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employersThe diocese of Lansing, where I currently attend mass, is a pretty good one, as such things go in the contemporary United States. Our parish has a very good priest and I am confident we will not soon be joining in on the practice I have seen in the archdiocese of Detroit of worshipping in the round, complete with liturgical dance.

But an article in the Lansing Diocese magazine, Faith, summed up for me the reason those of us who hold to our faith’s central precepts have trouble “selling it” to people who think Catholicism is all about the powerful mistreating the weak. In a column called “Your Life,” one Jim Berlucchi, executive director of the Spitzer Center, “whose mission is to build cultures of evangelization,” answered a question (whether real or hypothetical, I do not know) from an employee.  The employee asked whether it was fair that his employer invited clients and workers to a party to celebrate the company’s anniversary.  Only later were the employees informed that they would be expected to work the event.

Mr. Berlucchi’s response?  “Don’t be a grump.”  To be fair, he also pointed out that employers appreciate workers “who go the extra mile” and that the clients seemed to be, and should be, the focus of a company celebration. And it certainly is true that no employee who chooses to be “a grump” under such circumstances is likely to have a successful career at that or any other company.  What was frustrating was the insipid preaching to the employee to “reframe your fairness concern” as if the employer had behaved with perfect virtue. Now, any prudent employee will do his best under whatever circumstances he is given. And a virtuous employee will give his boss the benefit of the doubt if there is a failure of communication now and then at the office.  But an employee who is told “come to the party” and later told “oh, yeah, you are actually working the party” had best keep in mind the clear limits of his boss’s respect for and loyalty toward his workers when other opportunities arise.

For someone claiming to “build cultures of evangelization” to tell an employee that he is simply wrong to recognize the unfairness of a stealth overtime requirement, that he has lost no “employee right” is morally, economically, and spiritually obtuse.  It also is doing a disservice to any employer who might be paying attention.  Employers today have much to worry about as the government continues its increasing overregulation.  But, while keeping good employees may not seem like a problem in our current, bad economy, it soon will be, and always should be a concern because good employees can find options even in bad circumstances.  Moreover, an employer who shows such disregard for his employees is behaving with selfishness and overweening pride—sins, the last time I checked.

Any employer who wants to thank his clients with a party can and should involve his employees.  And a party at which the employees do some of the work may, in fact, be the best way to do that.  But to ask extra of the employees requires that you tell them what is going on—up front.  And if you want your workers to give you their best and you want to build greater loyalty instead of understandable resentment, you should be having a meeting with them to let them know the importance of the event and get them on board.

The facile assumption that all is “fair” in employment because, after all, “it is all about the clients” is to destroy the common feeling and commitment necessary for good business, let alone for the evangelization of the workplace.  No employee should be told that his boss is somehow gifting him his job—even if it is true.  This denial of human dignity destroys the community of the workplace, feeds into the prideful view of themselves as above judgment which some employers have, and even leads to excessive and unjust governmental regulation.

Perhaps my greatest hope for our new Pope Francis I, who seems to so well combine piety, orthodoxy, and humility, is that he will serve as an example to all with wealth and power of their responsibility before God to treat workers, the poor, and all who inhabit more humble stations in life with dignity, for the sake of their businesses and for the sake of their souls. I hope also that the Church, as it continues combating various “liberation” theologies that undermine religious faith, also will combat the serious problems of clericalism and favoritism toward those with wealth and power.

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7 replies to this post
  1. I think that these kind of situations arise in companies due to fear and/or miscommunication. It’s necessary to be patient, especially in a bad economy where everyone is burdened by the additional stress of a sagging market. There is often very little businessmen can do at the micro level to improve the bottom line, and a telling result of recession is an increase in pressure on the part of employers to squeeze their employees and sometimes do drastic, chaotic things in an attempt to stay afloat.

    Ultimately, Christian charity in business is only possible when people are realistic about how they came together in the first place. Profit and mutual interest is the basis of their association, nothing else.

    I once had a rather annoying business partner who had a habit of writing long emails asking me to understand that she’d be late wiring me money owed because she had to pay the heating bill, the phone bill etc etc.

