My previous blog dug below the surface of the oft-asked question of how to help the poor. I explored ways to lessen the shalom-sapping effects of inequality. I advocated for healing the wounds of shame and buffering people from social evaluative anxieties through radical inclusiveness and kinship in Christ. Of course the more obvious response to address the problems flowing from inequality is to deal with the economics of the gap between the rich and the poor. To have dug deeper and focused on shame was not meant to invalidate the significance of this more obvious action. As I wrote last month, one economic strategy focuses on the macro level. Richard Wilkinson calls for this sort of action in his Ted Talk—careful to give suggestions that those on the right could embrace and others that those on the left could embrace. Certainly these strategies are worthy of our attention and effort. In this blog, however, I want to focus at the micro level of individual businesses. Christian business leaders have tremendous potential impact. They can directly affect the earnings of people involved in their business; and because of the amount of time employees spend at work, employers have great opportunity to also address shame and status anxiety—the focus of the previous blog.
The possibilities excite me, but I am not an expert in business or the sociology of inequality. So after I had the above thoughts a few years ago I wrote to friend with more expertise. I asked what he thought of the idea of churches exhorting business owners to lessen inequality in their businesses. I suggested that might include more profit sharing and changing of salaries within a company, but just as importantly taking actions to increase the dignity of everyone who works there. He responded:
This is very good. I had a conversation just today with my oldest brother "David," who is Human Resources director for a large RV company. He was asking me what he might do to increase "buy in" among employees since they have been experiencing a higher turnover rate recently. They are working on improving pay and the company owner is committed to doing that although in small increments, but David would like to do some other things. I told him that an underlying issue is communicating to workers that they, their views, and their work, are valued and respected. So we had a conversation very similar to the closing lines in your e-mail. Incidentally, my second oldest brother is the owner of a different RV-related company. He has worked at what you describe through profit-sharing for all workers, but also through weekly updates on company productivity, profits, and "lean-ness"—a topic in which he is deeply invested and wants everyone to share in. He believes transparency makes a big difference. “Mike,” (my second oldest brother) also told me that they recently lost a very good worker simply because the worker, a welder, was frustrated because the company had sold a number of the units he'd worked on at a discount. It made him angry to know that his work was being "under-valued." This story came up as we discussed the importance of communicating to workers that they and their work has real value and dignity.
Hearing about his brothers reminded me of my friend Jacobo in Honduras. I made this short video to tell how his passion to follow God’s call for justice in Isaiah 58 led to surprising changes in his factory—surprising to Jacobo in the way honor and dignity played a key role, and surprising to the skeptical factory owner that profit sharing actually lead to increased profits.
Seeking to lessen inequality in business is not a call to turn businesses into charities. People who, unlike me, have expertise in these fields share examples of how raising the wages of a company’s lowest paid workers helps not just society, but the business’s bottom line; and how the cooperative model makes good business sense. Others would likely debate these points, but in the end we are not trying to give business advice. Rather the Church is calling business people, as it calls people in other roles and professions, to seek to have their ultimate loyalty to the Kingdom of God and ask how they might follow the ways of Jesus throughout the week.
As I wrote last month, in relation to the inequality gap, it is crucial that the church itself is seeking to live in a centered way and not setting up in-groups and out-groups and status hierarchies. Churches can also challenge their members to apply this in their lives outside of the church—especially those who as supervisors have authority over others. How are they treating people with less income and less social or employee status than they have? How are they thinking about wages and profit-sharing? Have they considered shifting to an employee owned model? Think of the impact if all Christian business people across the nation, around the globe, made an increased effort in the weeks ahead to take actions like Jacobo, David and Mike! The result at the macro level of all these micro-level efforts would be immense. How can we encourage others to follow the example of Jacobo, David and Mike?