Originally created 07/03/05

Some employers putting religious morals to work



Local businessman Jeff Faircloth has two ways to measure his success - one on his books and one from above.

"When I stand before Jesus, my Lord and Savior, he's not going to ask me how many sewing machines I sold. He's going to ask me how I sold them," said Mr. Faircloth, who owns Jeff's Sewing & Vacuum Center Inc. in Martinez.

Mr. Faircloth is among many entrepreneurs who believe that, as in life, business must be done through the guiding principals of faith.

"Our business is not doing whatever you have to do to make the sale. We're not perfect, and not everyone is happy with us, but it's not because we lied or ripped them off," said Mr. Faircloth, who employs six.

Because the predominant religious belief in America is Christianity, it stands to reason that many faith-based businesses adhere to that faith, said John Knapp, the founder and president of The Southern Institute for Business and Professional Ethics.

For some Christians, spreading their faith is a big part of being religious, he said.

"One of the tenets of the Christian faith, particularly one that is considered important by evangelicals, is being public about one's faith," Mr. Knapp said.

For Mr. Faircloth, faith in the workplace also is about running a successful company. He and others say that enforcing Christian morals such as honesty, clean language and fairness in the workplace is a smart way to do business.

"God blessed me. He gave me the ability to learn this business, and he surrounded me with the right people," he said.

At Bailey's Custom Glass and Closets Inc. in Martinez, Christian music is played for telephone customers on hold, and religious pamphlets are displayed in the showroom.

"The Lord wouldn't have me put 15 people out of work by trying to push Jesus Christ on people, but I'm not going to hide it," owner Glen Bailey said.

Faith in the workplace, however, can be dangerous, said Ed Enoch, an employment attorney at Augusta-based Rhodes & Enoch.

"Not that you can't have the business owner who wants to have a prayer meeting or play praise music over the intercom; it's just that when it comes from management, there's always the risk that someone will feel like they've been discriminated against because they don't belong to that religion or sect," he said.

He said the presence of religion might open the door for a discrimination suit.

"It just adds one more possible element that someone might sue you over," Mr. Enoch said.

Federal discrimination laws apply only to businesses with 15 or more employees, Mr. Enoch said. Below that, business owners can discriminate as they please when it comes to religious beliefs, which means working for a large faith-based company - such as Chick-fil-A - often is easier on nonbelievers.

Having a religious ethic won't hurt a business as long as the doctrine isn't overbearing.

Chick-fil-A, which follows Christian ideals and operates more than 1,200 restaurants nationwide. Company founder S. Truett Cathy, who spoke at a Columbia County Chamber of Commerce event last month, said Christian values and business go hand in hand.

"There's no such thing as business ethics, it's personal ethics; it's the people that cause things to happen," said Mr. Cathy, whose company employs more than 45,000. There isn't a conflict between the two, he said.

"I base my business decisions on biblical principals because they work in our business, I believe the Bible can be a blueprint and a road map in our lives," said Mr. Cathy, who closes all of his restaurants every Sunday.

For Randy Hatcher, the president of Augusta-based MAU, a Christian ethic means that the company is accountable to God in all of its dealings with clients, applicants and employees, he said.

"Hopefully, that gives them a greater sense of comfort knowing that there is someone greater than their boss influencing the decisions of the company," said Mr. Hatcher, whose employment services company employs 125 people in Georgia, South Carolina and Illinois.

Mr. Hatcher offers Christian training opportunities and an in-house faith library - tools, Mr. Hatcher said, that he hopes will improve his employees' lives.

"We're willing to help them with that, although it's not required; it's totally optional," he said.

The key to prudent religious ethics in the workplace is to take positive moral values without forcing anything on anyone, Mr. Knapp said.

"We know that religious values and the teaching of our various faith traditions can be very powerful motivators for people to act ethically in the workplace," he said. "It's not limited to Christianity."

A religious ethic as urged by a business owner or supervisor can work the same way as playing golf with the executives, Mr. Knapp said, but it shouldn't be that way.

"In some companies you learn that if you go out and play golf with the CEO, it's a good way to get ahead. The danger in other companies is that if you go to church with the CEO, it's a good way to get ahead," he said.

With the exception of coercing others on issues of faith, chief executives have the same religious rights as anyone else, Mr. Knapp said.

In addition to some legal concerns, there are other challenges brought on by publicly acknowledging that a workplace is faith-oriented, he said.

"If it's a company with a public mission or value statement that may even be couched in religious terms, or if they simply have a fish in the Yellow Pages ad, in a sense you're inviting people to hold you accountable to that claim," Mr. Knapp said.

When business leaders fail to live up to the claim of faith-based ethical integrity, they can greatly damage their business and the reputation of their religion.

"The most important factor of maintaining trust in the workplace is consistency of practicing what you preach," Mr. Knapp said.

Sometimes being an openly faith-based company can make it tougher to do business, Mr. Faircloth said.

"It hurts at times because I think I use it to get sales and I just say that really that's between me and God. It holds me to a higher standard," he said.

Religion in the workplace has become increasingly more common, especially after the Sept. 11 attacks, when acts of spiritual reflection often crossed into the office.

"Literally overnight, the walls separating business and religion came down," Mr. Knapp said.

There also has been a proliferation of faith-based organizations whose purpose is to promote religion in the workplace, he said.

In many ways, it would be hard to go back now that religion has become more commonplace at work.

"It sort of opened the door, and it's not going to be closed again," Mr. Knapp said.

Reach Adrian Burns at (706) 823-3352 or adrian.burns@augustachronicle.com.