by Andrew Marquardt
Tucked away in my Kansas City office, I banged away a letter to the Wall Street Journal (Jan 29, 2009) questioning Merrill Lynch’s media-driven defense of executive bonuses in the face of 28 billion in losses. That exercise stemmed from an ongoing reflection, as a Catholic CEO and lawyer, about the principles that drive Catholic business leaders.
Years of experience as an employment law attorney and business owner have shown me peoples’ desire to be liked is so profound and so far-reaching it has created a society of passé, all-inclusive corporate cultures, which are partially grounded on leaders’ lack of conviction in, or confusion about, core philosophical, workplace principles.
Arguably, the fear of offending anyone has lead to the creation of a secular landscape, one that has been pulsating to varying degrees for several hundred years – as G.K. Chesterton said: “Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality; to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense.”
Whether in times of peace or in times of workplace conflict, leaders must be able to depend on credible, common sense principles to back their decisions. And wouldn’t it be helpful if all leaders were able to call on a conscience formed by a universally accepted set of norms?
The Bible, including the Ten Commandments and numerous parables, is generally considered a solid backbone. But the cross-cultural appeal to the Bible many times leaves good-intentioned leaders of all faiths disputing what should be interpreted literally and figuratively. For Catholics, The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) is also useful, yet its brevity on workplace philosophy leaves us yearning for more.
Thankfully, we have more. In my opinion, leaders of all faiths would be well advised to study one of the best repositories of universally appealing moral and philosophical thought relevant to today’s working world. It consists of two Catholic encyclicals which add context and perspective to the primacy of the Bible: (1) Laborem ExercensEncyclical on Human Work) (, issued by John Paul II, September 14, 1981; and (2) Centesimus Annus (Centenary Encyclical on Capital and Labor), issued by Pope John Paul II, May 1, 1991. In synthesizing these encyclicals, one finds, among other essential social doctrines (economic systems, distribution of capital, and the role of the state) an adherence to three basic truths about the dignity of work: (1) work is good; (2) man must work; and (3) man is the subject of work.
I submit that an emphasis on, and the development of, these three principles will cause a positive perception of work to germinate, create awareness about the importance of each person’s contribution, and redirect the spotlight from profit to the individual worker. The underlying causes of the current economic climate serve as evidence that this philosophical recalibration is timely and necessary to aid leaders in efforts to build up workplace culture and each employee’s human dignity.
I’ll touch on each of the three tenets briefly, but strongly encourage every leader to read for themselves these encyclicals, in their entirety and several times, to gain a full appreciation of their enormous breadth and moral instruction.
Work is Good
“[M]an’s life is built up every day from work, from work it derives its specific dignity. . . the church considers it her task always to call attention to the dignity and rights of those workers, to condemn situations in which that dignity and those rights are violated and to help to guide. . . so as to ensure authentic progress by man and society.” (Laborem Exercens., 2,5).
It sure doesn’t seem like people build up their lives at work these days. How many times over the years have you heard, “I’m sick today,” “I’ll be in late,” “Not coming in,“ “I hate my job” ? We’re all guilty on some level I’m sure.
But if you live long enough, and manage people long enough, you’ll begin to suspect that an uninterrupted flood of these types of comments reflect a pattern disguising a deeper problem. And that problem may be the person’s expectations, set in motion by a set of circumstances well beyond the leader’s control. You know the person, the one that tends to view work as something to be avoided, changed, or at least limited as much as possible, especially when it fails to perpetually stimulate. And while finding fulfilling work is a legitimate end, short of earthly nirvana, chronic excuse making signifies something more symptomatic of a psychological view in contradiction with a common sense Christian ethos. That is, work, though not a continuous stream of excitement, is nevertheless a “good” to be enriched.
Think on Pope John Paul II’s words: “[W]ork is a good thing for man….It is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy, it is also good as being something worthy,…to man’s dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it. If one wishes to define more clearly the ethical meaning of work it is this that one must particularly keep in mind. Work is a good thing for man—a good thing for his humanity–because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed in a sense becomes “more a human being.”” (Laborem Exercens, 40).
