Religion in the Workplace

The growing presence of spirituality in Corporate America

Business Week Nov 1, 1999
By Michelle Conlin

The big splash at the Young Presidents' Organization powwow in June at Rome's palatial Excelsior Hotel wasn't a ballroom seminar about e-commerce juggernauts or Y2K blowups. Instead, the buzz at this confab of some of the world's youngest and most powerful chief executives was about the shamanic healing journey going on down in the basement. There, in a candlelit room thick with a haze of incense, 17 blindfolded captains of industry lay on towels, breathed deeply, and delved into the ''lower world'' to the sound of a lone tribal drum. Leading the group was Richard Whiteley, a Harvard business school-educated best-selling author and management consultant who moonlights as an urban shaman. ''Envision an entrance into the earth, a well, or a swimming hole,'' Whiteley half-whispered above the sea of heaving chests. He then instructed the executives how to retrieve from their inner depths their ''power animals,'' who would guide their companies to 21st century success.

Spiritual events like these aren't happening just at exclusive executive enclaves. For the past six years, 300 Xerox Corp. (XRX) employees--from senior managers to clerks--have participated in ''vision quests'' as part of the struggling copier company's $400 million project to revolutionize product development. Alone for 24 hours with nothing more than sleeping bags and water jugs in New Mexico's desert or New York's Catskill Mountains, the workers have communed with nature, seeking inspiration and guidance about building Xerox' first digital copier-fax-printer.

One epiphany came when a dozen engineers in northern New Mexico saw a lone, fading Xerox paper carton bobbing in a swamp of old motor oil at the bottom of a pit. They vowed to build a machine that would never end up polluting another dump. Later, at the company's Rochester (N.Y.) design offices, the ''quest'' continued as co-workers ''passed the rock'' in Native American talking circles, in which only the person holding the stone can speak. This forced even the loudmouths to listen.

Sure, some of the button-down engineers cracked up over the use of such words as ''spirit'' and ''soul.'' But, says John F. Elter, the Xerox chief engineer who headed the project, ''for almost everyone, this was a real spiritual experience.'' The eventual result: the design and production of Xerox' hottest seller, the 265DC, a 97%-recyclable machine. Word of the program's success spurred senior executives from companies as diverse as Ford (F), Nike (NKE), and Harley-Davidson (HDI) to make pilgrimages to Rochester in September to get a firsthand look.

GOD SQUAD. Bottom-rung workers are also getting a sprinkling of the sacred at the workplace. Companies such as Taco Bell (YUM), Pizza Hut, and subsidiaries of Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) are hiring Army-style chaplains who come in any religious flavor requested. Members of these 24-hour God squads visit employees in hospitals, deal with nervous breakdowns, and respond to suicide threats. They'll even say the vows on a worker's wedding day or deliver the eulogy at her funeral.

If America's chief executives had tried any of this 10 years ago, they probably would have inspired ridicule and maybe even ostracism. But today, a spiritual revival is sweeping across Corporate America as executives of all stripes are mixing mysticism into their management, importing into office corridors the lessons usually doled out in churches, temples, and mosques. Gone is the old taboo against talking about God at work. In its place is a new spirituality, evident in the prayer groups at Deloitte & Touche and the Talmud studies at New York law firms such as Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Haroller.

Across the country, major-league executives are meeting for prayer breakfasts and spiritual conferences. In Minneapolis, 150 business chiefs lunch monthly at a private, ivy-draped club to hear chief executives such as Medtronic Inc.'s William George and Carlson Co.'s Marilyn Carlson Nelson draw business solutions from the Bible. In Silicon Valley, a group of high-powered, high-tech Hindus--including Suhas Patil, founder of Cirrus Logic (CRUS), Desh Deshpande, founder of Cascade Communications, and Krishan Kalra, founder of BioGenex--are part of a movement to connect technology to spirituality. In Boston, heavy hitters such as retired Raytheon Chairman and CEO Thomas L. Phillips meet at an invitation-only prayer breakfast called First Tuesday, an ecumenical affair long shrouded in secrecy. More publicly, Aetna International (AET) Chairman Michael A. Stephen has extolled the benefits of meditation and talked with Aetna employees about using spirituality in their careers.

