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Working With a Higher Power

The faithful find both conflicts and comfort in taking their religious beliefs to work.

October 15, 2000|JOSEPH HANANIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Courtney "Mac" McGregor, a bishop in the Mormon Church, worked as a research scientist at pharmaceutical giant Hoffman-LaRoche, he faced a painful dilemma.

For his research on rheumatoid arthritis, he needed to use a fetal enzyme. But his church looks upon abortion as sinful in all but extreme cases.

McGregor's conflict isn't unusual. In an evermore multi-ethnic, multi-religious American society, religious beliefs and workplace values can often clash. But for many, faith also provides the framework to make better employees and managers.

For McGregor, now 59, the answer came not from consultations with other church officials--he didn't consult any--or from conversations with his wife, who left the decision to him. Rather, his answer came during prayer when he realized that "I did not participate in the choice of the abortion." Rather, his choice was whether "to throw away" the enzyme or "get some benefit from it."

McGregor decided to work with the enzyme.

A different dilemma was faced by Mahmoud "Mike" Morad, then a real estate consultant with an affiliate of American Express. Morad's religion--Islam--required him to pray five times a day--twice in the midst of his workday.

In addition to questioning the practicality of praying amid ringing telephones and office chatter, Morad, now 44, was concerned that by praying at work he would reveal his participation in a religion widely associated with terrorism. He could have lost sales, setting himself back professionally.

"At first, I was self-conscious," he said. Nevertheless, he prayed, either in an empty room or in his car.

Initially, he hoped nobody would notice.

"Then, I became proud and hoped others would ask what I was doing. It was an opportunity to talk about religion and values," he said. "The idea behind prayer is learning to do things on time. To be prompt five times a day means my commitment to God is fulfilled."

That commitment spilled over to customers and co-workers, who praised Morad's efficiency. As for possible fallout, "People may have decided not to do business with me because I am Muslim, but I would rather attribute it to chemistry. If that's the reason, so be it."

Now head of his own Axis America real estate affiliate in Fullerton, with two employees, Morad views his daily prayer rituals as a key element in his success.

Gen. Edward Meyer, 83, now chairman of Mitretek Systems, a software company in the Washington area, had to learn to balance the bottom line against his values while serving as Army chief of staff. From 1979 to 1983, Meyer was ordered to close bases across the country, including Ft. Ord near Monterey, Calif.

"I had pressure from congressmen not representing the affected areas, and from the Department of Defense to get out as quickly as possible, to not engage in follow-up activities," said Meyer, a Catholic who is now involved in the Woodstock Business Conference, an organization trying to meld business and spiritual values.

"The pressure was constant--that I would be replaced by someone else. During certain periods, I would have been very happy to get fired."

Yet Meyer considered those follow-up activities, including job counseling and ensuring health benefits and unemployment checks, as both right and necessary.

"Soldiers are not checkers to be moved around a board," he said. "And I was in a position to help keep families together, rather than follow banal, money-grubbing instincts."

The lessons Meyer learned then are no different from those he now applies in the civilian world, where he has had to close stores and manufacturing plants.

"Moral values and business values can be consistent. When they are not, I have to make a very serious consideration: Am I going to stay on this job where I can't live with my own personal goals and objectives?," he said.

Past a certain point, he said, "I cannot. In my own experience, when the bottom line is more important than anything else, there is just chaos and suffering."

*

For these three men, their faith helped them make difficult decisions and gave them greater peace of mind. They said it also makes them more skilled at workplace relationships.

McGregor credits his faith as key to creating a more positive work environment.

"A big complaint at LaRoche was lack of communication; people didn't know what was going on even next door," he said. "Church work taught me how to maximize communication, being conscious of others' backgrounds and interests.

"I wouldn't be a boss if not for my faith," he said. "My management skills come largely from that."

If faith has increasingly made its presence felt in the workplace, however, it has not always been in a positive manner.

Tamar Galatzan, 30, an attorney with the Anti-Defamation League, said that while complaints about prohibitions on religious garb in the workplace are down, complaints about religious proselytizing are up.

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