I am, by no stretch of the imagination, an adherent to any sort of organized religion. While I have a Jewish heritage I was baptized Catholic and raised Lutheran and thus, subsequently, spent my life questioning everything and anything. I now go, as some may say, the cop-out way; declaring myself an agnostic as opposed to an atheist. I also immerse myself in studying the history of religion even while steadfastly abstaining from being either religious or, quite frankly, spiritual.
Yet, despite this absence of religious beliefs, I have served as the HR leader for not one but two Catholic organizations. Let me just say that you haven’t really lived a full HR life until you’ve had to terminate a nun – your HR Department employee – for job performance. Fun times indeed.
Recently I’ve been doing some work for another faith-based organization and yesterday I had the pleasure of attending their all employee in-service; it was an interesting mash-up of an old-timey revival meeting and every painful training program ever coordinated by Debbie the HR lady. There was also praying – lots and lots of praying.
While every organization may not find it feasible to bring in a 7-piece band (lead singer, 2 back-up singers, bass guitar, rhythm guitar, keyboards, and drummer) to kick off meetings, I had several observations that are applicable to any workplace:
Having FUN can destroy lingering negativity. The aforementioned 7-piece band got us going with some good old-fashioned spirituals. Every employee stood and most (not all) sang along – some at the top of their lungs. Singing alongside one’s boss might not be for everyone (I’m not sure I would want to do it), but I couldn’t help but wonder if Gladys and Cheryl from Accounting don’t get along just a bit better back at their desks when they remember that at the next all-staff meeting they’re going to be be sharing a hymnal. It’s probably kind of hard to bitch about a co-worker’s spreadsheet error when you’re going to be singing harmony the next morning.
Remember to reminisce. Several of the organization’s leaders spoke about, well, the kind of stuff all leaders talk about at these sorts of gatherings; strategies, changes, and plans for the future. There were updates and acknowledgements with the primary differential being liberal use of the words “God,” Jesus” and “The Lord.” All of the leaders who spoke however were extraordinarily effective at reinforcing the organizational culture message through the use of narratives and history. “I remember last year at this time when xyz happened….” said one to exuberant head nodding from all assembled. It was a very effective reinforcement of shared purpose and cultural expectations and alignment. “You’ve been called to work here,” said one leader, later adding “you’re being prayed for in your work here.” Certainly not my cup of tea (I don’t need to be prayed for thank-you-very-much) but perfect for the people who have chosen to work at this organization.
Have a strong foundation. A lot of organizations articulate and memorialize a set of values, beliefs and core operating principles; they emblazon them on the company website, print them in employee handbooks, and do everything short of making needlepoint pillows with their corporate values stitched upon them. And quite often all of that is nothing more than meaningless fluff. But let me tell you, an employee working for a Christian faith-based organization comes in to the job fully knowing the values and principles because she’s been reading the operating manual – the Bible – her entire life. When every speaker quotes a bible verse or two (we heard snippets from Titus, Corinthians and Mathew among others) it’s simply a reinforcement of the foundational message; stuff’s not changing every time a new leader joins the team or a new Board of Directors is chartered; after all, this was all laid out 2,000 years ago.
Be passionate about hiring to your culture. As part of the meeting, Department Directors introduced new hires. Personal tidbits were shared: “Michelle who is joining our team is the daughter of Betty – many of you know Betty – and Michelle and her husband Bob have 3 kids. She enjoys baking, LSU football, and collects thimbles.” And then Michelle’s manager related the story of how she came to ‘finally’ get Michelle to come on board…”When I first spoke to Michelle last year she wasn’t ready to join us but I kept her resume front and center on my desk all year long, praying that she would come work with us. I stayed in touch with her and, just recently when I had an open position, God laid it on Michelle’s heart to come to us. We’re so glad she is here.” It was nice. Not something necessarily within what I consider the sphere of plausibility but then again I’ve neither prayed to a deity to convert a candidate to a hire nor has any deity, I’m quite certain, ever deemed it important enough to worry about my career choices. The key though – reinforced yet again during this part of the meeting – was the infusion of belief and culture unique to this workplace and this setting.
Look … I’m fairly certain I was the only non-believer at this event; I sort of expected the heavens to part and a bolt of lightning to strike me as I crossed from the parking lot into the vestibule. And while I neither sang along nor paid strict attention to the prayers and bible-verse quoting I was enchanted by those who did. I saw happy, engaged employees who were perfectly aligned with their organization’s culture.
I guess I learned a few lessons from Jesus.