Saturday, October 25, 2008

Layoffs require honesty, ethical behavior, and moral justification

With layoffs predicted and unemployment expected to climb in the next months, businesses and churches need to be reminded that honesty is always the best policy.

Times like these usually spawn all sort of silly, unethical games and immoral behaviors that employers sometimes adopt.

The reason for the layoffs is obvious: Banks blew it by lowering lending standards, then played fast and loose with the mortgages they secured from people not able to pay back the money they borrowed. Those rotten mortgages, sold in packages as supposedly excellent investments, have resulted in a meltdown of the entire financial system. This has required massive government intervention not seen since the Great Depression. All this has tightened credit, lowered sales of everything from houses to cars to toiletry items and heightened the possibility of a prolonged deep recession or even an economic depression.

Layoffs are inevitable in such a free-market cycle. They are not the fault of individual employees (except in the case of some immoral high-up bankers and Wall Street types who created the mess) who are now likely to lose their jobs in the midst of the meltdown.

Businesses and other entities, including churches, will have three options:

1. Tell the truth to their employees: The truth is that sales and other methods for securing funding are down. Less revenue means less money available for salaries and other things. This means some people will lose their jobs. The decisions of who will be laid off need to be based on clearly defined moral, just, and ethical guidelines administered in the fairest and best way possible.

2. Set up immoral or unethical scenarios where certain employees are targeted as people to be laid off because of arbitrary and random plans not easily explainable to them or anyone else. (These can range anywhere from personality conflicts to such arbitrary matters as whether a person participates in the office drinking parties to hidden illegal discrimination based on race, gender, religion or age.) Following this scenario, employees losing their jobs will be set up for failure. They will suddenly find themselves criticized for work that previously might have even received commendation. The persons losing their jobs will be made to feel that they somehow are to blame for the decision. The company will try to present itself as dealing with troubled employees instead of the soured economy. Churches are expert at this; they will tell staff members that they are "not spiritual enough" or don't exhibit Christian attitudes in their work, when the truth is, the church can't afford to pay their salaries any more. 

3. Camouflage the whole nasty situation as some type of "reorganization" in which people suddenly find their positions eliminated. People will know they have been laid off, but the company (or church or entity) appears to be merely adjusting to a new organizational scheme. Churches and church institutions particularly use "reorganizations" as ruses for layoffs--presenting to the public an image that is both dishonest and unethical. Regrettably religious groups are not the only ones that follow this behavior. Mergers, such as those occurring in the banking industry right now, provide great covers for these kinds of scenarios to happen, too.

Over the years I've been a part of both secular and church institutions that have gone through these layoff cycles. I've seen all three of these options carried out by bosses who range from highly ethical to downright deceptive. I've seen bosses struggle gallantly with ethical dilemmas involving who goes and who stays; I've also seen bosses who refuse to own up to the realities of the marketplace and instead turn to blaming and shaming others to cover their own tracks and perhaps save on unemployment payroll taxes (which escalate when employees are fired without just cause). Sadly, churches and church institutions and businesses run by people who call themselves Christians have not always been the ones taking the high, ethical roads.

Thanks to the Internet and the transparency of the current economic crisis worldwide, we all are able to discern clearly that this is a dangerous time for employees as well as for employers. No one likes to lose his or her job; no ethical boss likes to have to lay off anyone.

Nevertheless, religious leaders need to take the initiative in making sure:

1. That they act in moral and ethical ways when any layoffs occur inside their institutions. Remember the old saying: actions speak louder than words. In this environment, pretense will easily be seen for what it is and only add to the growing lack of trust people show in institutions of all kinds today.

2. Speak out boldly about the need for layoffs to occur in morally just and ethically fair ways. Now is the time for religious leaders throughout the country to identify criteria that should be used and pinpoint unethical behaviors that ought to be carefully avoided.

Neither making certain employees scapegoats for the current mess nor whitewashing layoffs as some kind of innocent reorganization ought to be tolerated during the current crisis. We got into this situation because of unethical business practices by banks and Wall Street types; allowing other unethical business behaviors to be perpetuated during this crisis ought to be nipped in the bud quickly.

Openness, honesty, and truth are always the best options. Otherwise, the public will continue to lose faith in our system and way of life, which will birth far greater problems than will a declining stock market and slipping economy.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Time for churches to step up to the plate with some answers

In this time of national economic crisis, Americans need more than just the facts about how many points the stock market is up or down each day, how many billions the government has spent today trying to free up the credit markets, which bank or financial institution totters on the brink of collapse, or what a Presidential candidate says about this or that federal rescue program.

This is a time when church leaders need to step up to the plate with good, solid perspective on what to do. The meltdown raises all sorts of ethical and moral issues that need to be addressed.

So far I've seen mostly the traditional, to-be-expected comments from church leaders. The real nitty-gritty, solid advice is not yet forthcoming.

Oh yes, some have stepped forward to remind folks about tithing (which sounds at this point more than a little self-serving), the need to get debt-free (a little late to be preaching that one, isn't it?), and the importance of investing by keeping one's eyes on the long term (which sounds too much like stockbrokers). And some others have stepped forward to remind us of  "the poor" and less fortunate who are probably going to be squeezed much more than the rest of us in this bizarre situation (duh! Isn't that what always happens went the rich create a mess and then run for cover on faraway, exotic islands?).

Where are the fiery sermons on God's punishment on a rich nation that has squandered its rich heritage on riotous, lavish living including that occurring in faraway lands?

Or sermons on God frowning on Big Bankers, Wall Street brokers, and their cohorts for getting drunk on the smell of money exuding from  those highly profitable (so they thought) adjustable-rate mortgages taken out by poor, innocent people, many of whom couldn't even read the legal papers in English that they were signing?

Or just a good ole moralistic sermon on "Be careful; your sins will find you out"?

The Bible abounds with sermon materials for times such as this.  For starters, one need look no further than the so-called Minor Prophets including Amos and Hosea. The Sermon on the Mount is another fount of information.

Actually the Bible says more about money that about any other issue.  If you thought it says more about sex than anything else, you'd better get out your Bible and start reading again! Money is far more often pictured as the culprit that leads to a fall than is sex.

Times like these demand some precise answers on all sorts of ethical issues. When layoffs occur, what is the appropriate criteria for deciding who has to go?  Or are, from the biblical perspective, layoffs even an option for Christian employers? 

During the current economic upheaval churches and church institutions will model in word as well as in deed. Most staff layoffs will occur quietly and behind the scenes. Is that biblical or only the Southern American way of passively aggressively dealing with life? Do better ways—such as uniform across-the-board staff salary cuts—exist to illustrate Christ's teachings?

Church pantries are no doubt gearing up for increased applicants. Are they also thinking about shelter for families who lose their homes? Or will they leave all this, as usual, to specialized ministries such as the Salvation Army?

Too many churches in America have too often succumbed to the materialistic tendencies and behaviors of our culture as a whole.  What they do during the next six to 24 months will tell whether they have learned any lessons from re-reading the Bible in times such as these. I certainly hope they will display that they have.