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Amen at the Top

One boss prays for the company and his employees. It's part of a trend of integrating spirituality into the workplace.

April 06, 1998|JENNIFER OLDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Employees at Wheat International Communications are encouraged by President Forrest C. Wheat Sr. to add their concerns to an informal list he refers to each morning during a brief prayer in his Reston, Va., office.

Wheat, who is also the company's chief executive, prays about everything from employees' illnesses to company operations. Morning prayers are not mandatory, he emphasizes, but everyone from "a receptionist to a senior vice president" is welcome to attend.

A devout Baptist, Wheat says he is upfront with his employees about his faith, and he is convinced that it is largely due to his beliefs that his 12-year-old firm, which designs and installs telephone-switching systems, reported $30 million in sales last year.

"I tell them when they come to work here that I'm a Christian," Wheat said, "and I'm going to run the business with Christian morals, ethics and principles."

A raft of new books touting spirituality as the latest management trend has prompted executives like Wheat to speak out about how integrating spirituality into their workplaces has benefited employees and, thus, their companies.

One caveat to the newfound enthusiasm at work for the "S words" (soul and spirituality): Those who have introduced spirituality into the workplace emphasize that there is a fine line between discussing spirituality and trying to persuade employees to follow certain beliefs.

"I think it's good to talk about and to be proud of your spiritual connectivity and path," said Jeff Christian, CEO of Cleveland-based executive search firm Christian & Timbers. "But the line is when you start to promote your particular direction."

Christian, who says he is interested in exploring many religions in his personal life, supports spirituality at his firm by helping pay for classes employees may take to learn how to meditate, breathe right and reduce stress.

Spiritual activities practiced in companies such as Christian's run the gamut from daily prayer, Bible studies and meditation to company value statements and paid time off for community service activities.

Executives interviewed for this story agree that openly endorsing spirituality at work has enabled them to retain valuable employees and help workers be more productive.

"I don't believe people are motivated by spreadsheets, net present values and [profits and losses] at all. It's not inspiring," said Jim Amos, president and chief executive officer of San Diego-based Mail Boxes Etc. "People are responsive to an environment that cares about them."

In search of an environment where "mind and spirit work together to compete for profit and market share," Amos sat down 18 months ago with his 250 employees and 13,000 franchisees to develop a mission statement.

This statement is inscribed on plaques and placed in employees' offices and at each franchise, together with the company's "core values," which include caring, honesty, fairness, integrity, trust, respect, commitment and accountability. The values and mission statement are also printed on laminated cards that employees carry with them.

Enunciating these values and reinforcing them at monthly "renewal" meetings, Amos says, allows employees to see that they can turn a profit while "making a difference at the same time in the lives of other people."

Executives are increasingly carrying value statements like these out into their communities by encouraging employees to participate in company programs that allow them to volunteer several hours per week on company time.

Such efforts not only improve employees' self-esteem, but they're good public relations for the organization, executives say. Marilyn Tam, former president of Reebok's Apparel Products and Retail Group, said that during her three years with the company she oversaw a program that allowed employees to volunteer with nonprofit groups for two hours a week.

"They actually connected with the community, and that really kind of grounds people back into themselves and also makes them value who they are and what work they do," Tam said. "And . . . it gives them so much more inspiration and motivation."

In looking to build on its vision statement, which says in part that its business "will be conducted in such a way that it shall contribute to the spiritual, social and economic well-being of our employees, our community and our clients," Carpinteria-based insurance administrator AGIA developed a volunteer outreach program it calls "Dream Builders."

The program seeks to support employees who are "contributing to fulfill AGIA's vision" by "helping to make the world a better place." Chief Executive John Wigle says the program will allocate a maximum of $100 per employee per year as a matching gift to a charitable cause.

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