Chapter 8: People’s Needs vs. Profit Obligations

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Is there a tension between “people needs” and “profit obligations”?

Some employers will say there isn’t – looking after the one will automatically take care of the other. “It’s simple really. Hire good staff. Train and treat them well. Build a good culture that values them. Give them incentives that inspire them to work hard. Reward them generously. Do all this and profit will follow.”

There’s plenty of truth in that approach. If your boss values you and looks after you, you are more likely to perform – and the business is more likely to prosper.

However, life – and business – is rarely that straightforward. Particularly if our goal is to follow Jesus. If it is, we cannot just take an enlightened, self-interest approach to our staff (“If I treat them well, they will work hard and I’ll make lots of money!”) or our job (“If I work hard the boss will reward me”). That’s because God has placed us in this world to do more than just run a successful business. We are here (as Jesus puts it at John 10:10) “to live life to its fullest”, and therefore to help others reach that same fullness. Work is one of the many different opportunities we have to grow and develop, on the way to reaching our full human potential. Our trade or profession provides us a means for bringing this about – both in ourselves and in those who work for or with us.

If work is not “just a job”, then determining where the line is drawn between people needs and profit obligations is much less clear.

For example, what do you do with:

  • A person who applies for a job with you, who has all the necessary qualifications and experience … but is a solo Mum with a severely handicapped child who often gets sick? Clearly she will frequently need to stay at home to look after the child. Will you hire her? And if you do, who will pay for the time off over and above the allocated sick leave?

  • A worker whose marriage has just busted up and who is dealing with bouts of depression, which are affecting his/her capacity to do the job?

  • An employee who is a willing worker but lacks the skills to do the job, and would be unlikely to get a job elsewhere?

  • A Maori worker who regularly asks for bereavement leave to attend tangis of dead relations and friends?

  • A boss who is applying pressure on an employee bus driver to work double shifts in order to avoid hiring more staff?

  • A potential employee who has just been released from prison for the crime of theft – who (his social worker tells you) will almost certainly re-offend if he is left to drift back to his former friends and lifestyle?

Or take the stories of Roger, Kim and Jerry…

Roger the employer

Roger runs a small building company employing three other guys. All of his workers are qualified chippies. Roger is very committed to seeing his business as an opportunity to invest in his workers – particularly those who might not otherwise get work. Sam is one such person.

Prior to working for Roger, Sam had a chequered work career. His skills as a builder are not in question. He is a good craftsman. However, his capacity to work well with others is not great. Wherever he has worked, Sam has eventually fallen out with his co-workers. Coupled with this is a streak of unreliability – fuelled by a fondness for the bottle.

Roger was aware of these issues when he took Sam on. However, he felt God prompting him to offer Sam a job, and talked upfront with him about his expectations before Sam began work.

The first few months were great. Sam responded really well to the work environment that Roger had developed. Once a week Roger holds a working breakfast where the guys talk openly about their own lives and in what ways they want to grow and develop. Roger also promotes any opportunities for industry upskilling and personal development, and pays for his workers to take such courses. He’s also very supportive and flexible when guys need time off for specific family or personal issues.

Over the months Sam has become increasingly interested in Roger’s Christian faith and they have had many significant conversations. One of Roger’s other workers, Owen, is also a Christian and has made a big impact on Sam as well. They often talk on the job about God and about gutsy personal issues.

However, in the last three months there have been several incidents that have undermined the good progress Sam has been making.

On a number of occasions Sam has failed to turn up to work. His wife has rung in to say that he is sick, but Roger suspects it’s because Sam has been out late drinking with his mates, and that a hangover is the more likely cause.

More than once, unsupervised, Sam has made silly but costly mistakes. In one case Sam misread the plans and pegged out the foundations wrongly. It wasn’t until after the floor was poured and the frames were up that Roger discovered the house was two metres further toward the eastern boundary than it should have been!

The most recent problem was an alteration they were making to an already substantial house in a well-to-do suburb. Sam was working alone there one week and made a crucial (and obvious) mistake in reading the plans. When the client came home early one day and noticed something wasn’t right, he confronted Sam about it. Sam reacted defensively and aggressively, and stormed off the job. The next day he didn’t turn up at all and it wasn’t until later in the week that Roger found out about it all, courtesy of a phone call from a very angry client.

