Features

When God comes to the office

Princeton’s David Miller says faith works at work

By Merrell Noden ’78
Published in the June 1, 2011, issue


Peter Murphy

David Miller has no trouble recalling the advice he was given as an IBM trainee fresh out of college in 1979: “Whatever else you learn here,” the instructor cautioned, “just don’t forget — religion and business simply don’t mix. Customers want solutions to their business problems, not their spiritual problems.”

If Miller questioned those words at the time, he doesn’t remember it now. But in the 32 years that have passed — the first 16 of them spent in international business and finance, the rest in academia studying the question of how faith might operate in the workplace — Miller has come to understand what was being asked of him that day: “What he was really saying was, ‘Don’t bring your whole self to work. Live a compartmentalized life. At work you should avoid any subject that is likely to turn people off, no matter how important or central it is to your identity, your self-worth, or what makes you tick.’”

This split existence, which some refer to as the Sunday-Monday gap, was the price employees paid in exchange for a job a generation ago: You were one person at your place of worship on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, and another, living by a different set of values, come Monday morning. It wasn’t just their faith that they were expected to check at the door: It was their gender, sexual preference, and politics, too.  

But things are changing. “The new model is that companies are now thinking: How do I treat my people holistically?” Miller says. “And surprise, surprise: They’re realizing that someone who is healthy in the broadest sense of the term is going to be a better employee.”  

No one knows this better than Miller, who has been studying the issue for more than a decade. He is the director of an unusual but successful Princeton program that studies the role faith plays in the workplace and as the basis for ethical business practices. Called the Princeton University Faith and Work Initiative (FWI), it was created in 2009 under the auspices of the University’s Center for the Study of Religion with the help of a gift from Ken Melrose ’62, the former CEO of the Toro Co., who now leads a company that promotes a leadership style based on service to others.  

It might seem odd that Princ­e­ton, which has neither a business school nor a divinity school, should care about this seemingly arcane area of workplace psychology. But Melrose sees it both as practical ethics training for students who may be going into business and, just as significantly, as an expression of some of the University’s oldest and most cherished values. “Princeton has a faith-based tradition,” he says, referring to its Presbyterian origins. “And it has continued to promote coincident values, like serving, caring, and selflessness. It’s Princeton in the nation’s service.”

The Faith and Work Initiative has four main areas of focus. First is the popular class Miller teaches as a lecturer in the religion department, “Business Ethics and Modern Religious Thought,” which takes a case-study approach to business ethics by looking closely at scandals like Enron and ethical dilemmas like profits from vice. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the times, but students are eager to discuss such questions — the course has a waiting list of about 50 and gets rave reviews. “The class would end just before lunch,” recalls Emmy Ill ’10, who’s now working in public relations in New York City. “We’d talk all the way to lunch and then right through it. We were excited to talk about these questions.”

Second, there’s “Ethics in Action in the Executive Suite,” the series of public conversations that Miller conducts at Princeton with top executives from around the country. His first visitor was Sherron Watkins, who became one of Time magazine’s three People of the Year in 2002 for blowing the whistle on Enron. Since then, speakers have included Jimmy Dunne of Sandler O’Neill, who discussed his firm being one of the hardest-hit World Trade Center companies on Sept. 11, 2001, in the light of his Catholicism, as well as Ken Fein­berg, who has had the excruciating job of parceling out compensation to the families of Sept. 11 victims and, more recently, of overseeing claims paid to victims of the BP oil spill.  

Third, Miller takes his show on the road, lecturing to ­business associations and groups of CEOs on ethics, faith, and work. He recently addressed the CEO Forum in Dallas and traveled to New Haven for another installment in the ongoing conversation about ethics he has been having for eight years with a group that calls itself the Greenwich Leadership Forum.  

Finally, there’s Miller’s own academic research into the scope and nature of the Faith at Work movement. When Miller was beginning to study it as a graduate student at the Princeton Theological Seminary, it was Robert Wuthnow, chairman of the Princeton sociology department and founder of the Center for the Study of Religion, who pushed him hardest on the question of whether “faith at work” met sociology’s strict definition of a movement. After talking to literally thousands of executives, Miller is convinced that it does. The only reason it isn’t more visible, he believes, is that many executives are still reluctant to acknowledge the role their private faith plays in their business decisions.

