Subscribe to our monthly Woodstock Reflections podcast in either video or audio format, by pasting these URLs into iTunes!

Doing the Right Thing at Work

By James L. Nolan

A talk delivered on January 24, 2006, at the Salesian Guild Annual Dinner in Cincinnati, Ohio

Recent events, scandals, wars, and natural disasters have heightened our desire to grab onto on what really counts, to focus to what is essential, basic in our lives. Today, we find ourselves in the middle of a profound sea change affecting all aspects of life: social, cultural, economic, and political. These changes are being played out all over the world. Prompted by the alienation and uncertainty of our age, people, now more than ever, want to find a reliable moral compass. They want to integrate their whole selves; integrate who they are with what they do. Some are coming to recognize the deep-seated drive within each one of us to use our talents, intelligence, and imagination for the greater good.

No one promised us it would be easy. Indeed, many harbor deep-seated doubts that we can even grasp what counts in this time of rapid change, shifting boundaries, and faint allegiances. They say it's impossible and stupid to try to lead an integrated, non-compartmentalized life in the business world and survive.

Here is some of what we are seeing in the world of work today:

  • The decline in loyalty, of the organizations toward the individuals and of workers toward their organizations. Everyone is a free agent now.
  • Notorious breaches of trust. Trust and trustworthiness seem to be mere museum pieces, relics of a golden past.
  • Diminished professionalism in the practice of law and medicine. We see sin and mismanagement in our Church.
  • Political life now routinely survives on opinion polls, slogans, slush funds, name-calling and character assassination.
  • Individualism and selfishness seem to be elevated and rewarded, defeating teamwork and community.

My message is that it is possible to know and do the right thing at work, to lead a whole and integrated life and that includes the time and energy you invest in your work. Toward the end, I will suggest a five-point program that people have found helps them along that path. But first, let me take you back to a conversation that illustrates what I am talking about.

The participants in this conversation gather regularly to consider various opportunities for and challenges to doing the right thing at work. On this occasion they were exploring what happens when a really benevolent business organization faces tough financial times. A question that has pertinence today. These people came from positions of responsibility in business, the professions, and government. They are members of a Woodstock Business Conference chapter. They meet to encourage each other to do the right thing at work.

Following regular practice, the group began by reading, reflecting silently upon, and then discussing a Scripture passage at the beginning of the meeting. This time the passage focused on St. Peter (always a favorite of the group, because he mirrors so well their very human aspirations, gifts, and failings.) They began with a familiar scene, one reported in each of the four gospels. There in the high priest's courtyard, just as Jesus predicted it would happen, three times Peter denied knowing Jesus. Then, the rooster crowed. Peter failed to stand up for Jesus despite his earlier promises of undying fidelity.

A vice president of an international electronic equipment firm opened the conversation, saying; "This passage tells me that in our business lives we should stand up for what we believe. It doesn't have to be a popular sentiment." Later, he would tell about a time where doing the right thing meant that he had to risk his job by standing up for what he believed in a particularly troubling situation.

The next to offer a reaction said:

Peter must have felt awful. Here he was, Jesus' right-hand man, the one groomed to lead his band of followers, the one who showed such determination, loyalty and strength; and he blew it.

Another spoke up:

The thing I take from this story is that Peter put himself at risk. He was the only disciple there in the courtyard. The others had fled. He was probably scared half to death, knowing it was not going well for his friend Jesus who was inside right then on trial for his life. Peter was in a very difficult place. He must have felt terrible when he denied even knowing Jesus. Peter was just a man. He was trying to get through the night. And, he does not come out looking very good.

Many agreed that Peter was in a "no win" situation. It was futile, they said. He was in no position to change things. "What could he do there, anyway?" "On the other hand," one cautioned, "that kind of rationalization is only too familiar to all of us. It is human to try to rationalize in order to get out of becoming involved in a mess."

The conversation carried over into the discussion of the topic for the day. At one point, a very successful woman, who founded and grew a business that became and still is a leader in its field, said this:

It seems that Peter's story applies to each of us. We have similar fears, similar confusions. We are sometimes at a loss to know the right thing to do, particularly when we hit difficult times. Today, the question is how do we either find or refind our moral compass when we need to act? There has to be a bridge somewhere.

The vice president who said he knew he had to stand up for what he believed told of his meeting with his CEO and the senior leadership of his company. He laid out the pros and cons for the full public disclosure and remedial action he believed the situation required in order to properly address a highly publicized, problematic corporate action that had taken place many decades before. He went into the meeting knowing of entrenched opposition to his proposal and believing that his job was on the line. He was scared. As it turned out, his advice carried the day and a grateful CEO praised him. Not all cases turn out so favorably. This is particularly true where the survival of a firm is at risk. Nevertheless, this executive, like Peter, ultimately found the resources to do the right thing.

The familiar account of Peter's denial of Jesus reminds us that Peter wept bitterly because he realized that he came up short. He let his good friend down and felt crushing shame. If this incident had marked the end of Peter's work as a follower of Christ and leader of Christ's community, he would have been an abject failure. He knew it. However, as one after another of the participants that day recalled that Peter's story does not stop there. Peter returns to the community of Jesus' followers. They huddle in the upper room, quaking with fear. Later, huffing and puffing, Peter chases John back to the tomb to follow up on Mary Magdalene's report that the body was missing and that she had seen the risen Lord. He returned to the community as its acknowledged leader. He experienced Jesus after the resurrection. The Lord told him three times to feed his lambs and his sheep. Peter was there at the Lord's final leave-taking. And, returning again to the upper room, just as the Lord had promised would happen; he and the others received the Holy Spirit. The Pentecost event blasted him out of his fearful hiding and into the Temple Square to proclaim the Gospel.

