Spirituality in the Workplace

Former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda tells this story: He was on the road with his team in Cincinnati when he decided to attend Sunday morning mass. Whom should he see across the aisle but his rival manager, John McNamara of the Reds. Their teams were scheduled to play later that day. The two eyed each other but never spoke. When the service was over, McNamara knelt to pray. On his way out, he lit a votive candle. Lasorda—on his way out—blew it out.

Lasorda’s anecdote perfectly portrays the fragile balance that often exists between personal spirituality and the competitive spirit—not only in sports, but also in many areas of life. Indeed, the world seems locked in a state of dynamic tension between giving deference to others and gaining an advantage over them.

In the business world, competitiveness is one of the sacred tenets of capitalism. It is a hallowed force of free markets and the Holy Grail of corporate profitability.

Spirituality, on the other hand, is often regarded as an unnecessary gear in the machinery of commerce. When it is engaged—such as during national tragedies—spirituality frequently serves only to shift the wheels of business into neutral and allow time for a momentary nod to a higher power. In actuality, corporate cultures that relegate spirituality to this role dismiss one of the deepest dimensions of the human condition.

America is a predominantly spiritual nation. According to the Barna Research Group, an independent marketing research company that studies cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors, 95 percent of Americans believe in God. Of course, what people believe about God varies. Nevertheless, 72% believe in God when described as the all-powerful, all knowing, perfect creator of the universe who rules the world today.

That’s an enormous consensus—one that influences the attitudes and actions of a substantial portion of the American workforce. Yet many employers behave as though this attribute doesn’t even exist. There’s a mindset that spirituality is something that shouldn’t be addressed at work because it’s so personal. That’s exactly why it should be acknowledged—and accommodated.

What place should spirituality have in the workplace? How should it be represented in a business’s culture? How can individuals be allowed to express their beliefs without infringing on the sensibilities of others?

In his book The Soul of the Firm, C. William Pollard concedes that using the words “God” and “business” in the same sentence makes some people nervous. A devout Christian, Pollard, who is the chairman emeritus of the ServiceMaster company, makes no apologies for his company’s chief objective under his leadership to “honor God in all we do.”

“But we live and work in a diverse and pluralistic society,” he writes, “and some people may either question the existence of God or have some different definitions of God. That’s why at ServiceMaster we never allow religion or the lack thereof to become a basis for exclusion or how we treat each other professionally or personally.”

Pollard goes on to explain that his faith served as the basis for how he ran his company and how he led his employees. “I believe that God has invested each one of them with dignity, worth, potential and freedom to choose. They make up the company for whom I work, and they give meaning to my work.”

In some cases, such as ServiceMaster, a business’s culture is fundamentally shaped by the spiritual persuasion of its leader. In other instances, the spirituality of business leaders simply serves as the underpinning of a business’s code of ethics and personnel policies. More commonly, business mission statements tend to espouse the virtues of compassion, integrity and other honorable hallmarks.

Meanwhile, individual employees who embrace a religious, spiritualistic or philosophical credo encounter occasions to walk their talk in the workplace every day. Opportunities abound for workers to be unethical, irresponsible or insensitive. The choices they make to behave otherwise may be driven by the fear of being fired, or they may be motivated by spiritually determined personal standards.

From employees who take a long lunch to managers who cook the books, spirituality in the workplace—or the lack of it— influences the entire arena of business life. Wouldn’t it be interesting if business spirituality became a defining factor in business competitiveness?