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Here is a little thought experiment. What comes to mind first when you hear the word business? This morning's financial headlines? Your bank balance? If your daily work is in business, you may think of experiences and relationships that define much of your life.
Now consider another word: faith. What images emerge? It is likely your mind turned in another direction, toward God, prayer, family, and church.
This simple exercise says much about the issues explored in this book. During the seminars I have conducted in churches since 1992, I have found it useful to divide people into two groups: one generates a top-of-mind list of words and phrases associated with business, while another, meeting separately, jots down concepts associated with faith. Neither group knows what the other is doing, but the lesson becomes clear when everyone reconvenes to post their work on large sheets of paper at the front of the room. Seldom does even one word or phrase appear on both groups' lists, though the items may number several dozen. Indeed, many of the concepts deemed most central to faith (e.g., God, love, prayer, forgiveness) are never associated with business, underscoring just how far apart these worlds seem to be. (See Figure 1.1 for typical examples.)
Is this just a matter of semantics, or is something more at stake? What do these word associations say about the values and assumed purposes of each context? In the parlance of business, words like love and humility may seem of little value when speaking of maximizing profits or beating the competition.
In his book A Better Way to Think about Business, the late business philosopher Robert Solomon, a student of business jargon, speaks of having been struck by the imagery that peppers many presentations and advertisements. "Again and again we hear business described as a jungle, a fight for survival, a dog-eat-dog world, a game defined by its so-called winners and losers." This is how many of my business students see it, but Solomon rightly contends that if such language actually reflected the way most people experience business, society would have every reason to question its legitimacy.
Fortunately, business life is not always so hard-edged, even if it is often portrayed this way. As Solomon points out, "We hear too little about the virtues of business life, about the ways in which business and personal integrity support and reinforce one another, perhaps because it makes for such boring and uneventful stories—just modest success and good feelings, camaraderie, mutual pride, and enjoyment."
Yet language does matter, for it not only describes reality—it shapes it. Several years ago, I was with the management team of a large public company as they discussed cost-cutting measures in the face of mounting losses. For several hours, the firm's financial executives presented their plans in a detached and clinical manner, showing that closing a number of operating locations would reduce "head count" and yield much-needed savings. As they finished, Bob, the company's chairman and CEO, drew his chair closer to the conference table, leaned forward, and said firmly, "I know we have no choice but to proceed with these layoffs. But in deciding how to go about it, let's remember that we love these people." An awkward silence fell over the room, as if an unexpected guest had intruded on a family discussion. Love? I could not recall ever hearing the word in a corporate meeting, and I suspected I was not alone.
I thought about Bob's words for weeks afterwards. They reminded me of the mantra of management sage Peter Drucker: "Management is about human beings." In effect, Bob had taken a straightforward plan for cutting costs and complicated it immensely by insisting that people losing their jobs should be treated with love. Still, the tone of the meeting was entirely different from that moment on. The conversation turned from calculations of head count to creative ways to ease difficult transitions for real people with real families and financial needs. Later, when I asked Bob about this, he shrugged it off as unremarkable. "I'ma Christian," he said. "That's no secret around here. I remind our managers that faith, hope, and love should define the way we do business. But at a time like this, that's easier said than done."
"Park it at the door"
Many believers have discovered that taking faith seriously at work can indeed make life more difficult. This is due in part to a business culture that often discourages religious expression in the workplace. Executive search consultants and university career offices advise job seekers to purge their resumes of any mention of faith interests, even church-related humanitarian projects. Employer policies restrict or prohibit religious symbols and activities. The prevailing culture suggests that faith is a private matter that should not be taken too seriously in public life. "The consistent message of modern American society is that whenever the demands of one's religion conflict with what one has to do to get ahead," says Yale law professor Stephen Carter, "one is expected to ignore the religious demands and act ... well ... rationally."
A national study of spirituality in corporate America by Ian Mitroff and Elizabeth Denton found that most companies believe in "walling it off as strictly as they can."
The usual way in which organizations respond to spiritual matters and concerns of the soul is by declaring them inappropriate or out of bounds. Conventional wisdom holds that spiritual matters and concerns are far too personal and private to be broached directly in the workplace, the most public and communal of settings. Moreover, because people differ sharply in their responses to such concerns, merely raising them will lead only to acrimony and division and not to the ultimate end of bringing people closer together at work.
More often than not, park-it-at-the-door thinking has less to do with hostility to faith than with the avoidance of risk, for many employers fear that any hint of religion is a potential source of conflict or litigation. To be sure, inappropriate religious conduct can lead to claims of discrimination and harassment, and in recent years employee lawsuits on these grounds have outpaced all other complaints against employers under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the United States. But notable within this trend are growing numbers of cases alleging failures by employers to allow the exercise of faith at work. Religious freedom enjoys a special place in American jurisprudence, and the law places an affirmative burden on employers to "reasonably" accommodate religious expression and practice. Thus, employers now face the conundrum of how to prevent discrimination and harassment while leaving room for the reasonable exercise of religion as more employees of all faiths insist on bringing their beliefs to the office or the shop floor.
Over the last decade, many large employers have established formal diversity programs, complete with dedicated staffs and budgets, to deal proactively with differences in race, ethnicity, gender, and other workplace demographics, usually in hopes of promoting inclusion and removing barriers to participation and advancement. Yet few of these programs address religious issues effectively. I led a workshop for The Conference Board, a global association of businesses, where chief diversity officers of major corporations admitted they had yet to address religious diversity with coherent policies or training. "Religion is the final frontier," said an executive with a Fortune 50 company, explaining that its place in the workplace is uncertain and poorly understood. These executives agreed that leaders of their firms were more likely to see religion as a threat to workplace harmony than as an essential and inseparable dimension of many employees' lives, even though studies say the vast majority of business leaders in the United States adhere to some religious faith.