    Far from moving my Christian sense of charity, she succeeded in only exciting my sense of dealing with a rude person. I make it a habit never to let my personal considerations enter a business dialogue. I use Christ’s Golden Rule to assume that just as I have my bills and personal travails, so does everyone else. If someone has no cash flow, it’s not a blight to just say “I have no cash flow”. Telling me they have bills and kids while presuming that my routine silence regarding my personal life means I have no worries is just unprofessional.

    That’s just an example. While I understand the point this article is making, I suppose my experience tells me that such things happen: the larger the company, the more likely they happen. It might be miscommunication, hectic scheduling or something. An employer can’t be expected to hold a group therapy session everytime a change of plans occur. That’s business.

    If an employee experiences systematic displeasure, he needs to patiently bear it while finding a different way to make a living. This is not a defense of the “powerful” because employees have as much power as was contractually granted by employees.

    People do indeed have dignity, and a special respect ought to be granted to wealth creators who make employment possible in the first place.

    Everybody gets grumpy, that’s no sin – what counts are actions. We can mutter undet our breathes, but we ought to all do our duties.

    • Mr. Rieth: Regarding your statement, “People do indeed have dignity, and a special respect ought to be granted to wealth creators who make employment possible in the first place,” I beg to differ–first, on the grounds that (as I mention in my comment to Professor Frohnen) it is God who creates wealth (and jobs) and employers are merely the conduit for God’s bounty; and second, it is and always has been the way of the world to respect and reward wealth, success, and power–if we need to be reminded to accord “special respect” to anyone, it ought to be to “these, the least of your brethren,” who by the world’s standards count for little if anything.

  2. Professor Frohnen: Thank you so much for this wise and insightful post, and in particular for this–

    “The facile assumption that all is “fair” in employment because, after all, “it’s all about the clients” is to destroy the common feeling and commitment necessary for good business, let alone for the evangelization of the workplace. No employee should be told that his boss is somehow gifting him his job—even if it is true. This denial of human dignity destroys the community of the workplace, feeds into the prideful view of themselves as above judgment which some employers have, and even leads to excessive and unjust governmental regulation.”

    It would be useful indeed if more “pro-business” and “pro-capitalism” individuals would understand the points you make, and would acknowledge that government regulation–which can indeed by “excessive and unjust”–has often come in response to employers’ disregard for workers’ human dignity (and even basic economic rights). It may be true that governments by their nature seek more power, but that’s no reason to excuse abuses that lend a persuasive rationale to the power-seeking.

    I would, however, differ on one point–a job is never a “gift” from an employer. At the most mundane level, a job is a contractural agreement; the employer needs a task done, the employee agrees to do it. But in a larger sense, if everything we have comes to us through God, then an employer is at most a conduit for God’s bountiful generosity; forgetting that leads precisely to employers’ “prideful view of themselves” that you rightly chastise.

    Finally–like you, I have great hope for Pope Francis.

  3. I beg to differ regarding God creating wealth and jobs, as well as the notion that employers are conduits for His bounty; I think this view risks the very dehumanization that we are all seeking to avoid in the first place.

    Naturaly, I understand that God created the universe , and I recognize both the general concept of providence as well as the idea of the living Christ. It is however, rather disingenious to go from that to saying that God, and not the enterpreneur, created a job. It is a conflation of a general theological truth with a particular act of human volition. We may as well say God created virtue, therefore ours is but to wait for the absolute Grace of salvation rather than work towards it by trying to make individual moral choices in a complex world.

    Where we seem to differ is on where and how providence and the living Christ manifest themselves. I think that they manifest themselves in the conscious choices of individuals and in the individual conscience, both of which are very properly absolutely free in accordance with God’s will that we discover and love Him truly, which is to say freely.

    No person is a conduit or vessel. We are made in the image of God, and since God is a unique Being, not a conduit – so too are we (albeit lesser than He). Just as God creates, so do we. Just as God is pleased with His creation, so too we can be pleased with ours, and this pleasure is not identical with pride.

