The Soul at Work

Suzanne, a technical worker in Vancouver, had been recently passed over for a promotion. Now she was stuck as the assistant to the person whose very job she had wanted. Sometimes she wanted to make her boss look bad. For instance, one of her boss’s reports was full of errors.

“If I tell her, she’ll look good, but I’ll never go anywhere,” Suzanne, told us. “Yet if I sit on the information she’ll look bad and I could advance.” There was an added reason for Suzanne’s scheming: the company was laying off and her job was vulnerable. The heat was on for her to look good and potentially advance.

Her dilemma carries obvious consequences. Undermining the boss hurts the leader, wastes time (the report must be redone) and ultimately hurts the company. But there’s another dimension that a new book argues is every bit as significant. The employee, Suzanne, wrestling with her conscience, diminishes her own sense of integrity.

Ethical dilemmas at work occur daily. They can be small – should I steal that roll of scotch tape? Or large – should I blow the whistle on the guy I know is stealing company information?

But Vancouver author Ann Coombs argues that employees’ desire for a workplace where people do the right thing is stronger than ever – a workplace that offers something for not just their pocketbooks but their souls.

In The living workplace: soul, spirit and success in the 21st century, Coombs says the need for a more human workplace is linked to a decline in company loyalties, which have been weakened by downsizing and outsourcing. There has been so much corporate paring down that workers’ need to survive has been heightened. In addition, changing demographics – the post-boomer generation and the dot.com work ethic– have made workers more likely to act in their own interests.

She says the common attitude towards an employer has been, “I don’t even have to give you a letter of resignation. If I don’t come back from lunch, assume I am no longer on the payroll.”

Coombs, who heads her own consulting firm, believes the flipside to these dynamics is a yearning for workplaces where people can be “true to themselves” – their personal values, beliefs and ethics, even their spirituality. Put differently, workers want a workplace with soul.

Coombs says companies of the new millennium must create environments where self-respect can thrive. The issue for those who don’t create a living workplace, “will ultimately be retention of staff”. Individuals who feel they aren’t true to their values risk suffering stress, depression and burnout, she believes, and companies lose through high turnover.

In the course of her research Coombs noticed that as the 21st century dawned, “employees were no longer willing to bring only part of themselves to work. They want to be their whole selves all day and they consider a working environment that encourages personal authenticity as important as challenging work, interesting assignments and good salaries.”

But haven’t most workers always wanted these things?

“Workplaces (have been) radically affected by mergers and consolidation,” explains Coombs. Workers have witnessed that. “They’ve seen how their loyalties have been placed in environments and in workplaces that ultimately were not reciprocated”.

In our practice, too, we have seen more and more management and staff question the ethical status quo. Many of our clients come to us to anguish over a personal dilemma at work. They want accountability from organizations, sensitivity to diversity and gender issues, workplace safety and recognition for values based decision-making.

When a company fails to respond adequately there are repercussions. Legal hassles can result including harassment suits, wrongful-dismissal claims and human-rights actions, causing valuable talent to be lost and productivity to suffer.

Coombs argues that enlightened companies will make the connection between a soulful workplace and the company’s health. This connection is about “embodiment of values, it’s about caring for the people that are creating those products, those services, that profit,” she says. She believes the corporation must articulate the values that make a workplace conducive to workers’ values and soul.

But while the company plays a role in creating a soulful workplace so does the employee. Says Coombs, “as a worker I have a responsibility to give (the organization) my respect, my regard, my loyalty and my commitment to what’s being achieved. Their appreciation of me and their respect for me is reciprocated.”

So what happened to Suzanne? In the end, she resisted the temptation to sabotage her boss. She left her company, a glowing reference from her boss in hand. The company may have erred in not promoting her but she didn’t violate her own sense of integrity. Sometimes, says Coombs, that is the price a worker, not content with the workplace ethic, pays. But if as Coombs maintains, workers and companies strive to create more soulful workplaces, dilemmas like Suzanne’s will become less frequent.

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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