What does the Bible say about employment?
During biblical times, people were self-employed, contract laborers, or servants obligated to long-term service. A contract laborer is seen in the parable of the field hands who were hired to harvest grapes (Matthew 20:1-16). Servanthood, or slavery, was generally entered through some obligation: a person might have incurred too much debt and had to sell his services to meet his obligation, he might have been on the wrong side of a battle and was captured, he might be learning a trade as an apprentice, or he might be earning something that he could not normally afford, such as Jacob's fourteen years of service to Laban for the right to marry Rachel (Genesis 29:15-30). The length of service lasted until the obligation was fulfilled. It could last a few years or could be a lifetime of service.
Most of the Bible's comments on employment focuses on servants or slaves. Outside of self-employment, it was the most common form of labor; and it was the main form of labor that kept the employer (the master) tied to his employees (servants). A master had to supply his servants the basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter. Servants became a part of the master's household. Now as you might suspect, when men are involved there were a wide variety of masters; some took good care of their servants, but many did not.
While the circumstances of employment are not exactly the same today, we still can learn from the instructions given. We tend to favor contract employees -- people who are paid in return for service. Our contracts are often open-ended allowing an employee to work for a company as long the employer and the employee desire to continue the relationship. In this, we have it much easier than the servant. A servant was stuck with his master until his obligation was fulfilled. We don't have to stay with an employer we don't like; we always have the option to walk out on a bad boss.
Masters / Bosses / Employers
"Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven" (Colossians 4:1). Those in charge are to treat those in their care justly and fairly. As you would like God to treat you, so should you treat those under you. "Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth" (James 5:4). Those hired deserve their pay. When bosses mistreat their employees, such as not paying what is owed, God promises to hold the masters accountable. "And I will come near you for judgment; I will be a swift witness ... against those who exploit wage earners" (Malachi 3:5). Hence, God required masters under the Old Law to pay their employees in a timely manner. "The wages of him who is hired shall not remain with you all night until morning" (Leviticus 19:13).
In addition, masters were not allowed to threaten their servants. "And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him" (Ephesians 6:9). Again the basic principle remains: as a master treats those under him, so will God treat the master. But unlike human masters, God will always be just. He does not give special treatment to masters over their slaves.
Servants / Slaves / Employees
"Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ. But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality" (Colossians 3:22-25). A similar principle is applied to the servant that was applied to the master. A servant is to work for his master just as if he was working for God directly. Since God is all-knowing, a Christian worker will give honest labor throughout the day -- not just when he knows the boss is looking. They are not seeking favor from their bosses, such as getting in good with the boss so as to get a promotion. Instead, they give full effort because they are working for God -- knowing that this service will likely please earthly bosses as well. A Christian's effort is to be sincerely given.
"Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free" (Ephesians 6:5-8). How many employees truly respect their bosses? Yet, most of us choose our bosses in a limited fashion; at least, if you don't like a boss, you always have the choice of walking out the door. But in a society where few could choose their masters, Paul tells servants to treat their bosses with respect.
Respect is especially due when your boss is also a Christian. "Let as many bondservants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and His doctrine may not be blasphemed. And those who have believing masters, let them not despise them because they are brethren, but rather serve them because those who are benefited are believers and beloved. Teach and exhort these things" (I Timothy 6:1-2). Why does Paul give extra emphasis to giving respect to a Christian master? Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt. Because a person knows his boss both inside and outside the workplace, he treats his master with too much familiarity and not enough honor.
"Exhort bondservants to be obedient to their own masters, to be well pleasing in all things, not answering back, not pilfering, but showing all good fidelity, that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things" (Titus 2:9-10). Here we find details of how an employee should treat his employer. An employee should be striving to please his boss. Talking back and stealing behind the boss's back show a lack of respect and a lack of ethics.
Now, in case you think that these rules only apply to good bosses: "Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps" ( I Peter 2:18-21). Respect (or as it is sometimes translated "fear") is even given to bad bosses. Peter urges us to look to Christ as our example. Christ did not retaliate when he was mistreated and neither should we strike back even when we are being badly used. Peter was writing to people who usually didn't have a choice in their masters. At least we can leave when we encounter poor working conditions. Yet it still behooves us to be polite and respectful to those who gave us employment.