Inspiration and enthusiasm are essential to employees. But the type I observe is a fleeting desire concealing a larger problem, namely, the search for meaning. As we all know, a catch-phrase such as “the search for meaning” typically falls short, in the long run, of fully conveying the larger problem. No person is designed to be a permanent, human stimulus rod. It’s foolish to expect it and too many decisions are based on an unrealistic search for it. What is needed is a mature understanding of what can help employees stay engaged over a long period.
The satisfaction that money provides only runs so deep. It’s the spiritual element, the spiritual connection, that needs to be tapped. Not the shallow, briefly enthusiastic, loud, exclusively evangelical route either—although it serves its purpose at times. We humans require something more sustainable, deep and abiding. We can begin with the orientation that “In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love,” as Mother Theresa explained.
Doing small things with great love
This seasoned approach helps shift the immature person’s unreasonable expectation of what work represents. Small actions, such as mentoring an employee by taking him to lunch to discuss what’s reasonable can help. Talk about his job in the context of what it represents, not only what it represents to him, but where his job fits in with the organization and its broader usefulness to the world. It is the keen desire of each of us for a link between our work and helping other people that needs to be identified and fostered.
Done right, this approach can be modeled as a pre-emptive measure to thwart petty conversations and distracting comments such as: “He’s getting paid more than I am, and I do more,” “She’s not doing her fair share,” and “The boss doesn’t care.”
While an acute awareness of fairness can mimic the virtue of justice, too often it becomes a vice when the lips start smacking and the pot starts stirring, so to speak. See Matt. 20, regardng workers in the vineyard who started at different times of the day complaining about fairness of pay for those who started work later than they did; see also Matt. 25 and the parable of the talents that describes one servant who did a lot with what he was given and was therefore awarded more responsibility, compared to the less industrious servants. When a search for meaning is at the root of employees’ angst, provide specific examples of how the goods or services they provide benefits others.
“Work thus belongs to the vocation of every person; indeed, man expresses and fulfills himself by working.” (Centesimus Annus, 6). Recognizing and developing employees’ critical contributions is a great start to promoting a culture of “work is good.”
Man Must Work
From the premise “work is good” follows the basic truth that man must work.
“Man must work both because the Creator has commanded it and because of his own humanity, which requires work in order to be maintained and developed. Man must work out of regard for others, especially his own family, but also for the society to which he belongs, to the country of which he is a child, and for the whole human family of which he is a member, since he himself is the heir to the work of generations and at the same time a sharer in building the future for those who will come after him in the succession of history. This constitutes the moral obligation of work understood in its wide sense. (Laborem Exercens, 73).
Two points are here: (1) God commands us to work; and (2) following that command, we are obliged to continue the development of the world carried out by prior generations.
While “It is neither just nor human so to grind men down with excessive labour as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies” (Centesimus annus,7), equally troubling is the great danger today on the other end of the spectrum; namely, fighting laziness and inertia. Both extremes are always with us. The reality is we operate most of the time to varying degrees between the two extremes. Decision-making about performance is tough in that middle space.
For example, where a natural guilt might propel a person with a properly formed conscience to work harder, leaders are also confronted every day with the self-absorbed employee, who, through a gratuitous assessment of his superior efficiency and productivity, completely misses the point when he fails to put in his time. Such workers shirk more than their agreement to work for their employer, they also disregard God’s command.
I believe the best way to combat such aloofness is through exemplifying virtuous work habits. If this doesn’t change the behavior after appropriate personal conversation (work is good and your contribution is important) and discipline (you’re not doing the basics we agreed to), then there is arguably a moral and fiduciary obligation to terminate that person’s employment because the distraction represents a cancer to the nucleus of an otherwise healthy organization (more on this later).
Also justifying God’s command to work is our debt to prior generations. [None of us stand alone in history. Instead, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.] Farmers seem to recognize this ideal best since they often refer to their obligations to their ancestors who owned and farmed the land before them. These farmers don’t flinch from the challenge. They’d just as soon die in some cases than give up farming the land of their ancestors.