In Chapter Seven we will return to this subject as we consider the efforts of some employers to provide opportunities for religious expression; however, it is not the purpose of this volume to delve too deeply into issues of law or corporate policy. Our point here is that the cultures of many workplaces effectively relegate faith to the private, off-hours sphere, contributing to the individual's inner difficulty in holding these two worlds together.
Our Changing Relationship with Work
With a scope of influence that arguably exceeds that of the church, business is the primary locus of human interaction and relationships for millions of people. Whether you are in business, government, social services, or any other sector, the last decade has almost certainly brought some dramatic changes in how you do your own work. Change is only accelerating, mobility is increasing, and the future of your career is likely less predictable than you once thought. Relentless communication demands the constant attention of professionals and truck drivers alike, as cell phones, e-mail devices, and the Internet make it possible to stay connected to work 24/7. Meanwhile, the boundaries that traditionally separated office and home are blurred by telecommuting arrangements and by online social networks where relationships from work, church, family, and neighborhood often overlap. Your computer and mobile phone may be points of convergence for an incredibly wide range of concurrent relationships and interests. The line is further blurred by a "Millennial Generation" (born in the 1980s and 1990s) that is less willing to be defined by institutional affiliations.
We must not underestimate the significance of these changes, for they are unsettling the social structures that have divided public life and private life in Western society for two centuries. Even as workplace cultures eschew religion, Christians are finding it harder to treat their employment as a neatly bounded compartment where the claims of faith should not apply. In some ways our relationship to work is becoming more like that of earlier times, before the social transformation of the Industrial Age began to fracture personal wholeness by driving a wedge between home life and work life.
Today's difficulty reconciling faith and work must be understood as a product of long-term trends that have diminished the portion of our selves that goes to work. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution not only changed national economies; it profoundly affected how millions of people made their livings. For prior generations, work on the farm or in the shop was close to home and often involved family members. Many people spent years learning crafts or trades and had meaningful connections to the things they produced. As steam-powered factories with capacities for mass production began to displace cottage industries, countless workers were drawn to industrial and assembly-line jobs in urban areas. This movement separated work from home as never before; long hours at the farm, bakery, or blacksmith shop were traded for twelve-hour shifts in factories or mills; the natural rhythms of sowing and harvesting were replaced by rigid daily schedules set by others. The personal connection to end products was mostly lost, for broad know-how was unnecessary for the narrower, repetitive tasks of modern systems based on divisions of labor.
For many, work became less human—and less humane—as employers came to view workers, often including children, as replaceable cogs in their great machines. To ensure maximum efficiency and productivity, a managerial class emerged to populate industrial bureaucracies, the complexity of which had previously existed only in governmental and military organizations.
By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the searing critiques of Karl Marx and others gave rise to the labor movement and the gradual adoption of social reforms in Europe and America. Yet even as these changes corrected some of the abuses of early industrialization, new transportation developments—first railroads, then automobiles and airplanes—further distanced work from home. Widespread electrification and the introduction of time-saving appliances made it possible for more people, especially women, to spend less time at home. Over the course of the twentieth century, farm employment in the United States declined from nearly 40 percent to less than 3 percent, while service industries replaced the industrial sector as the generator of most new jobs. As the Information Age dawned, Western nations were eagerly assuming post-industrial roles in a stratified global economy.
Meanwhile, twentieth-century educational institutions encouraged the professionalization of management and the development of ever more efficient production and distribution methods. Business courses extolled the benefits of Taylorism (originated by industrial engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor), which separated work execution and work planning, fragmented jobs to minimize skill requirements and learning time, and introduced "scientific" control of time and motion. From the executive suite to the assembly line, corporations required greater specialized knowledge and technical skills.
Similar effects were felt in governmental agencies, smaller businesses, hospitals, professional firms, and other organizations. Although these developments were accompanied by improvements in pay, benefits, and equal opportunity, they inevitably circumscribed individuals' roles in the workplace. Whether a purchasing manager, a machine operator, a cashier, or a telemarketer, today's employee is less likely to have a personal connection to the end products or final results of his or her efforts, further alienating much work from a larger sense of purpose.
The Ethical Dimension
For believers this alienation is felt most acutely when workplace situations involve conflicting values. It is easy to imagine Bob's angst when faced with a choice between the expectations of his shareholders and the well-being of his employees—a hard decision made more difficult by taking seriously the Christian imperative to love others. Robert Jackall, a sociologist who has studied corporate cultures, finds that while religious affiliation is often viewed as a sign of respectability in business, the "principal moral gauges for action" are invariably defined by employers' internal rules and culture. Thus it may be out-of-bounds to speak of the requirements of faith even if everyone present adheres to the same beliefs in their private lives. On most days, this separation may seem to be a pragmatic compromise with the realities of modern business, but it is more difficult to accept in ethically challenging moments when believers sense that the teachings of their faith should offer guidance.
Especially troubling at such times is the absence of support from the church. Our national study of Christians in non-church occupations (see the list in Appendix A) revealed deep disappointment in the church for failing to help them relate their faith to their work. "I feel like my church has a norm that business doesn't belong in church," said a retail manager. "There is the occasional joy of a promotion, or a shared concern about unemployment, but never teaching or conversation about one's faith in the workplace." Others made similar comments to the effect that the faith-work connection is seldom a serious topic of discussion or study at church. A financial planner summed up the experience of many: "The church teaches me to live as a Christian, but I have to apply those principles to my life and work on my own."
Excerpted from How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and what can be done about it) by John C. Knapp Copyright © 2012 by John C. Knapp. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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