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Spiritual workplace Featured

9:43am EDT July 22, 2002
At the end of Grace Software Marketing’s first year in business, president and CEO Jeff Roberts wasn’t sure his company would survive the next 12 months.

But where others may have turned bigger marketing efforts or a beefed up sales staff, Roberts turned somewhere else. He turned to his faith in God.

“I said, ‘Lord, this is your business’,” recalls Roberts, who shared his views on spirituality in the workplace at an Employee Resource Council breakfast in December. “Whatever you want is what I want.”

As if his prayers were answered, over the next few weeks Roberts landed a handful of new customers. One spent $250,000 with the company during a 12-month stretch.

Roberts says he isn’t trying to make a case for increased sales through prayer. In fact, he bristles at the notion of merging spirituality and business as a kind of “lucky rabbit’s foot.”

He merely believes the religious principles and ethics at the cornerstone of his 56-employee business have created a positive environment that led to his company’s 5,000 percent growth during its first six years and the ability to land heavy-hitting clients including IBM and Sun Microsystems.

Roberts wasn’t sure at first whether this mix of spirituality and business sense was going to work and readily admits there was much prayer and soul searching before his attempt to create a faith-based business.

“I really didn’t think it would be possible to incorporate my personal faith — far and away the most important thing in my life — with my business,” he says.

His efforts ultimately paid off, and several studies show Roberts is not alone in the quest to merge religious beliefs and business. A Business Week survey found 48 percent of workers in the United States had talked about God at work within the past 24 hours, while the Fellowship for Companies for Christ International reported there are 10,000 business-based prayer groups that meet regularly across the U.S.

Then there is the nation’s sixth largest Pizza Hut and Taco Bell franchise, in Austin, Texas, which cut employee turnover in half by hiring a company chaplain.

But making religious beliefs part of the mission statement doesn’t come without its own set of legal risks, particularly if employees feel pressured to conform to certain beliefs to be hired or promoted. Roberts, though, has found a way to integrate his spiritual beliefs with his management style without making his workers uncomfortable. In fact, just the opposite has happened. Employees describe the atmosphere at Grace as “safe” and say it is the best place they have ever worked.

Here’s how Roberts did it:

Don’t preach

When making religious principles part of a company’s culture, Roberts says it is important not become an evangelist who tries to sway employees to a certain religious viewpoint. Instead, he suggests business owners focus on integrating religious teachings about morals and ethics into the daily operations of the business.

“It’s not my place to preach to my employees,” says Roberts. “In my company, we’re incorporating biblical teachings into secular terms. We are creating an ethics-based company.”

Share your philosophy

It is illegal to weed out qualified candidates or fire people simply because their morals do not seem to fall in line with the company. Instead, Roberts explains to potential hires the ethical philosophy behind the company so candidates can decide whether they fit into the culture.

After a lengthy interview process, new hires are expected to sign off on a corporate constitution pledging to uphold the values of the company and making sure their co-workers do the same.

“Religion doesn’t come up,” explains Roberts. “But the issue of integrity and ethics comes up a great deal and it’s very thorough and multilayered. We ask them to read and make a commitment to our corporate constitution and make it very plain to them that if they aren’t prepared to do that, this is the wrong kind of company to work for.”

Lead by example

When creating a faith-based business, Roberts says it is important to show employees that the company culture and values cannot be swayed by money. Since the inception of his business, Grace has made it a moral rule not to do business at the same time with companies which are in direct competition in the same niche.

His rule was tested when he had to walk away from a potential client poised to spend $250,000 to $500,000 with Grace simply because he had already been contacted by one of the man’s competitors.

“I walked away from it because of a potential conflict of interest or ethics,” explains Roberts. “The traditional world says that’s absolutely stupid. But what went on to happen was the company who we had first been talking to, which hadn’t spent much money with us, ended up spending a lot of money over the next three years.”

Be consistent

If you are going to make religious principles part of business, it is vital to allow your employees’ respective religions to be important to them. That means being flexible when they need days off to celebrate religious holidays and not playing favorites among different religious beliefs.

Roberts suggests business owners thoroughly research Equal Opportunities Commission guidelines before trying to merge religion with the workplace so they do not expose themselves to legal risks.

“I think it’s prudent for someone to be aware of the EOC requirements, because if you don’t know what the rules are, you can’t live within them,” he says. “You can’t really endorse (religious beliefs) and you really have to be respectful with people who choose not to be interested or not to buy into something.”

How to reach: Grace Software Marketing Co., (216) 321-2000

Jim Vickers (jvickers@sbnnet.com) is an associate editor at SBN.