With his Silicon Valley firm in a deep financial hole, "Tom" faced a quandary. His partner in a joint venture was pressing him to close a deal with their top customer by promising results that couldn't be assured. Tom didn't feel right about it, but closing the deal would put his company and his family back on firm footing.
In distress, he brought the situation to a monthly gathering of top executives who discuss problems within a spiritual context. A vigorous discussion on management and on what the Bible had to offer gave him what he needed the clarity not to shade the truth. "I'll be able to live with myself," he told the group. His company lost the deal.
As the country reels under the impact of unethical behavior in corporate suites, it's the kind of connection between personal faith and corporate action that many Americans wish more business leaders would make. Yet people at all levels in the workplace see a disconnect between their religious teachings and the business world, where a different set of rules often operates.
In a recent national poll of 500 business leaders, sponsored by Lutheran Institutions in Minnesota, 70 percent said their colleagues try to obey the laws rather than skirt them; but 55 percent had seen unethical actions in their own company, and 60 percent said their competitors had done something unethical to gain an advantage.
Some faith-based groups are now trying to close that gap and help individuals lead more integrated lives as well as foster greater integrity in the workplace. And according to one study, a majority of Americans see religion as central to recovering the country's moral compass.
"Our culture has fallen into a kind of moral vertigo we value tolerance so much that we don't know how to talk to each other about what is right and good," says the Rev. Kevin Phillips, director of the Business Leadership and Spirituality Network (BLSN), in Mountain View, Calif.
"Our business leaders exist in this vacuum, and don't have the opportunity to explore what is driving them, the limits of their ambition," he adds. "It's difficult to discern what is right because they are out of practice."
In a recent focus group of business leaders gathered for a study on faith in the workplace, for example, a leader acquainted with Enron executives remarked that they didn't consider that they were making a right-or-wrong decision. "It was a financial, tax-angle decision," he said.
Sometimes, people just do what they know is wrong, says William Messenger, who heads BLSN's Boston division. "But compartmentalization is also a problem. You may be a very religious and moral person at church and with your family ... but at work you don't even recognize that what you're facing is an ethical decision."
After 15 years in business, including a period as a chief operating officer, Mr. Messenger was ordained in the Episcopal church, and is focusing his ministry on connecting the two worlds. As director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass., he sponsors classes for businesspeople and pastors.
One serious problem, he says, is that churches and synagogues aren't helping their members apply the ethical principles of their faith to their work. In one survey, 90 percent of churchgoers couldn't remember a single sermon having to do with the workplace over the past year.
Unless churches recognize they are not meeting this need and accept this challenge, he adds, they will not grow. Many people are instead looking to the spirituality movement that has gathered momentum in the corporate world. In the recent poll of executives, 54 percent said they were religious and 36 percent said they were "spiritual but not religious," a much higher proportion than in the general population.
"A lot of the spirituality movement's basic message is, 'You're a good person, just love yourself more.' I don't think that is going to challenge insider trading or cooking the books," Messenger says.
Mr. Phillips started BLSN two years ago to give executives the opportunity to engage in ethical and spiritual dialogue with peers at their own management level, with the help of a facilitator. Several small groups of six to eight (including Tom's) meet monthly in northern California; others are getting under way in southern California and Boston.
A typical four-hour session includes 25 minutes of silent prayer; an hour-long discussion on a pertinent theme, drawing on readings from the Bible and the business press; and 2-1/2 hours on a specific business challenge one of the executives faces. The groups are based on Christian teachings and are ecumenical, but BLSN has discussed eventually developing groups that draw on Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist traditions.
It's not only the senior managers who feel the need for help. At Park Street Church in downtown Boston, a majority of the congregation are highly educated young professionals under the age of 30, many in their first jobs. Some have already run into challenges, such as the boss asking them to lie about their data or working on teams where other people don't share their ethical values.
The church has formed a "workplace ministry" that holds weekly classes on how to deal with such dilemmas, drawing on the Bible and experienced local businesspeople.
"We'll talk, for example, about honesty and the spin factor," says Virginia Viola, the church deacon who heads the program. "What you can do in those situations and how to handle it well so you don't get fired!"
As some of the young people are in start-up firms, she adds, they are able to help shape the culture. For example, one young woman who refused to mislead a client found her team members looking to her for advice in later situations.
Greg Snow, a database consultant for Accenture, a global technology consulting company, joined the class to figure out how his faith related to his job. Talking about these issues has helped.
"As a consultant you always face the challenge of maintaining work for yourself and doing the best for the client, and there can be a tendency to continue services that aren't really appropriate," he says. "Telling my managers I don't think [a certain] approach is best even though it would mean more revenue for the company," has brought a positive responsive, he says. He also values the multigenerational nature of the classes and learning from everyone's challenges.
Park Street Church draws on materials provided by Marketplace Network (MN), a nonprofit group that sponsors business forums and small groups but has focused particularly on developing tools and resources in print and audio for evangelical congregations and individuals.
"Many churches around the country just haven't taken it upon themselves to establish some kind of workplace ministry, and we can help them," says Kent Kusel, a former mortgage banker who is MN's president.
They offer a starter kit for either a small or large church, suggested sermon topics and outlines, and a three-volume core curriculum called "30 Moments Christians Face in the Workplace," with two years of lessons.
With a board of high-powered people, from a former chairman of Raytheon to the chief operating officer of the New England Patriots, the resources are keyed to real-life issues: how to deal with a difficult boss or unreasonable client in a cutthroat work environment; how to resolve conflict involved in office politics, gossip, or discrimination; how to tell the truth when subtle pressure is used to encourage lies and spin.
The group with perhaps the longest track record in this area is Woodstock Business Conference, at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Founded a decade ago to help Catholic business leaders, it has developed an in-depth study process for transforming the workplace that is now used by chapters in some 20 cities. WBC, too, draws on Bible stories to wrestle with contemporary workplace dilemmas.
"If a culture doesn't provide for this kind of imaginative exploration of the risks of ambition, greed, or avarice, then you aren't going to be prepared as a leader to act ethically in the real world," says Phillips.
Send e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org