This attitude of appreciation is missing in the office culture. At best, people may commit to their “team,” but almost never talk about the generations that built up the world before them. Such omissions dilute the perspective that we’re part of a larger community of people.
In whatever way appropriate, a reference to prior generations, to humanity as a whole, should be acknowledged in our work environment. For example, car assembly line workers may be encouraged to think about retired and deceased workers who worked on earlier iterations of cars that made it easier for families to see each other over the decades. Today’s auto workers are building on that tradition by bringing energy-efficient vehicles to the marketplace.
In another example, a financial advisor can be instructive during these trying economic times. The advisor owes his industry knowledge to prior advisors’ work in creating and distilling an investment environment suitable for today’s clients. Lawyers too, another service business, owe their current positions to the building blocks put in place by generations of attorneys before them. You get the point. We are similar to a cog in the ongoing generations of humans. Our goal is to live by objective, universal truths to help us better our phase in human history.
If employees can visualize their work within an historical context, perhaps the intense focus on the “now,” “me,” and “money” will dissipate enough to lessen their agitation about work, and in turn, lead to a more productive, appreciative, and happy workplace culture.
Man is the Primary Subject of Work
Critically important in our culture is understanding that each individual is the subject of the work. The following excerpt, while long, could not be excised any further in order to convey the proper attitude:
“As a person, a man is therefore the subject of work…. And so this dominion spoken of in the biblical text being meditated upon here refers not only to the objective dimension of work, but at the same time introduces us to an understanding of its subjective dimension. Understood as a process whereby man and the human race subdue the earth, work corresponds to this basic biblical concept only throughout the process man manifests himself and confirms himself as the one who dominates…
“[Christ] devoted most of the years of his life on earth to manual work at the carpenter’s bench. This circumstance constitutes in itself the most eloquent gospel of work, showing that the basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done, but the fact [that] the one who is doing it is a person. The sources of the dignity of work are to be sought primarily in the subjective dimension, not in the objective one.. . . This does not mean that from the objective point of view human work cannot and must not be rated and qualified in any way. It only means that the primary basis for the value of work is man himself, who is its subject. . . . [W]ork is for man, and not man for work.” (Laborem Exercens, 27).
These pronouncements are an unmistakable call to all leaders to treat employees with dignity and respect. For they are the subject of the work, and should never be held as commodities of production.
Dignity tends to surface in the context of differing views about appropriate treatment of employees who are charged with the duty to get something done—whether it’s generating sales, producing financials, or moving inventory. To be sure, the encyclical makes it clear that performance measurement is appropriate. The expression of one’s competence is found in the evaluation. And that competence, or lack thereof, will dictate the employee’s future. This hastens the advancement of the individual, as well as the organization.
My sales organization is a good case in point. We sell IT staffing services. Our success depends on our salesperson’s ability to acquire job requisitions from companies that are inundated with calls from my competitors. After that, it depends on my recruiters’ competence in finding suitable candidates for the job. Our industry spends billions a year on IT staffing.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of small firms like mine have men and women on the streets clawing and scratching for business. Do I get upset when the numbers are down? You bet. But I don’t fly off the handle (at least not anymore I don’t think) without first trying to understand why we’re off our numbers.
First, I ask, is the industry stable? Yes, because in our case, contracting is one of the oldest games around and people have historically spent money on technology. Then I examine each contributor’s daily activity. Barring other legitimate reasons such as health, have they had sufficient training, counseling, and mentoring, but still can’t get the job done? In such a case, it may be time for a change.
The key to dignified treatment of employees is not found in simply going through the motions. Rather, it’s found in the “way” the mentoring, disciplining or terminating occurs. An initial open and honest talk about your concerns is the launch pad. From there, depending on your business and size, a variety of options are at your disposal, ranging from performance improvement to termination. Critical is the leader’s demeanor and attitude. The proper use of the leaders “soft” skills typically determines whether an employee has been treated with dignity and respect. If the leader is somewhat lacking in this area, all is not lost. Where feasible, the leaders’ skills can improve through training.
