, but not send regards to her even via him. One may say good morning, good evening, or wish mazal tov in a cordial manner, but one must ensure that it remains purely cordial.
Giving a gift is included in this prohibition, thus a man may not give a present to a female co-worker. If it is part of the payment, like a gift given to all the employees of a company, it is not considered personal and it is allowed.
Even with regard to non-affectionate conversation, the Mishna discourages excessive talking between men and women. Coworkers may discuss work-related matters, though they should minimize any talk that is not work-related. Joking with one another (or forwarding a joke in a message) is prohibited, even when there are other people present.
In order to uphold proper decorum in the workplace, it is advisable to establish clear guidelines of appropriate conduct between men and women.
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