That's not to mention the 10,000 Bible and prayer groups in workplaces that meet regularly, according to the Fellowship for Companies for Christ International. Just five years ago, there was only one conference on spirituality and the workplace; now there are about 30. Academic endorsement is growing, too: The University of Denver, the University of New Haven, and Minnesota's University of St. Thomas have opened research centers dedicated to the subject. The number of related books hitting the store shelves each year has quadrupled since 1990, to 79 last year. The latest: the Dalai Lama's Ethics for the New Millennium, a new business best-seller. Says Laura Nash, a business ethicist at Harvard Divinity School and author of Believers in Business: ''Spirituality in the workplace is exploding.''

In part, what's happening is a reflection of broader trends. People are working the equivalent of over a month more each year than they did a decade ago. No surprise, then, that the workplace--and not churches or town squares--is where American social phenomena are showing up first. The office is where more and more people eat, exercise, date, drop their kids, and even, at architecture firm Gould Evans Goodman Associates in Kansas City, Mo., nap in company-sponsored tents. Plus, the influx of immigrants into the workplace has raised awareness about the vast array of religious belief. All over the country, for example, a growing number of Muslims, such as Milwaukee lawyer Othman Atta, are rolling out their prayer rugs right in the office.

With more people becoming open about their spirituality--95% of Americans say they believe in God or a universal spirit, and 48% say they talked about their religious faith at work that day, according to the Gallup Organization--it would make sense that, along with their briefcases and laptops, people would start bringing their faith to work.

DEEPER MEANING. At the same time, the ultratight labor market has companies tripping over themselves to offer scarce talent any perks and programs that will get them through the door. One recent poll found that American managers want a deeper sense of meaning and fulfillment on the job--even more than they want money and time off. Moreover, the New Economy itself has hot-wired an interest in systems thinking and chaos theory, which have forged some common ground with religion by showing that science is partly about irrational and inexplicable things. The Internet's nonlinear nature is pushing people to take unconventional, intuitive approaches to their work.

But perhaps the largest driver of this trend is the mounting evidence that spiritually minded programs in the workplace not only soothe workers' psyches but also deliver improved productivity. Skeptics who scoff at the use of the words spirituality and Corporate America in the same breath might write this off as just another management fad.

But a recently completed research project by McKinsey & Co. Australia shows that when companies engage in programs that use spiritual techniques for their employees, productivity improves and turnover is greatly reduced. The first empirical study of the issue, A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America, published in October by Jossey-Bass, found that employees who work for organizations they consider to be spiritual are less fearful, less likely to compromise their values, and more able to throw themselves into their jobs. Says the book's co-author, University of Southern California Marshall School of Business Professor Ian I. Mitroff: ''Spirituality could be the ultimate competitive advantage.'' Fully 60% of those polled for the book say they believe in the beneficial effects of spirituality in the workplace, so long as there's no bully-pulpit promotion of traditional religion.

That's exactly the danger. Even in an era that's more accepting of spirituality, the prospect of religion seeping into secular institutions, especially corporate ones, makes many uneasy. At the fringes, some businesses are running up against the bizarre, such as the maintenance worker who insisted he was the Messiah, the administrative assistant who routinely dropped to her knees outside of people's cubicles to speak in tongues, and the male witch who insisted on having Halloween off. And the more receptive companies are to Bible groups or Buddhist seminars, the more conflicts are erupting. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports a 29% spike since 1992 in the number of religious-based discrimination charges, making those the third-fastest-growing claim, after sexual harassment and disability.

WEBHEADS. But that's no deterrent to spiritually minded CEOs. S. Truett Cathy, an evangelical Christian and chief executive of Chick-fil-A Inc., hosts a hymn-filled prayer service on Monday mornings for those employees of the Atlanta company who want to take part. On Sundays--when McDonald's Corp. (MCD) and Burger King Corp. (DEO) are doing a brisk business--Cathy closes his 1,000 fast-food shops because he believes in keeping the Sabbath. For Cathy, it's not so difficult to negotiate the religious differences of his employees because so many of them are evangelical Christians, too.

Shoemaker Timberland Co.'s (BTL) chief executive, Jeffrey B. Swartz, is in the opposite position. Swartz is one of the few orthodox Jews at the Stratham (N.H.) company. Employees who travel with him on business often razz him about his penchant for pulling out his well-worn prayer book on planes. But he uses his religious beliefs to guide business decisions and, in some instances, company policy, often bouncing work problems off his rabbi. Because community service is such a bulwark of Swartz' faith, all employees at Timberland get 40 hours a year off to volunteer at the charity of their choice.