“Many of these folks just don’t wear it on their sleeves,” he says. “But when they’re making a tough decision — whether reducing head count or whether or not to take jobs overseas — many of them are profoundly reflecting on the guidance and tenets of their faith. Whether they’re Christian or Jewish or something else, they think about that decision differently than if they weren’t a person of faith.”

Miller is quick to point out that neither his program nor the movement caters to any one religion. “As with any socially sensitive subject, one has to be wise, winsome, and mindful of when, how, and why one raises these important subjects in a workplace setting,” he says. The phrase he uses to describe the proper balance is “faith-friendly,” by which he means that companies should not feel threatened by their employees’ beliefs but should see them as a source of inspiration and rootedness.  

He works hard to have representatives of as many different faiths as possible both in his class and on the roster of visitors he produces for his Ethics in Action series. Non­believers get respect, too: “I’m the first to say that just because you’re spiritual doesn’t mean necessarily that you’re going to be more ethical, and just because you’re an atheist doesn’t mean you won’t be,” says Miller. “But it’s one arrow in your quiver. So if you are tapping into your faith tradition with some degree of intentionality, well, that could be the difference maker.”

As respectful as he is of those whose “faith” is science, Miller does think that there’s an advantage to being able to tap into a faith of some sort. “It’s the arc of time that matters,” he says. “One aspect of having a worldview grounded in faith or metaphysical things is that you have a different perception of time. You think in terms of eternity, and how you live this life matters for one’s eternity. If you have a longer sense of time infused by some spiritual tradition, it also means you treat the marketplace differently.”

For the record, Miller is a Christian, and a well-traveled one. Growing up in Pennington, N.J., near Princeton, he was raised by a father who was a “card-carrying atheist” and a mother whom he often accompanied to her Methodist church. Over the years, Miller and his wife, Karen, have attended a variety of churches: Episcopalian when they lived in London; Congre­gational while she was at law school in Boston; and a Quaker meeting house on occasion. At the moment they are members of the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church, a mostly African-American congregation half a mile from Nassau Hall.  

Just as important as religion to Miller’s upbringing was his boyhood interest in business. He and his older brother, Bob, were teen entrepreneurs who spent summers cutting grass and painting houses. It was while painting a local funeral home that Miller came face to face with his first big ethical dilemma. After painting half of the building, the brothers ran out of paint. They bought a second can, but it was only after they’d finished the job and stepped away from the building that they realized the two shades didn’t quite match. It was almost impossible to see the line, but they informed the funeral director, who added an important lesson to the story: He told everyone how honest the Miller boys were. Business boomed.  

Despite a career in business that took him all over the world, in the mid-1990s Miller began to feel the stirrings of something like angst. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy his work — he did. This was something else: a desire to have “a sense of purpose in my work.” At 38, he decided to go to divinity school. Before doing so, he wrote a letter to 400 friends and business contacts, hoping to explain a decision he thought was going to shock these successful men and women. In the end, what surprised him was the response he got: Some 150 letters, faxes, and phone calls came in, many of them expressing not only support for his decision, but something close to envy. Many of them, it seemed, “were feeling a deep emptiness and a disconnect from the beliefs, people, and things they valued most in life.”  

Miller was nearing his graduation from the seminary, when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. Word went out that chaplains were needed in lower Manhattan. Miller spent the next nine months shuttling into the city at night and on weekends to relieve ministers who had to return to their regular congregations. A photo of the towers and of people lost that day hangs in his office — a reminder, perhaps, of the way religion may not lead to ethical behavior.    

He spent the next five years at Yale, where he taught in both the School of Management and the Divinity School as well as serving as executive director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture before moving to Princeton in 2008. “There’s a lot of evidence that we as a society are facing a crisis,” says Wuthnow, who recruited him. “We hope that students who will be the leaders of tomorrow will at least have their conscience retained, if not strengthened.”  

Miller believes the Faith at Work movement is gaining momentum, though he isn’t so sure that it’s specifically a response to recent business scandals. We’ve always had such scandals, he says, pointing to the railroad barons of the late 19th century. And there always have been forces ready to fight against worldly greed, such as the Social Gospel era led by thinkers like Walter Rauschenbusch, as Miller argues in his book God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement.

