Loy Warren, work, management, managers, advocacy, corporate America

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What Does Justice Look Like at Work?

Management is actually advocacy.

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The majority of the workforce in America, almost 60 percent, labors in large private or governmental organizations. It is easy to feel lost or insignificant in such an environment. My 45-year career has been spent mostly in these big companies, working with other big companies and government entities. And the corporate world is a landscape of mergers and acquisitions, re-organizations, and inscrutable management decisions that whip-saw even seasoned managers with unnerving frequency. Just last week, we saw headlines about massive layoffs due to leadership changes, and who would be surprised if the down economy started pushing more businesses in the same direction?

This is a place where any individual can find themselves being unappreciated, disregarded or  mistreated. It’s only a matter of time.

We Jesus-followers are called, among other things, to live wisely when in relationships with unbelievers (Col 4:5). I see no greater laboratory for wise walking than our workplaces. So, how do we act redemptively, countering anonymity and confronting unfairness and injustice in our workplaces?

Walking wisely with others can also mean advocating for others. And it’s a meaningful way to pursue justice at work.

What is advocacy? Start with the Greek word for advocate, parakletos, which is a powerful  description of how Jesus himself intercedes for and defends us before the Father and gives the Holy Spirit as our helper (1 John 2:1, John 14:15). Today, an advocate most often refers to an attorney representing someone who has been accused of a crime. That attorney’s job demands  total commitment to the cause of the accused.

The Old Testament prophets repeatedly encourage God’s people to take up the cause of the oppressed. As Christians who work, we need to see ourselves as advocates for the mistreated because it is an essential practice of following Christ.

Yes, every company has an HR department established to make sure fairness is enforced (with an emphasis of late on eliminating racial and gender bias in the workplace). This is a good thing, so leave it to HR, we might think. But any legalistic approach to righteousness is going to fall short. Remember the Good Samaritan in Luke 10? Though the priest and the Levite were justified in passing by the crime victim, the Samaritan modeled what it meant to advocate for him. We likewise all have some influence to invest on behalf of the people we work with.  

When ‘Advocate’ Isn’t a Part of Your Job Description

When my daughter was a victim of a crime, the court assigned an advocate to her. But this was not her attorney, or an attorney at all. As an advocate, this empathetic woman counseled and advised crime victims on their rights, their available resources, and the potential outcomes of their situation. Even without a position of authority, or the influential say of an attorney or a judge, a manager or a program director, I believe we can all be this kind of advocate for each other.

It really starts with empathy, respect, and friendship.

The easy response to any perceived injustice is empty complaint, which accomplishes little. What can help is a caring conversation and the opportunity to discuss the future. We earn the right to offer and receive advice if we first have a friendship.

For Everyone’s Good

Late in my career, I had an enviable advisory position that did not require the direct management of a team. But when the team manager left the company, it became immediately obvious the team was vulnerable. They felt the loss of their beloved leader, and the ever-changing management convinced them that they would lose their support and identity in the organization.

The second-in-command member of the team in particular, who seemed to me the obvious choice as the next leader, believed she was going to be overlooked for the position, in favor of a male manager unknown to the team and only interested in numbers, not the team’s members. This team needed someone to speak for them. The only quick solution I saw was for me to step into the operational role on top of my advisory responsibilities. So, I did, and I worked to advocate for this team and the talented woman I believed should lead it. She soon proved capable of leading the group, earning a salary increase, and the group team continued to flourish. If what was an inconvenience to me supported this team at all, it was worth the cost.

We can always imagine reasons to avoid involvement when those around us feel slighted. Yet we need to show good judgment. We cannot expect our company leadership to make uncomfortable decisions if there are successive quarters of poor financial performance. But discomfort is not the same as injustice. We can advocate for others without impugning management decisions.

It’s probably pretty safe in your cubicle, with your own task list and job description (at least until you’re the victim). And while it’s unreasonable to think your actions may totally transform the  culture of your entire company, you may make a difference to your team or even to one team member by giving them your support. You could earn the right to “give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet 3:15). That conversation happens best when your work partners know you are there for them.

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