May 06, 2009
Customs and Pluralism
Posted by Lyman Johnson

Thanks to everyone who has posted and commented so far. Many interesting and provocative ideas and questions have been noted. I want to raise a matter that cuts across many posts, that of custom in how we think about religious ideas generally(and therefore how we think about those ideas in the workplace) and custom in how we conceive corporate goals, and then I will make a pitch for a more pluralistic approach to corporate life and discourse about the corporation.

Ron notes that his students seem to embody a norm of restraint when it comes to linking the corporation and faith.  That is a deep and widespread norm in our culture, a practice that probably has many causes, one of which is a rather faulty understanding of the First Amendment. The proscription against state action on religion somehow gets wrongly transmuted into a proscription on religious discourse in the public but non-governmental sector, i.e., in those mediating institutions--including churches, schools, clubs, and even the corporation-- that stand between the state and the individual that we call "civil society." Thus, as a culture we are skittish about religion talk. That norm/custom carries over to the corporation. One result, among many, is that noted by Mike Naughton, that people suffer a sense of being inwardly divided in that they cannot connect their most deeply-held beliefs to their work lives. Another effect is a certain dishonesty in that one is expected to "translate" religious ideas into secular discourse to make those idea more palatable, at the cost of being sincere and transparent as to one's real thinking. What, for example, is wrong with openly opposing layoffs on the gound that one believes that employees should be treated with great consideration(not legally mandated, mind you, but one view).[I am not saying one cannot hold the oppsite view;I am simply  saying one basis for my own views on why I resist layoffs unless necessary is the ground of religious belief about the vulnerable].

And this takes me to Christine's post, which rightly asks "top down or bottom up?" I favor the latter and that is why I disagree with Susan's Wake Forest piece which seems a bit impositional to me. I know she advocates very palatable goals  but I do not want to achieve a desirable WHAT via an undesirable HOW(government mandate). I favor entity pluralism not legal mandates. I think there are many companies(Chick Fil A being just one) that seek to express religious beliefs in the marketplace. We should get over the monistic view that all companies all the time must have the same and singular goal, i.e., to maximize profits or the share price. That practice as we all know is not mandated by law but it is a custom, constrained by markets to be sure, and it grows out of business lore and business norms and business education(See Rakesh Khurana's fascinating indictment of agency theory in B schools in his new book, "From Higher Aims to Hired Hands..."). 

Shareholder primacy, in other words, is one goal of many. Companies could, to varying degrees, and consistent with raising capital(shareholders have choice too and can stay away from comapanies they think are "too" socially responsible), pursue profits but not only profits. Thus, rather than the current organizational dichotomy of profit/nonprofit, we would have a continuum of companies on the profit side(hedge funds being maximizers of wealth and others more diverse). That would give investors choice along with managers and employees and customers, etc. I think the decided turn toward "green" companies and the local food movement are examples of this growing diversity. (Alternatively, maybe there are more such companies out there than we know about--here we need some empirical work-- and it is we law and business teachers who parody this by our reductionism).

I also think we need to ask who within companies we are talking about. I tend to think about this at the director-officer level. I think they should be free(not required) to ground their thoughts about business practices on religious belief and to say so openly. But a lower level employee also should be given some consideration to honor his or her belioefs where possible. Thus, as to Robin's post, she makes the case for an exemption for certain business but I would also hope that senior managers within companies that must comply with various laws would permit employees who object to be excused from certain practices that trouble them on religious grounds. This again relates to Christine's point about whether we are talking about the entity or the individual. I think both, but again, by choice not mandate.


Thus, our ingrained custom of self-censorship on religious matters and our custom of shareholder primacy impede a more pluralistic discourse about this subject and hinder a more diverse business culture. But that can change and talking about it is one way to start.

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