Justice and Dignity in the Workplace

2012-06-18 by . 1 comments

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According to everyone who knew him, former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay was a good guy. He was a devoted husband and father, a faithful member of First United Methodist Church in Houston, a skilled mediator of conflict, a generous person who donated millions of dollars every year to nonprofit organizations. He spoke words of praise to a member of the cleaning crew at the courthouse where Lay was on trial, and he once paid the bill of the woman in front of him in a checkout line when she realized she had left her money in the car.

Ken Lay was also an astute businessman. Named CEO of Houston Natural Gas in 1984, he guided the company through nearly two decades of growth, during which time the company merged with InterNorth to become Enron Corporation. Lay understood that the key to Enron’s growth was recognizing that its true product was not gas but energy. He believed in Enron’s goals, and in the innovative ways the company strove to reach them. He held most of his $400 million fortune in Enron stock, and when the company collapsed into bankruptcy, Ken Lay lost more money than any other shareholder.

Lay insisted to the end that he was not a criminal. He insisted that he did not participate in the corporate embezzlement and market manipulations of Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow and company President Jeffrey Skilling, and that their financial crimes took place without his knowledge. But the court proceedings only partially validated his claims. Unlike Skilling and Fastow, Ken Lay was not charged with insider trading. However, he was indicted—and convicted—of conspiring to cover up the crimes.

And this was not the first time Lay was confronted with this type of situation. In the late 1980s, when faced with evidence that executives in Enron’s oil-trading division were embezzling, Lay chose to remove them from any financial responsibilities but not to fire them. We can’t know now what his reasoning was for this move, but Enron’s subsequent history shows the message received by some employees was that criminal activity would be treated with leniency, as long as it increased the quarterly profits.

We could speculate all day over how innocent or guilty Ken Lay actually was, but that wouldn’t be beneficial to anyone. What can benefit us is to look at the collapse of Enron in the light of the Christian faith that Lay professed, and see if there are lessons we can apply to our own lives.

As a CEO, Ken Lay was responsible for maintaining the company’s profitability for its shareholders every quarter and providing an environment where Enron employees could contribute to that profitability. Indeed, the “bottom line”—the colloquial term for net profit, due to its location on an income statement—has emerged in our culture as a metaphor for whatever is most important in a given situation.

But for a Christian, the bottom line isn’t the most important thing. The United Methodist Church—Ken Lay’s denomination and mine—speaks about corporate responsibility in the Book of Discipline, ¶163 (i):

Corporations are responsible not only to their stockholders, but also to other stakeholders: their workers, suppliers, vendors, customers, the communities in which they do business, and for the earth, which supports them.

Taken at face value, this suggests that a CEO must find a way to balance commitment to the bottom line with responsibility to the workforce and to the wider community. But is that all there is to being a Christian in corporate leadership?

The Bible itself has few teachings relating solely to work, but when it does speak about workplace relations, the bulk of responsibility falls on the employer. Deuteronomy 24:14, for example, says:

You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.

We can hear echoes of this command in James 5:4.

Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.

The Bible doesn’t say much else about the workplace, though it does include variations on this theme. So on the surface it doesn’t look like Scripture can provide much insight into situations like the one Ken Lay found himself in at Enron.

But if we take a closer look, we see that giving workers their fair pay is just the tip of the iceberg. Isaiah 58:3 speaks of those who, seeking to please God, spend a day fasting but do not take care of the people in their employ.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.

Putting work relationships in the context of a fast gives us a new perspective on fasting and work. Continuing in Isaiah 58, we see:

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Normally we think of fasting as abstaining from food for a specified time. According to Isaiah, however, God is more interested in how we treat other people. It’s not about depriving ourselves, but about being more in touch with the needs of the people around us—and then moving beyond simple awareness to making a real difference.

If God does not approve of a fast that causes an employer to oppress his or her workers, God surely does not approve of a focus on the quarterly bottom line that overlooks malfeasance and ultimately leads to bankruptcy, leaving those workers without jobs or pensions. The best way to keep people out of poverty is to provide them the opportunity to earn a living. Christians in positions of corporate leadership have a chance to provide this opportunity; they therefore have a responsibility, not to seek balance between the quarterly goals and the company’s long-term sustainability, but to put the needs of the workers first—even if it causes the shareholders short-term pain.

Putting people ahead of profits solves Ken Lay’s dilemma, by preventing the situation from arising in the first place.

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  • Jon Ericson says:

    It took me a while to make the connection between fasting and treating those less fortunate than ourselves with the respect and dignity they deserve, but after sleeping on it, I think I see. Stories like Mr. Lay’s are valuable reminders that God desires mercy, not mere religion (see Hosea 6:6). Thanks for telling it.

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