For Kris Kalra, chief executive of BioGenex, it's the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu holy text, that offers the best lessons for steering a business out of trouble. Five years ago, Kalra was a hardheaded workaholic who had long missed his kids' baseball games and Brownie troop meetings. He worked holidays and weekends and often expected his 140 employees to do the same, holding his secretary hostage even if one of her kids needed her at home. But as the blowups with his family got worse and his medical-lab technology business stumbled, he had a breakdown. ''I realized we were living in a completely material world,'' Kalra says, referring to the Internet-rich Webheads with their theme houses in the hills. ''The higher purpose was being lost.''

He dropped out of corporate life for three months, studying the Bhagavad Gita for eight hours a day. After he returned to work, he started listening to other people's ideas and slowly let go of his micromanaging ways. With the approval of 12 patents, Kalra's new products helped increase sales. Instead of putting in those workaholic hours, people on the leafy corporate campus are starting to use flextime.

Employers in old-line industries are also getting in on the trend. Ever since Austaco Inc., the sixth-largest Pizza Hut and Taco Bell franchisee in the U.S., began hiring chaplains in 1992 through a nonprofit called Marketplace Ministries, the company has reduced its annual turnover from 300% to 125%. In fast-food time, that's like having workers stay on for an eternity. The company credits the chaplain program for the drop. Employees such as Taco Bell cashier Kim Park, who has a husband in prison, a daughter in rehab, and two mouths to feed at home, say they wouldn't dream of leaving for another position that didn't have the religious lifeline. ''A lot of times I get real depressed, and I have to talk to somebody, or I'll explode,'' says Park, sitting in a Taco Bell booth just before the lunchtime rush starts. ''If I didn't have that support, I don't know what I'd do.''

That help comes in the form of her weekly meetings with chaplain Angie Ruiz, who also visits employees at 13 other Taco Bells and Pizza Huts around Austin, Tex. After pulling up to the restaurants in her powder-blue Ford Crown Victoria with the backseat full of Bibles, Ruiz heads straight to the kitchens. She grabs arms and pats backs as she saunters through, quipping about the cashier's stolen junker: ''Wanda, we'll have to pray about your car.'' She checks in on a waitress with a drug-addicted daughter and acts as an interpreter following a dustup between a Mexican busboy and his English-only boss. She even offers a new dishwasher a paperback Bible.

NEW SWIRL. All this may seem counterintuitive at a time of scientific and technological apotheosis. But, just as industrialization gave rise to social liberalism, the New Economy is causing a deep-seated curiosity about the nature of knowledge and life, providing a fertile environment for this new swirl of nonmaterialist ideas. ''In this kind of analytical framework,'' says Harvard's Nash, ''suddenly it's O.K. to think about forces larger than yourself, to tap into that as an intuitive source of creative, analytical power.'' And the Internet's power to blast through old paradigms and create previously impossible connections is inspiring fervent feelings that border on the spiritual. ''This new sense of spontaneity has caused even the most literal-minded to say, 'Wow, there's this other force out there,''' says Nash.

Spiritual thinking in Corporate America may seem as out of place as a typewriter at a high-tech company. But the warp speed of today's business life is buckling rigid thinking, especially now that the sword-swinging warrior model has become such a loser. Besides, who has time for decision trees and five-year plans anymore? Unlike the marketplace of 20 years ago, today's information and services-dominated economy is all about instantaneous decision-making and building relationships with partners and employees. Often, spiritual approaches can be used to help staffers get better at the long-neglected people side of the equation. It's no wonder high-tech companies are packing nerdy programmers off to corporate charm schools to teach them how to talk to customers and each other. ''More and more people are going to spiritual processes for help,'' says consultant Whiteley, whose clients include Goldman Sachs (GS), Sun Microsystems (SUNW), and Ford (F).

Yet as the workplace opens up to such things, ''more and more conflicts are going to continue to erupt,'' says San Francisco-based employment lawyer Howard A. Simon. The clashes split along the same lines the country does. On one side of the divide are evangelical Christians, some of whom want workplace spirituality to focus on a conservative message about Jesus Christ and who think New Age efforts are demonic. On the other are those who fear the movement is a conspiracy to proselytize everyone into thinking alike. Somewhere in between are the skeptics who think it's yet another one of management's fads, exploiting people's faith to make another dollar.