Roger has confronted Sam about each of these issues, and has had assurances from Sam that he understands the gravity of the consequences. Sam’s responses are always very apologetic but it’s really wearing thin. Roger has offered to assist him get help for his binge drinking, and has attempted to strategize with him ways to manage the work better. But nothing seems to work.

It’s not only Roger’s reputation as a quality and reliable builder that is being dented. The bottom line is that many of the jobs Sam has been involved in have lost money. This is not just because of Sam’s unreliability, but also because of his inattention to detail, which often results in Roger having to redo work. To put it bluntly, Sam is now becoming a financial liability. His shenanigans are putting Roger’s business at risk.

Roger’s dilemma is further fuelled by the fact that Sam has a young, dependent family, and they are saving hard to buy their own home. If he pulls the plug on Sam’s job, it’s likely not just to spin Sam out but also to put at risk his whole family. Furthermore, Sam’s fledgling interest in faith is likely to be derailed if Roger fires him.

There’s one further complication for Roger to face. Employment law is understandably written to protect the vulnerable worker against exploitation from bad bosses. However, in the process it can make it hard for good employers like Roger to adopt a reasoning approach with underperforming workers like Sam. So far Roger has dealt personally and informally with Sam, but now that he has to seriously contemplate dismissal he is suddenly very vulnerable. He could be open to legal action if things go septic.

The law requires a formal process with a series of verbal and written warnings, none of which Roger has so far followed in any clearly documented way. If he continues to work towards a solution with Sam through informal discussion, what happens if Sam doesn’t respond positively? This will likely leave Roger open to being accused of “constructive dismissal”. Or Sam might take out a personal grievance claim against him. As the Employment Court decides cases largely on whether the right processes have been followed, Roger is understandably nervous. Does he continue to work things through informally – or minimize the risk and undertake a more formal, documented process?

What should Roger do?

The dilemma Roger faces raises several questions, such as:

  • What do you do with underperforming workers?

  • Is there a certain level of performance that one should expect from an employee?

  • At what point does the commitment you have made to helping workers grow and develop personally need to be moderated or even sacrificed by the requirement to make money?

  • To what extent do you seek to work things through relationally and informally, or at what point is it necessary to respond bureaucratically and legally?

Kim the employee

Kim has been working for a private training establishment for the past five years. She was initially employed as a receptionist and personal assistant to the director of studies, but has recently been promoted to a demanding sales position.

During her time with the company, Kim has always attempted to be a good Christian witness to her colleagues and to the students. This has resulted in fruitful relationships being developed and people turning their hearts towards Christ. In particular, Kim has made a determined effort to work hard in her PA role. She has been loyal and compliant, and has gone well beyond her own work hours to meet crucial deadlines.

Kim has a good rapport with colleagues and students. However, she lacks assertiveness and the ability to say “No”. Consequently, she has worked many extra hours without pay. During the past five years, patterns that were intended as a “good Christian witness” in the workplace, have become expected and demanded. It is now proving exceedingly difficult to claim back any time in lieu, or to avoid undue pressure.

Although Kim has had no real desire to “climb the corporate ladder”, she has been regularly given more and more responsibility and now oversees the marketing for three schools. This involves important decision-making, the responsibility of overseeing two staff members … and even more extra hours.

Unfortunately, however, Kim’s salary does not equate to the work and responsibility she carries. In fact, she doesn’t even have an employment contract. In the past, after Kim has approached her manager about these issues little has changed. When she last raised the matter of her salary her boss told her it would be reviewed in six months.

What should Kim do?

Kim’s dilemma also raises broader questions for employees, such as:

  • What do you do when your boss takes advantage of your willingness to serve – effectively exploiting you?

  • What are reasonable expectations for remuneration and workload?

  • At what point does your preparedness as an employee to go the extra mile need to be moderated by asserting some boundaries?

