A Little Bit of Corporate Soul

The sense of loss that has marked Pope John Paul II's death reflects a heightened focus on religion -- a trend evident in U.S. workplaces

By Pallavi Gogoi

The death of Pope John Paul II has prompted an unprecedented outpouring of worldwide grief, and the U.S. is no exception. While some may be surprised at the reaction, it's just the latest sign of how spiritually attuned the country has become. Pundits describe the most recent Presidential election as having been won on "moral values." The one nonfiction bestseller that broke all records in the last two years was Pastor Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life, a book about achieving purpose through God.

And Corporate America, large parts of which once considered it inappropriate to mix God and business, has gotten religion. Recent years have seen an unmistakable increase in the attention paid to religion and spirituality at the office. Large corporations such as Intel (INTC ), PepsiCo (PEP ), Coca-Cola (KO ), and Sears (S ) allow employee prayer groups. Many of them meet at noontime in gatherings with names such as "higher power lunches."


  Why this increased focus on spirituality? The answer is manifold. Americans are increasingly leading more stressful lives. Surveys show they work more hours than people in most other industrialized countries and take fewer vacation days. At the same time, many are dissatisfied professionally. A Mar. 1 survey from New York-based research group The Conference Board found that only 50% of Americans are happy with their jobs, down from 59% in 1995.

"If, after spending a majority of their waking time at work, people aren't fulfilled, they have to find meaning at and purpose from a spiritual source," says Ian Mitroff, professor in the Graduate School of Business at the University of Southern California and the author of A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America.

And in the wake of both September 11 and the wave of greed-driven corporate scandals that reached an apex with Enron and WorldCom, more companies are willing to encourage spirituality and allow its practice. "There is a greater need for executives to incorporate the spiritual aspects of their lives into their work," says Paul T.P. Wong, professor at Trinity Western University in Canada. Dennis Bakke, co-founder of energy company AES (AES ), incorporated his spiritual beliefs into his book, Joy at Work: A Revolutionary Approach to Fun on the Job.. Bakke, an evangelical Christian, included a 30-page essay, "Enter Into the Master's Joy."


  As incongruous as it may seem, many MBA programs are also stressing spirituality to their students who are chasing million-dollar dreams. Columbia University Business School offers a class, "Creativity and Personal Mastery," which emphasizes personal growth and exploration of ethics and values. Other B-schools run classes with similar themes under different names. And the American Academy of Management has recently formed a Special Interest Group in Management, Spirituality, and Religion.

Although a healthy dose of spirituality at the office can improve morale, which in turn should be good for business, religion can also be divisive, providing fertile ground for disagreements and hostility, as it often does outside the workplace. Indeed, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the number of religious-based discrimination charges rose 27% from 2000 to 2004, making it the third-fastest growing claim, after sexual harassment and disability.

Whether it's uniting or dividing, benefiting corporations or individuals, religion is a force that can't be ignored in the 9-to-5 world.

Gogoi is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

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