Because of this, many institutions keep away from the issue. Harvard business school initially turned down a gift from industrial cleaning company ServiceMaster Co. for a religion-and-business lecture two years ago; Harvard officials were nervous about sponsoring anything with religious content. In Silicon Valley, career coach to the high-tech stars Jean Hollands said she had to change her company's name to the Growth & Leadership Center from the Good Life Clinic, lest she scare off clients such as Intel Corp. (INTC) and Sun Microsystems Inc. ''They thought it sounded like a Mormon touchy-feely group,'' Hollands says. To this day in the Valley's heavily left-brain culture, Hollands says she has to use euphemisms for talking about psychology and spirituality, such as ''internal response system'' instead of ''feelings'' and ''concerns'' instead of ''fears.'' ''We're still cautious about putting out that we're holistic, even though we are,'' she says.

That's why most companies and executives are careful to stick to a cross-denominational, hybrid message that's often referred to as secular spirituality. It focuses on the pluralistic, moral messages common to all the great religions, such as plugging into something larger than yourself, respecting the interconnectedness of all actions and things, and practicing the Golden Rule. But it also puts a premium on free expression and eschews cramming beliefs down other people's throats.

Not everyone sticks to this script, though. Abuses have included everything from management consultants who employees alleged were fronts for the Church of Scientology to cult members who use the workplace as an arena to woo fresh members into their folds. Some lawyers are even getting calls from companies worried about employees who seem to be gripped by a ''millennium madness,'' says Garry G. Mathiason, senior partner at Littler Mendelson, the largest employment law firm in the country. These Y2K zealots often call for violence, and the worry is they'll act out their missions at work.

Generally employers are compelled to make ''reasonable accommodations'' to employees with religious needs, just as they are required to do for the disabled. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 offers broad protections to the religious. However, the courts have been equally strict about not allowing one employee to create a hostile work environment for others by harassing them about what they do or don't believe.

''STEALTH BOMBERS.'' Jennifer Venters, who used to be a radio dispatcher in the Delphi (Ind.) police department, says she knows this drill from her ex-boss, former police chief, Larry Ives. In a lawsuit filed against Ives, Venters claimed her life changed when he showed up for duty and told her that he had been sent by God to save as many people from damnation as he could. Things got worse, alleges Venters in court documents, when Ives objected to her female roommate, asked her if she had entertained male police officers with pornographic videos, and accused her of having sex with family members and sacrificing animals in Satan's name. According to court documents, Ives capped it all off by suggesting that if she wasn't going to reform her depraved ways, she would be better off just killing herself. Ives, who calls the accusations ''totally false,'' says he did discuss religion with Venters but only when she asked him about his evangelical faith. The Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals found that Venters had a reasonable basis for a religious harassment claim and ordered that the case go to trial, but it was later settled for $105,000 without any admission of liability.

But not all of these religious disputes are being fought out in the legal arena. Fearing that the rising pluralism in the workplace might lead to the spreading of the ''wrong'' kinds of religion, some fundamentalist Christians have taken to advising other believers on how to act like ''stealth bombers'' to perform ''religious takeovers'' of their organizations and ''capture'' them for Christ. Some advocated techniques: keeping a Rolodex listing each co-worker's spiritual progress and using Biblical names for e-mail addresses.

All this spiritual revival may have a fin-de-siecle feel--in fact, what's happening now is something of a replay of the spiritual movement that took place at the last turn of the century. The difference is that in those days, workers were considered extensions of machines. Then in the 1930s, the arm-around-the-shoulder theory of management was born. The idea was that bosses need just issue a little praise, and productivity would soar.

Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, thinking shifted toward viewing workers not just as bodies needing sustenance but as people with minds, says University of New Haven Management Professor Judi Neal. Fueling today's trend, too, was the collective revulsion over the greed in the late 1980s. That's when CEOs, determined to rout insider trading and other skulduggery from their organizations, furiously crafted ethics statements as a way to give their employees a new moral compass.

Once words like ''virtue,'' ''spirit,'' and ''ethics'' got through the corporate door, God wasn't far behind. Best-sellers such as Jesus, CEO and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (one of which is to cultivate spirituality) began to line the oak-paneled bookshelves of America's managers. Seizing the moment, such spiritual gurus as Deepak Chopra and M. Scott Peck began advising corporate chieftains about how they could tie the new secular spirituality into their management techniques. Team-building programs sprouted like mad. So too did the Dilbertian sendups of these efforts, some of which swept through organizations at the same time that downsizing was crushing morale.

Body, emotion, brain. The only thing missing from the equation was spirit. But will this revival amount to anything more than a momentary sensation? No matter how it shakes out, in the wake of the Internet's creative destruction, new rules will have to be made. And the physical and human capital that powered the latter part of the 20th century is likely to be coupled with a new kind of social capital. Perhaps it's already coming.


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