Post-Enron, spirituality gains

Call it a silver lining in the storm clouds of job loss and corporate meltdown hanging over the workplace. Or maybe it's more of a little halo: Workers are feeling freer nowadays to seek jobs that let them take their "whole selves" to work, allowing them to incorporate their spiritual values in the activities that earn them their daily bread.

Take Brian, for instance. He's an employee of Tyco, which he describes as "a company you've probably read a lot about, and would have read a lot more about if it hadn't been for Enron."

Tyco is an international conglomerate whose surprise corporate restructuring shocked Wall Street earlier this year. On a single day in January, 20 percent of its stock value evaporated. The company has been dogged with a reputation for creative accounting and somnolent corporate governance.

Brian, who asked that his full name not be used in this story, is still employed. But with his finger in the wind, he senses he may be looking for a new job soon. He's been seeking opportunities to connect with others who have traveled "a different path."

Living one's spiritual values in the workplace is not just a matter of "not fudging numbers on a report," he says. "It's also things like whether you're working till 7 p.m. every night at the expense of your family. There's no point in knocking yourself out for a company that may or may not be around after a while."

The good news for Brian is that some companies are trying to become the kind of place where people like him want to work. Many of those that succeed are reporting good results, both in dollars and cents and in terms of human capital. But companies find it hard to introduce spiritual values at a corporate level. And anyone waiting for the advocates of workplace spirituality to play a leading role in reform efforts is likely to have to keep waiting.

"A lot of companies are convinced of the value of spirituality," says Ian Mitroff, a management professor at the University of Southern California. "What they lack is a way to bring the practice of spirituality – spirituality, not religion – into the workplace in a way that won't cause disruption or acrimony."

For his 1999 book, "The Spiritual Audit of Corporate America," Mr. Mitroff conducted extensive surveys and interviews of representatives of several dozen companies, primarily on the West Coast.

Among those surveyed: Charles, the chief executive of a midsize East Coast furniture company. He reported having had, a few years before, what he called "an epiphany": a moment of realization that the toxic chemicals his company used in its manufacturing were dangerous to the environment and had turned him into "an unwitting agent of evil," he said. "I feel as if I am carrying a spear in the middle of my chest.... I struggle every day to pull that spear from my chest."

Mitroff specializes in the study of crisis management and of spirituality and business. "The two are more connected than you might think," he says. And when it comes to crisis management, he says, there are two kinds of companies: "Those who get it, and those who don't."

The companies who "get it," about 15 percent of the corporate world, he says, are proactive rather than reactive. "They put people first, safety next, customer service third, and profits last. They're profitable, though, and they have only a third of the crises [faced by] the reactive companies – the other 85 percent."

The companies he describes as "spiritual organizations" are a subset of the proactive 15 percent.

"At one organization we visited, all the top executives were in AA," he says, referring to Alcoholics Anonymous. Mitroff thinks AA holds some promise as a model for corporate spirituality. "There was a shared outlook, a comfort zone, an ecumenical approach: They would refer to 'a higher power.' "

But just as AA requires the individual to admit to being an alcoholic, so its method would require a firm to acknowledge being dysfunctional. "That," says Mitroff, "is hard to do."

Jay Sidhu, president and chief executive of Sovereign Bancorp of Philadelphia, is a strong advocate for spirituality as good business. Talking about his work at a recent symposium on spirituality and business at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., he sounded as if he had a model, too.

During his tenure at Sovereign, which began in 1989, the company has seen 25 percent-plus returns to shareholders annually and has risen from the bottom to the top ranks of its industry.

Within his company, Mr. Sidhu prefers to speak of "values" rather than spirituality. He's skeptical of the notion that new corporate governance structures are needed in the business world: "Enron had about the best corporate governance procedures you could ever want."

He describes the $25 billion a year spent on imparting technical skills to managers as "the great training robbery."

What's needed, he says, is character and leadership training.

"But hardly any investments are being made in this area," he says, although he's convinced that 90 to 95 percent of success in the business world is due to "emotional intelligence" rather than technical skills. In this enlightened universe, "leaders truly become the sustainable competitive advantage," he concludes.

Melissa Bradley, president of New Capitalist, a New York-based consulting firm that helps people launch businesses, expresses surprise that Sidhu doesn't use the term spirituality within his company.

She suggests that being explicit about spirituality would help institutionalize it. "When you call it spirituality, you allow it to go to a higher level."

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