Jesus did not give up on Peter. Rather, he kept after him, asking Peter to affirm his love and commitment as he charged him to care for his flock. Peter found his moral compass and went back to work with newfound courage and vitality.

Toward the end of our conversation, a senior member of the group said he found an answer to the question of doing the right thing, finding one's moral compass, in the story of Peter:

What caused Peter to turnaround? As I see it, he said, when Jesus looked at Peter standing there in the courtyard, their eyes locked and their personal relationship came alive. Peter was a man that Jesus loved and respected very deeply. When they looked at each other, Peter saw someone he really loved. He must have recalled their times together. It all came alive in that look.

Indeed, that look must have triggered memories for Peter, of how Jesus taught him and the others, how he trusted Peter, and opened himself to Peter. Peter realized that what he had done was not up to snuff. He was surely scared, and very confused about what was happening. Standing in that courtyard he may well have thought, "What good will it do now by admitting to being Jesus' friend and follower?" But when their eyes locked that was the connection to bring him back to his life's rock solid foundation.

Peter remembered, wept, repented, regained his moral compass, and returned to lead his community. He continued his close personal engagement with the risen Christ. When push came to shove, the values of the Lord, his community, and the people he loved guided his actions.

Peter's story, his whole story, does apply to us. We do have similar fears, similar confusions. We are sometimes at a loss to know the right thing to do when we need to act. We, too, can find or recover our moral compass the same way Peter did by remembering, weeping and repenting when that's called for, and then going back to work. We can do the right thing at work because we are sustained by the Lord and by our communities of love. Our communities of love can include our families, our friends, the people we work with and serve, and our faith community. For Catholics, that faith community includes two thousand years' of fellow followers of Christ with the Eucharist at the center. The foundation for this sustaining, nurturing, instructing, and challenging love is found in the love and confidence Christ has in each of us and in the hope and the gratitude that erupts in us from our realization and acceptance of Christ's love. St. Paul captured this in his letter to the Romans when he wrote:

And this hope will not leave us disappointed, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts though the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 5:5)

The themes that echoed that day:

  • standing up for what you believe at work when times are tough,
  • being scared and confused on occasion, confronting seemingly futile situations,
  • the need for persistence after falling short, and
  • desiring to regain one's moral compass

These are fairly representative of the concerns of serious minded men and women trying to do the right thing at work. These themes, or some of them, may be familiar to you as well.

The question about finding one's moral compass is a serious one for each of us. Back to our initial question. Can we keep on course to know and do the right thing in the middle of today's mess? Our faith tells us that it can be done - by finding God who is there at work with us. We can find God when we understand what we are really about when we work. For most of us it is at our work where we come to realize who we are. This is where we invest so much of our time and energy, where we learn by doing to know, choose, and do what is best. It is also true that this is the place where we can team up with God. God, who is already there, working in us as St. Paul said, moving us to work for the greater good. We are burning with desire for completeness, for wholeness. We are driven to integrate all of who we are including, particularly, who and what we are at work. We want to find God as we live our ordinary lives, doing our ordinary work.

A program for doing the right thing at work grew out of the conversations and reflections about job experiences with participants in the Woodstock Business Conference monthly meetings. My new book Doing the Right Thing at Work: A Catholic's Guide to Faith, Business and Ethics, published by St. Anthony Messenger Press, recalls their stories and spells out a five-point program for living with wholeness and integrity. The five points are:

  1. Self-awareness. We come to understanding who we are, our strengths and what we value. We come to recognize our blindspots, weaknesses, and the limitations inherent in our particular worldview. We develop the habit of continuous self-reflection.
  2. Expanding our horizons. Our deeply held beliefs and religious faith challenge our notions and behaviors by promoting prayerful reflection and disciplined lives. A religious horizon empowers us to recognize important questions. We see that our actions affect the lives of those we, and our business organizations, encounter. We take off our blinders and learn to notice and evaluate the structures and systems at work and in our community.
  3. Engagement. We can not run away and hide. We must engage using our intelligence, our ability to reason, our ability to make and carryout responsible choices, and our ability to love.
  4. Community. Alone, it is hard do any of this well. Our communities sustain us in a time of change. We are supported by our healthy relationships with our families, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and in our faith communities.
  5. Prayer. We are empowered to stay on the right course when we pray and pray regularly.

Lack of integrity, corruption, and greed are not new. There is nothing novel with a society pummeled by conflicting messages and flapping in the shifting sands of public opinion. Long ago the prophet Micah berated the leaders of his society for ripping the people off. These leaders were charging people huge sums to put on lavish sacrifices. At the same time they led corrupt lives. Greed was their hallmark. Hypocrisy was their method of operation. Micah predicted horrible consequences for them. He reminded his listeners that even the most extravagant of offerings to God would not alter the judgments of condemnation they had merited. Then, he offered his famous advice:

You have been told, what is good; and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Whatever our jobs or state of life might be, we carry the challenge to bring justice, goodness, and joy to the world. Our quest for the moral compass, our deep-felt need for integration and wholeness, calls us to engage and to live the same values and behaviors in the office, the clinic, the classroom, the courthouse, and at home as at Church. The five-point program I have outlined fosters our awareness and burnishes our desire. Follow it and you will do justice, love goodness and walk humbly with your God.