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As the pope prepares to visit the U.S., a look at how his advice applies to the workplace
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Don’t brown-nose. Know that you’re dispensable. Ditch the workplace politics. Pay women what they’re worth.
That advice—for employers as well as workers—comes from none other than Pope Francis, who plans to visit the U.S., starting with the Washington, D.C., region Sept. 22-24, 2015. He will travel to New York on Sept. 25, and then stop in Philadelphia Sept. 27-28.
“Pope Francis has used his considerable influence to put these issues under the spotlight,” said Cord Himelstein, vice president of marketing and communications at employee recognition company Michael C. Fina. “He has elevated these issues to not just workplace [topics], but spiritual crises that affect all of us and that must be resolved.”
The pope’s schedule includes a welcome ceremony at the White House, a private meeting with President Barack Obama, a ride in the Popemobile for a parade on a portion of the Washington Mall and a speech before a joint meeting of Congress.
The Pope’s Stern Words
In a December 2014 Christmas greeting, Pope Francis criticized the Roman Curia—the governing body of the Roman Catholic Church—by detailing 15 “ailments” that he said weaken the group’s “service to the Lord.” His remarks, which amounted to a lesson on how to live a life of holy orders, attacked cliques, vanity, exhibitionism and an accumulation of material profits. He criticized over-industriousness and emphasized rest.
Many news organizations treated the pope’s speech as a broad statement on how any organization—including businesses and their employees—should conduct themselves. The Kansas City Star put this headline on its news story about the speech: “Pope Francis Gives Some Workplace Advice.”
In April 2015, the pope also told The Washington Post that it was a “pure scandal” that men continue to earn more than women for the same type of work. In fact, he indicated that gender pay inequity was partly to blame for declining marriage rates around the world and called for “the Christian seed of radical equality between men and women.”
Francis is not the first pope to call for gender pay equity. In 1995, Pope John Paul II wrote about “an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights.”
Yet Francis’ popularity with the media and the masses seems to have made his message resonate, said Melissa Moschella, assistant professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of America.
“There’s the hope that because of his moral influence and popularity that employers would pay attention,” Moschella said. “But it’s hard to know what employers will pay attention to other than the bottom line. It’s a matter of supply and demand. Some employers who are less concerned about equality and fairness might be happy to take advantage of the fact that a woman would settle for a lower salary than a man in the same position.”
Said Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C.: “It’s great that someone of his stature is talking about an issue that’s so important. [Pay inequity] has real consequences for women and their families—not to mention that it’s against the law.”
Himelstein said the pope’s call for equal pay for women is especially notable because “religious organizations have not typically been viewed as very sympathetic toward women’s rights, and religious rhetoric often reinforces gender disparity.”
“Pope Francis coming out in support of gender parity signals a major sea change in our social consciousness,” he said.
The 15 Ailments Organizations Should Avoid
In his list of 15 ailments, the pope warned against glorifying one’s bosses. “It's the sickness of those who court their superiors, hoping for their benevolence,” he said. “They are victims of careerism and opportunism, they honor people who aren't God.”
That admonition could also be viewed as a call for subordinates to stand up for what they believe, Moschella said.
“He’s saying that you shouldn’t be afraid to question what the people in charge are saying if you think there’s a moral or ethical problem with what you’re being told to do,” Moschella said. “We’ve seen what happens when people follow the rules because they’re afraid of upsetting the status quo or losing their jobs. That was the case with the economic crisis we had a number of years ago.”
Other admonitions the pope made were:
That final warning, Himelstein said, could have been aimed particularly at Americans.
"Westerners are typically asked to work harder and longer hours, and there is a mystic virtue associated with it,” he said. “But the human cost of pushing workers to work longer hours and spend less time with loved ones is generally higher than any productivity gains, which are negligible. The pope is pointing out the dangerous tendency to consider a worker’s family obligations as an obstacle to productivity and profit, a practice that unfortunately knows no boundaries. It not only reflects his personal culture and faith, but what is surely the pulse of the workers of the world, which is, ‘Don’t ask me to put my work before my family.’ ”
In fact, Himelstein said, giving employees more time off to recharge has been shown to inspire productivity, not the other way around. He noted, for instance, that Germans work about 400 fewer hours a year than Americans, yet studies show they are far more productive.
Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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