Celebrating the dignity of front-line workers

What could the Covid-19 pandemic mean for the faith and work movement? One clear hope is that this experience will broaden all of our perspectives on the scope of this movement.

Here is where Covid-19 may provide a reorientation. At this time, the whole world has awakened to a new kind of “essential worker.” These include healthcare workers, janitors, nurses, doctors, drivers, those in the food supply (farmers, those harvesting in the fields, drivers, grocery workers, and delivery people), people in the media, and those working in public safety. What does it mean for the faith and work movement to fully embrace all of these areas?

One picture of what this might look like is captured in The ServiceMaster Story: Navigating Tension between People and Profit. Following an accident where he was temporarily blinded in 1944, ServiceMaster founder, Marion Wade, had a “conversion experience.”

“I was already a Christian,” Wade said, “and now I figured that if my accident was God’s way of getting through to me on some point, he would eventually let me know.”

His conclusion came quickly. Wade decided to look at his business another way. “I was trying to personally honor God, but I never tried this with my company. I had been trained in the school of competition that attests that religion and business can’t mix.”

In seeking to bring his faith and his business together, he soon discovered that it was not about him but about the people who did the work. He defined success of the business in a way that reflected this conclusion.

“I was not asking for personal success as an individual or merely material success as a corporation. I do not equate this kind of success with Christianity. Whatever God wants is what I want. But I did try to build a business that would live longer than I would in the marketplace that would witness to Jesus Christ in the way the business was conducted.”

Focused on the workers

As the company built out its business, the leaders created processes and practices that focused on the workers. By the early 1970s, now under the leadership of Ken Hansen and Ken Wessner, the company formalized its objectives with two end goals: Honor God in all we do, and help people develop.

Leadership training was focused on helping leaders understand the work of the people on the front lines. Dave Aldridge had earned his MBA degree, and was working as a manager at ServiceMaster. Like other leaders, he participated in We Serve days, during which senior company leaders worked as front-line employees to experience the physical and emotional experiences of those they led. As Dave recalled,

The hospital was opening a new wing, and I was helping to prepare the birthing suites. I was on my hands and knees cleaning baseboards. An excited group of nurses who would be serving in this new area walked through. As they walked by, I looked up and said “hello,” and no one responded. I wanted to cry out, “Hey, I have my MBA, and my wife is a nurse!” But the reality was, no one cared or thought I was worth acknowledging.

How did this service help Dave and other such leaders, and why would ServiceMaster require this of its executives? For many companies, managing labor-intensive work is simply a cost issue. ServiceMaster, however, wanted those who were leading people to understand firsthand what the work was like and how it felt to be treated as if they were invisible. It shaped their management. Dave went on to say of this experience, “I have learned about the ‘heart’ of our business and about the feelings and emotions of the routine and mundane that are often involved in serving others.”

Delivering dignity to workers

Ken Wessner, CEO in the 1970s, said, “a manager who hasn’t personally experienced what it’s like to wear a green uniform and be treated like a nonperson can never fully understand the importance of his or her responsibility, to see that all employees are treated with dignity and to make sure that the job itself is dignifying.”

One of the practices initiated by the company was to bring doctors and nurses in to talk with the custodial staff working in healthcare facilities. These medical professionals explained to the janitors that their job was not simply cleaning the floor, it was helping the patient get well. This provided a sense of purpose and meaning for what is typically regarded as “low-cost labor.”

Harvard Business School professor James Heskett, author of two case studies on the company, observed, ServiceMaster “has broken the cycle of failure [in the service industry]. The company has basically reengineered jobs, provided training to people, and attempted to deliver a level of self-esteem that many workers have never had in the past.”

Where the church fits

ServiceMaster leaders understood the importance of those who had too often been treated as a cost. They modeled what it looked like to embrace the work of the janitors, maintenance workers, lawncare workers, and pest control workers because of their understanding of the gospel and all its implications. From the middle of the 20th century, they demonstrated a recognition of “essential workers” long before that new label. And they showed through their practice the breadth of the faith and work movement encompassing all kinds of work, not just the work of the elite.

Ironically, the Scripture most often quoted in the faith and work movement is Colossians 3:23-24 “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters…It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” This was not addressed to the elite, but to slaves, as is seen in verse 22.

There is another place where this extended view of faith and work needs to be embraced, and that is in the church. One company leader who understood these concepts in his own workplace, was walking through the corridor of his church with his pastor. He told me, “As we walked past a janitor, working in a corner, I turned to my pastor and said, ‘At our company we would never do that. We would stop and thank him for the good work he was doing.’” Understanding the call of God on all kinds of work is important for church leaders as well, both in preaching and in practice.

The broader view of the faith and work movement is not a new concept, and there many examples to learn from. Perhaps with the current emphasis on “essential workers,” we will come from this period with a renewed sense of this wider view of faith and work.

Topics: Blue Collar, Current Events, Issues Facing Workers, Work

About the Author

Albert (Al) Erisman was a research mathematician at The Boeing Company. In his last decade there he was named Senior Technical Fellow for the company and led an R&D group doing applied research in technology and mathematics before retiring in 2001. He taught business and technology at Seattle Pacific University from 2001—2017 and joined the Theology of Work Project (theologyofwork.org) in 2006, and is currently co-chair of the board. He is the author of several books, including The Accidental Executive: Lessons on Business, Faith, and Calling from the Life of Joseph and The ServiceMaster Story: Navigating Tension Between People and Profit.