The social turmoil of the 1960s, especially the Vietnam War and the civil-rights movement, inspired another wave of soul-searching, and a number of groups determined to promote social responsibility sprang up, like the New York-based Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, founded in 1971. The ICCR uses proxy resolutions and other shareholder pressure to build a “more just and sustainable world by integrating social values into corporate and investor actions.” The several hundred institutional investors that make up the ICCR want to turn a profit, but not at the expense of ethics, fairness, or decency. They point proudly to the fact that the ICCR filed resolutions warning about subprime lending way back in 1993.

Sometime in the mid-1980s, around the time Miller was moving to London to work for State Street Bank and Trust, the movement entered a new phase that Miller calls the Faith at Work era (and others call Spirituality at Work). He argues that this movement grew from several developments, including the push for more diversity in the workplace and a recognition that you get more out of a happy, healthy, psychologically integrated person than one who’s fighting his or her self. “Companies are realizing that they ought to tend to the employees’ whole well-being,” says Miller. Some encourage employees to take compensated days off to do charity work that is meaningful to them. “If there is this great untapped reservoir of good karma, good ethics — well, gosh, doesn’t it make sense to think about it?” asks Miller.

Miller’s class is a great place to explore all of these questions. The course begins with a slide show of prominent figures who have gotten caught up in ethical scandals despite being known for their rectitude. Former Enron CEO Ken Lay, for instance, was a Sunday School teacher. “Everyone thinks that he or she is a ‘good guy,’ ” says Miller. “So goal one is to disabuse students of the notion that they are somehow immune to ethical screw-ups.”  

Miller believes very few of us are either totally corrupt or utterly incorruptible. Most of us live and work in what the students soon come to call “Miller’s malleable middle.” It’s all of us in that vast “Miller middle” at which he directs his efforts.  

One of the most common issues Miller discusses with the class is lying. It does not take long for recent graduates to discover it’s a common temptation in the workplace. “I do my very best not to lie,” says Danny Steiner ’10, an assistant to Bob Greenblatt, the head of NBC. “Many assistants lie constantly. Not only is it a bad practice in the long run, because with any lie it’s easy to get caught up in it, [but] if you face a situation immediately, you know exactly what is at stake. But if you let it run, it can exponentially grow and compound itself.”

Lying assumes many forms and, serious as it can be, it’s something of a running joke in class that when Miller says, “If there’s one thing I’d like you to learn in this class, it’s ... ” And the class says, “Don’t cheat on your expense account.”

Frank Wojciechowski

So what exactly does it mean to bring one’s faith to work? Does it mean lowering prices for the poor, or giving an underperforming division more time to get its act together? Perhaps it means allowing a Bible study group to use an empty conference room at lunch?

“If ‘bring your faith to work’ means working hard and behaving decently toward colleagues and customers, I am all for it,” writes David Loevner ’76, the CEO of New Jersey-based Harding Loevner, an investment-management company, in an e-mail. “If it means talking about your religious beliefs with colleagues and customers, then I’m against it. Belief and prayer are private matters for the individual, but ‘speech’ requires two persons. The workplace, unlike the town square, is not a free-speech zone. That applies to other topics, e.g., sex and politics, not just religious views!”

Miller allows that “faith at work” means different things to different people. “Essentially we’re asking, if you’re a Jew, what does it mean to be an ethical, caring Jew? If you are Protestant, what does it mean? How do you take the teachings of your faith tradition and apply them to questions of ethics in the workplace?” He has developed a tool he calls the Integration Box, which captures the general ways people tend to express their faith in the workplace: through an emphasis on ethics (stressing personal virtue), evangelism (wanting to express their faith), experience (needing to feel larger meaning in one’s work), and enrichment (wanting to feel personal meaning). Miller is developing an online survey to help companies determine what is most meaningful to their own employees. 

