One of my more instructive summer jobs, as a college student, was in the parts department of Thermco, a factory in southern California that was in the business of making diffusion furnaces. Diffusion furnaces produce semi-conductor material, a staple of the electronics industry.
My job was to supply the parts—the valves, switches, dials, thermocouples and the like—to the foremen on the line. Of course, I had no idea what these parts were for. But each part was specified by an engineer in the front office. Every furnace was built to customer specifications; every job had its own list of parts. I put the parts in a box; the foreman was to pick up the box when he was ready to begin the job.
That’s at least how it was supposed to work in theory. What I observed is that the foremen would regularly come up to ask for the parts for a job they hadn’t started yet, dump all the parts out on their bench, find the part they were looking for, and go from there. When one of the foremen came up to my window after I had witnessed this, I confronted him, being the dutiful employee I was. “You can’t get this job yet; you haven’t started it. You can’t just dump out all the parts on your bench and use them for any job you want. Each job has its own box of parts. That’s the system.”
“System?” the foreman asked with a pained look on his face. “What system? If I followed the drawings of the engineers up front on this job,” he pulled out a blueprint and shoved it in my face, “I’d have to route this tube right through the back end of this valve. They don’t know what they’re doing up front. I just look at what the customer wants, and build the furnace myself.”
So I gave him the box. And then I thought: maybe he’s right. Maybe he’s the one who really knows how to build these machines. He’s been working here for 20 some years, after all. Most of the engineers are fresh out of tech school and draw the blueprints under fluorescent lights while listening to muzak. They’ve probably never seen a shop floor before. So why don’t the people in charge trust the workers out on the line? That’s where the real expertise is to be found in this place.
In the previous issue of WRF Comment, I drove two wedges between work and vocation. Wedge One: work is just one of my callings, not the whole of my calling. Wedge Two: strictly speaking, work is not even one of my callings; rather, it’s one of the ways I respond to my calling.
Having pulled work and vocation apart, we now need to reconnect the two, for they are not unrelated. In this reconnection, I think we will begin to see the potential of the idea of vocation for genuine renewal in the workplace.
According to the first wedge, work is but one of my callings. I am also called to bring up my children, to love and support my spouse, to exercise my gifts for the edification of a community of faith, and to participate in the political life of my nation. But in our society, economic activity, and with it, work, has become the dominant reality of human life; productivity has become the super-norm, to which all other considerations must give way. But in itself such productivity is meaningless, a vanity. It must be refitted into the fuller context of human life and related to a transcendent purpose.
This is the point of Robert Wuthnow’s latest book, Poor Richards’s Principle. Aware of the frustration and fragmentation that afflicts our work- and money-dominated lives, he argues that economic activity needs to be embedded in a larger moral framework. When that happens, work becomes more meaningful by becoming less than the ultimate end of life itself.
The idea of vocation, then, invites us to reexamine the balance of our lives. For some of us, this may be a matter of personal decision to throw off the “golden handcuffs,” to live more simply, and therefore more freely; to invest more time in family and friendships, to establish rhythms of rest and labour; to get involved in communities and projects outside of work.
But this is not a merely personal issue. As my summer job experience taught me, it is a structural one as well. Not only attitudes need to change if we are to recover our balance, but institutions as well.
And institutions can change when like-minded people band together.
Let me give an example from my own town. There is a unique law firm in Grand Rapids, named Wheeler and Upham. When it was founded, years ago, this firm promised in its statement of purpose “to recognize the importance of our employee’s personal development, and their family, community, religious, and other like commitments unrelated to the practice of law.” This means that the firm will require fewer billable hours from its attorneys. It also means that it will pay slightly lower salaries. But the people who work there gladly accept this trade-off, because, all things considered, it makes for a better life.
According to the second wedge, our work is not our vocation but a place where we respond to our vocation. This feature of the idea of vocation calls for a reexamination of the way jobs are structured, the way human work is organized. Simply put: if vocation is a call which demands a human response, then jobs should be places where humans can exercise responsibility, where they are enabled to respond as full humans to the call and task that God has set before them.
North American industries and corporations have a long and deeply embedded legacy to shake off, a legacy of dumbed-down work, of managerial control and manipulation. But recent management theories have recommended an increase of worker participation in decision-making, the formation of teams, more widely shared responsibility for quality control, profit-sharing, and the like. These better polices are too often adopted, however, not because they are fundamentally right and decent, but only because they look like new techniques for increasing productivity.
Robert Levering, a San Francisco labour journalist, published a fascinating book in the late 1980s where he examined the culture of 100 corporations that had the reputation for being great places to work. Following the method of Peters and Waterman, the authors of In Search of Excellence, he expected to find certain management policies common to all the companies. What he discovered is that the policies were quite varied. The common denominator went deeper.
What characterizes these companies was a different kind of attitude, a fundamental relation of trust between labour and management, an environment where workers were no longer seen as adversaries but as partners, no longer as problems but as resources. This fundamental ethical relation led to corporate cultures of openness, trust, and cooperation, commitments to fairness and broad-based participation.
The specific policies and style of work were tailored to the demands of a particular service or product, the position of the corporation, the needs of the employees, and the like. But they grew out of a relationship of trust that undergirded the entire enterprise.
These companies became “vocation-friendly.”
Did their attitudes, ethical postures, and policies make these corporations less competitive? Are great places to work also less productive places? Do companies which give up top-down control also give up the work-discipline needed to survive?
Several studies have indicated that there is no necessary trade-off between doing what is right and being successful, between people and profits.
A stock analyst for Franklin Research and Development took Levering’s 100 best companies to work for and compared their financial performance to the S&P 500. Within a 10-year period, the stock prices of the best companies appreciated at nearly three times the rate of the 500. In terms of earnings per share, they were twice as profitable.
In another study of the publically owned companies of the top 100 list conducted for Dean Witter Reynolds, it was found that in a five-year period the best companies earned 17.69 percent more in average compounded total return than the S&P 500. The analysts concluded ”the evidence is strong that the companies that treat their workers well benefit on the bottom line.”
When Jesus called his disciples to love God and neighbour with everything they had, he called them to a way of life that knows no bounds or compartments. His call demands a total response in all the roles and relations in which we find ourselves.
We need not sell all our possessions and enter a monastery in order to respond to God. We can respond fully to the call of God in the midst of our daily lives—including our work.