Business brings faith on board

Sensemaking / Business brings faith on board

Companies are increasingly turning to religion to get the best out of their employees.

05 Sep 2011

Companies are increasingly turning to religion to get the best out of their employees.

The Financial Times is not known for its religious coverage, but on 16 April it led with news of a decision by the Church of England to vote against “excessive” bonuses in the companies in which it invests. The Church Commissioners considered bonuses of three times the basic salary to be “sufficient” – which would allow the CEO of HSBC £1 million a year. This ruling wasn’t bold enough, however, for Chris Wood of Christians Against the Cuts. He accused the Commissioners of “failing to challenge the culture of greed and speculation inherent in the free market”.

It’s to be expected that religious groups have views about business ethics and practice. What might come as a surprise is that these views have become a mainstream concern. Following the global financial crisis, both corporations and commentators have brought religion into discussions of corporate responsibility.

The World Economic Forum recently published a report called ‘Faith and the Global Agenda: Values for the Post-Crisis Economy’. In it, John DeGioia, President Founder of Georgetown University and Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum ask which values will be “vital for our collective future” and what “positive role […] faith can play in articulating those values”. The most fundamental question of the moment, they argue, is “whether we can adopt a more communitarian spirit” – moving away from “excesses which undermine social peace”.

But it’s not just about doing less harm. Businesses are actively looking to spirituality and religion to help their employees be even more effective in the workplace.

“Spirituality in business is springing up all over”, writes Patricia Aburdene, a leading commentator on corporate transformation in her book Megatrends 2010: the rise of conscious capitalism. She cites Intel as an example. The silicon developer now encourages employees to take part in various internal peer support networks, including a Baha’i Group, a Bible-based Christian network and Muslim and Jewish community groups. And it’s not alone. Many big consumer brands, from Wal-Mart to Pizza Hut, now run prayer groups and have chaplains to offer moral support to employees.

“More than ever, people want work that fits in with a larger sense of purpose in life”

“The old paradigm of leaving your beliefs behind when you go to work is no longer satisfying”, says Stewart Friedman, Practice Professor of Management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “More than ever, people want work that fits in with a larger sense of purpose in life. For many people, that includes a concept of God, or something like it.”

Of course, the association of sound business practice with religious values isn’t new. Deborah Cadbury commends the ‘Quaker capitalism’ of her Victorian ancestors in her book Chocolate Wars. The dark chocolate bar Bournville takes its name from a village built for Cadbury’s workers, with good-quality housing, sports fields, a lido and free medical care – but no pubs – based on George Cadbury’s temperance Quaker values.

More recently, when the Fairtrade scheme was a start-up looking for niche places to sell ethically sourced goods, churches proved the best place to find willing customers. It was thanks to well-run campaigns by Christian Aid and others that the now influential scheme finally hit the supermarket shelves.

So much for the role religion can play in corporate ethics and practice. But what can it bring to the finance system itself?

Muslim commentators have been quick to point out that the Shari’a prohibition on charging interest when lending money helped Islamic banks to survive the crash. For Swati Taneja, Director of the International Islamic Finance Forum, current interest in more cautious investment practices offers “a golden opportunity for Islamic finance to provide an alternative model which, by its very nature, binds both the real and financial economies – just what the world needs right now”.

Bahrain: the country of minarets and skyscrapersIndeed, Islamic finance is now big business. Some of the world’s largest banks and investment houses are now Shari’a-compliant, including Barclays, Citibank and Merrill Lynch. The economist Moin Siddiqi argues that behind its success is the fact that it accords “no intrinsic value” to money, which it regards merely as a means to produce socio-economic value. A survey of 29 of the largest Islamic commercial banks, investment banks and asset managers – published in 2010 by the Accounting and Auditing Organisation for Islamic Financial Institutions – found that over half (55%) had quotas for investment in activities relating to social, development and environmental activities, and over three-quarters had a policy for charitable activities.

The financial system is itself sustained by a kind of faith. Banks depend on our trust that numbers on computers carry a higher meaning, which can ultimately buy assets in the real world. Politicians avoid ‘upsetting the markets’, as if these were a supernatural force to be appeased at all costs.

The early narratives of many religions address this ‘force’, and offer teachings to help maintain positive social values in the face of wealth. The Qur’an describes the “people of truth” as those who “spend of [their] substance … for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves”. Jesus was arrested following a very public protest in the Temple in Jerusalem, where he tipped over the tables of the traders and moneychangers. The Buddha abandoned a life of luxury to teach freedom from desire.

And in the Jewish tradition, we find perhaps the most radical socio-economic idea of all. The book of Leviticus declared that every 50th year should be a ‘Jubilee’, in which debts would be cancelled and slaves set free. Far from calling for financial prudence, this was an invitation to generosity on an extravagantly imprudent scale. It makes today’s cautious words about banking reform sound rather feeble.

Symon Hill is Associate Director of the think tank Ekklesia and author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion (New Internationalist, 2010).
Additional material by Anna Simpson.

Photo: istockphoto/thinkstock

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