More prevalent at the moment is severe job loss due to decreased societal demand for services and goods. In this current mode of uncertainty, the tendency to value production employees as commodities is even more acute. Think of manufacturing workers, securitization lawyers (lawyers who bundle mortgages to then sell as securities on Wall Street), hedge fund managers, bankers, restaurant owners, and dozens of other professions. Still, even if economic conditions dictate layoffs, the human person is still at the heart of the decision and their termination must be handled with regard to keeping his dignity in tact.
Pope John Paul II said it well: “Even by their secular activity they must assist one another to live holier lives. In this way the world will be permeated by the spirit of Christ and more effectively achieve its purpose of justice, charity and peace. Therefore, by their competence in secular fields and by their personal activity, elevated from within by the grace of Christ, let them work vigorously so that by human labor, technical skill and civil culture, created goods may be perfected according to the design of the Creator and the light of his word.” (Laborem Exercens, 117). “”[H]umane” working hours and adequate free-time need to be guaranteed, as well as the right to express one’s own personality at the workplace without suffering any affront to one’s conscience or personal dignity.” (Centesimus annus, 15).
It’s the leaders’ responsibility, a daunting task to be sure, to evaluate and understand the macro economic forces at play in the marketplace and then develop a workforce to meet the demand. Paramount to achieving this end is the development of the individual employee in a dignified manner, which when done right, constitutes a deliberate, moral effort to get everyone suitably employed in the current market.
Implementing the three principles regarding work—1. work is good, 2. man must work and 3. man is the subject of work—requires the integration of mental, emotional and physical action.
A statement by the recently deceased Father Richard Neuhaus, a Lutheran minister who converted to Catholicism and publisher of First Things, put the issue in perspective: “Politics is chiefly a function of culture, at the heart of culture is morality, and at the heart of morality is religion.”
This is consistent with John Paul II assertion, “At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of meaning of personal existence. When this question is eliminated, the culture and moral life of a nation is corrupted. For this reason, the struggle to defend work was spontaneously linked to the struggle for culture and for national rights.” (Centesimus annus, 24).
In workplace environments all across the country, a legion of secularism, for lack of a better word, has been bred through personal behaviors, legislation, policy, and court decisions. This development has unfortunately left many well-intentioned leaders confused about the importance of drawing on spiritual and natural norms that predate much of this legislation, policy-making and rules of law. While much of the workplace, legal framework built up over the last century is foundationally good (ie, anti-discrimination laws), there still exists a malaise, partially moral, in today’s work environment. The causes are disputed, and personal, yet seem to center around people’s conception of work, its purpose, and its object.
As a plaintiff’s employment lawyer (now turned business owner), I’m reminded of a seminar I did for a group of managers at a large Kansas City company years ago. I used war stories to illustrate specific points, and then, as was my practice, summed up my remarks by saying simply, “Treat others the way you’d want to be treated and I wouldn’t get 99% of the phone calls I get from disgruntled employees.” Treat people well. “[B]eyond the rights which man acquires by his own work, there exist rights which do not correspond to any work he performs, but which flow from his essential dignity as a person.” (Centesimus annus, 11).
Lest we slide into self-righteousness, let’s never forget that all of us are “works in progress,” struggling with virtuous decision-making. How many of us wouldn’t revise prior conversations? And while the media fills its columns with stories about selfish leaders, who short of a Damascus conversion are totally disconnected from reality, the majority of leaders, I submit, recognize their status as “co-workers” and are capable of making better decisions, exhibiting healthier behaviors, and improving the workplace when confidently standing on the theological footing that “work is good,” “man must work,” and “man is the subject of work.” And while universal agreement on absolute truths may be a constant challenge, it’s the engagement of everyone in the work environment where we come to understand each other and grow. It’s here that the Holy Spirit is actively present.
Andrew Marquardt, an attorney and co-owner of Advantage Tech, Inc. www.advantagetech.net, lives in Leawood, Kansas with his wife and three children.