 
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5 Responses to When God comes to the office

Ellen Zweibel *77 Says:

2011-05-31 16:46:57

I see at least two threads in this interesting article. One relates to ethical conduct at work. Of course, we should all aspire to high ethical standards, whatever belief system they spring from, and it is appropriate to discuss this in the classroom. The second thread relates what role religion and other facets of employee life should have in the workplace. Here, I believe the best answer is "as little as possible." If I walk past the break room and see my supervisor leading a prayer meeting or organizing phone banking for a political candidate, I am going to wonder how participating or not participating in that group will affect my trajectory at work. On the other hand, it is important for employees to feel valued as "whole people," and there are other ways to do this, for example: granting a certain amount of paid, personal time, allowing flexible work schedules, matching charitable gifts to organizations that meet a broad set of criteria, providing an ombudsperson, and setting very clear policies against discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

Donald Mintz *51 Says:

2011-05-31 16:49:19

I hate to sound a nasty note, but not so much as not to sound it. The purpose of business is to make money. The old-fashioned ideas that there should be some limitation on the tactics employed, and there is an obligation to a company's workers -— all these things are pretty well gone. And against this background, I must say first, that business ethics have a very long way to go before there is a reality to which these words refer, and second, that when a corporation or an executive begins to concern him/her/its self with my spiritual well-being I will take off just as fast as I can. (There's probably a scam lurking somewhere in that professed concern.)

Lorena De La Pena *98 Says:

2011-05-31 17:30:39

Professor Miller is wrong on so many levels, it's difficult to know where to begin. “Whether they’re Christian or Jewish or something else, they think about that decision differently than if they weren’t a person of faith.” This is a tremendously insulting sentence. I would hope that any person making a decision that could affect the lives of other people would make it based on ethical standards. Princeton and all schools would do well to emphasize ethics, and we would all do well to remember that being ethical does NOT mean having faith. Those of us who are not "persons of faith" are no less ethical in our lives than any of those "persons of faith." As proof, we could enumerate the myriad atrocities that have been and are being committed every day in the name of religion. Miller also implies that those of us who have no faith can not "think in terms of eternity." I need to ask, has he ever spoken to a cosmologist? I find Miller's ideas discriminatory to people of "no faith," and I believe that Princeton is wasting its resources teaching students how to bring their religion into the workplace when it should be teaching students how to think critically and develop a strong ethical foundation. As a perfect example, the M.B.A. Oath developed by Anderson is strong in ethics and has no mention of faith. Professor Miller would do well to leave religion and faith out of ethics and the workplace, lest our ethics be compromised by our faith.

Adrian Woodhouse '59 Says:

2011-06-23 11:01:17

While the program has lofty ideals, it is difficult to see any great impact on the business community. The last five years have shown a "God-awful" period of highly unethical behavior in the financial industry that has led the country in the worst depression since the 1930s. Also, regarding top executives looking out for their workers, this is belied by an astronomical rise in executive pay versus no growth in worker pay and/or the outsourcing of jobs to Third World countries!

Boe Parrish Says:

2011-11-21 13:35:10

Work has its own set of challenges, problems and pitfalls, that everyone experiences at one time or another during their professional careers. Once one has lived through many of the seasons of life, some of which we win, and some in which we don’t fare as well in. It doesn’t take long to realize that after a couple of tough seasons, we may need to seek counsel from those more experienced than ourselves, where we may need more wisdom. Success comes from seeking advice, and a wise man has many advisors. I have legal, financial, health, management, growth, strategy, and yes even spiritual advisers I meet with regularly. Not only do I meet with them, I have chosen to allow our employees the very same voluntary option. I want the healthiest, wisest, and most productive employees possible. Most companies today have gained an understanding that healthy employees are productive employees, and one way to total health involves body, mind and spirit. Corporate America over the past decade has continually encouraged their employees to engage in corporate wellness programs touching all three areas of our being. Having walked through some of the toughest seasons of life and business, I have grown to appreciate wisdom, regardless of its origin, that assists me in life and business. Ultimately, we are here to earn the highest possible return on investment as possible, but if that is all that life is about, then we’ve all missed the point of it all. With thirty-five years of successful business experience behind me, I can boldly state that ROI is not what life is all about! It is very nice to have profits, because that allows us to influence, and make an impact in the lives of others along the journey we call life. Certainly, we should all be respectful of one another, and the varying degrees of each other's faith, or the absence of faith, but rest assured that Dr. Miller has struck a chord that is being investigated and instituted by America’s finest top-rated corporations. Ultimately we aren’t given all these people to build big business only, we are given our businesses to build big people. We can’t take a single thing out of this world when we exit at the end of our days, except what we have chosen to invest in the lives of other people. Faith is not a dirty word even though in today’s politically correct environment, most would want you to think it is. Dr. Miller is tracking in an area of profound interest in in business today, as we all are trying to find the keys to success in business and life.
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