    The “least of our bretheren” does not mean “employees” – if anything, people with jobs are not the least of our bretheren: people without jobs are certainly lesser. Lower still are the crippled and frail. Lower still the unborn. To use the language of Christ to feed class conflict, when in fact the point of losing everything on Earth was to gain everything in Heaven is to misunderstand. God does not want us to be poor, he wants us to be poor in spirit – humble. Wealth and its creation are good because through them we feed our families and build up our communities. Those who create wealth – a concept not limited, mind you, to employers, are good and humble. Please note that I am talking about real wealth creation, where ever it takes place.

    Christ was certainly not teaching us simply that the working class or the poor are deserving of government aid. Benedict XVI makes this point well in his discussion of the Sermon on the Mount in his book on Jesus. Christ was not telling the people “you are the poor and therefore you are blessed unlike the rich”, but rather He was asking us each as individuals to look below our station in life at those less fortunate. Workers have no less a spiritual duty to be humble and help their fellow man than do businessmen.

    A job is indeed no less gifted than a service is. Both are done for mutual profit or not at all. As for serving the client – what could be more noble than trying to provide for the needs of people? It is true that clients may often want what is bad for them, or use potentially good things for bad purposes, but each person must try to the best of their ability to judge what is right or wrong.

    I understand the desire to protect the Church from accusations of callous disregard for the poor, but I would prefer it if the number of people who thought the Church callous tripled than if the Church were to give an inch in the realm of logic. I too have high hopes for our new Pope, but I do not necessarily see his modesty as illustrating an anti-capitalist mentality, unless we identify capitalism with pure greed and avarice, in which case the economic system I defend requires another name, for its essence is service, work and responsibility.

    Finaly, the Church teaches also the hard virtue of obedience, and most clergy, including the Pope, are exemplary workers. Benedict called himself a humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord – he did not gripe. Priests work knowing that their superiors can send them away to another parish at anytime. They do not gripe. If we are employees and Catholic, I say be bold enough not to assume that Jesus was humoring your condition as blessed, but rather take the hard path of patience and professionalism.

  4. Mr. Rieth: Thank you for taking the time to respond. I’ve obviously stirred up a theological hornet’s nest that I’m not equipped to deal with, so let me say (a) that I will take your words to heart in the spirit they’re offered; (b) I’m sorry I failed to make clear that when I said “the least of our brethren,” I didn’t mean the employees but rather the jobless, the homeless, those in prison, etc. (at least that’s the reference I believe Jesus was making by those words); and (c) for me, to be “humble” is not to vaunt oneself as a “wealth creator” or a “job creator,” much less to think that one deserves the “special respect” you advocated (not, I understand, for yourself). My choice of the word “conduit” may have been unfortunate; I don’t mean to say that humans are mere passive receptacles. It is, as I’m sure you know, an old tension–between faith and works, between unmerited grace and human effort. Still, I believe that, notwithstanding the importance of free will and volition, believers must refer credit in all things to God–at least, that’s what I hear in phrases like “it is not I, but Christ working in me” and so forth.

  5. In making a good point about the responsibility of the employer to accurately communicate work expectations to his employees, Mr. Frohnen makes an assumption about the employer’s motives, taking it for granted that the employer deliberately contrived a “stealth overtime requirement” and is “behaving with selfishness and overweening pride.” Really? Could the boss have simply failed to communicate well? Could the employee have misunderstood? The assumption that the employer is deliberately manipulative and unfair promotes an adversarial rather than mutually beneficial relationship between employer and employees.

    I proposed that the employee adopt a generous, rather than small-minded spirit, and choose a positive, rather than a victimhood attitude in the face of disappointment. Upset at a small work expectation, even when it wasn’t clear up front, reveals a prickly attitude that is professionally and evangelistically unproductive. A cheerful, generous spirit can overcome a multitude of sins, even the employer’s failure to communicate clearly, and not compromise one’s rightful expectation for justice from that same party.

    Finally let’s not forget the context of the scenario. It’s a party after all. We’re not talking about a purported employee appreciation trip that ends up being a sneaky work assignment in Siberia.
    Jim Berlucchi
    Faith Magazine Contributor

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