Jerry the middle manager

Struggling with the tension between people needs and profit obligations is just something that employers and employees have to grapple with. It also affects those who are responsible for managing staff. Often such “middle managers” find themselves caught between the needs of their staff and the profit-making expectations of their bosses. This leaves them in awkward and challenging situations. For example:

Jerry works for an engineering firm that designs and manufactures specialist parts for the oil and gas industry. Even though he never did tertiary study, Jerry has a natural aptitude for technical matters and an excellent capacity to problem-solve. Over the fifteen years he has been with the company he has worked his way up from being a fitter and turner to now operating as part of the design and production management team.

The firm has done exceptionally well during this time. The success has come from a number of factors, including clever marketing by the owners of the company, and some excellent long-serving employees such as Jerry – all mixed in with a fair amount of good fortune in developing the right products at the right time. Truth is, over the past five years the firm has been making some juicy profits. While the owners don’t flaunt their wealth, they have become noticeably absent for periods of time, due mainly to overseas holidays, golf days, and the building of their new houses and holiday homes!

However, you wouldn’t pick that the company was doing so well by talking with most of the workers. Many of them seem somewhat in the dark about the growing wealth of their bosses. In fact, Jerry only found out the true extent of the profits by chance – when on the squash court one day the company accountant let slip some of his frustrations.

Conditions for the fifty or so employees are not great. Jerry’s observation is that those conditions seem to have deteriorated since he began. The main engineering workshop is in poor repair. While it carries some very up-to-date machinery, the shop floor is cramped and suffers from poor ventilation. The workers’ smoko room and toilets have not had anything spent on them for years, and basic items such as microwaves, jugs and fridges are reluctantly repaired or replaced. The workers have had to band together to purchase for themselves such things as a water purifier and a couple of toastie machines. Promises are made but little is delivered, and there is an air of cynicism that pervades the workers’ conversations. Meanwhile, the offices next to the workshop are in stark contrast – they have just undergone yet another refit.

The company has a growing reputation within its industry for paying poorly and for being tough negotiators with the unions. And the bosses have been cleverly ratcheting up the production targets – putting the squeeze on everyone to produce more and more. They have traded heavily on the fact that while they’ve struck it lucky by having a couple of products that are in demand, the wider engineering industry is suffering from a shrinkage of markets and an oversupply of tradesmen. This means that job opportunities aren’t in huge supply for any workers who might be tempted to look elsewhere for employment.

Jerry has never really been a “union man” – mainly because of what he perceives as their adversarial approach. Nevertheless, the extent of the growing inequities between owners and workers is causing him to reassess. He knows that as employees they are being exploited. Several of the shop floor tradesmen are struggling to provide for their families and, because of the relatively tight job market, feel they are trapped. While the workers increasingly live with poor conditions and pay, their bosses are creaming it. It all seems so unjust.

Jerry has always taken seriously his responsibility to give of his best for his employer. However:

  • What should he do in this situation?

  • Does he have any responsibility as a senior employee to advocate for improved working conditions? If so, what type of advocacy is appropriate?

  • Should he support the growing mood to have the union intervene?

  • What about pushing for profit sharing and other incentives?

  • What might it mean for Jerry to love God by loving his bosses?

Ruth and Boaz

The Law of Moses had important social elements built into it. These were designed to moderate and correct the natural capacity of some to do exceptionally well economically, and others to struggle. In a society where land was essential to making a living, the Law anticipated the situation where a family might become dispossessed. The poor and landless especially included orphans and fatherless children, those women who found themselves widowed with no “kinsman-redeemer”[1] on offer, and foreigners who sought refuge in Israel or came to live there for some other reason.

There’s some debate among scholars as to how much the nation of Israel actually obeyed these economic levellers – particularly the year of Jubilee. However, one provision that is mentioned in the narrative of the Old Testament, and seems to have been reasonably well practised, is that of “gleaning”. Under this Levitical law a landowner was obliged to leave some cut grain on the ground when collecting the harvest. This enabled those without means to come and pick up (glean) the leftovers for their own use.

In the book of Ruth we meet Boaz, a wealthy and prominent landowner. When Boaz goes out to greet his workers and check on progress with his harvest, he discovers Ruth, a young Moabite woman, gleaning in his fields. Ruth has courageously accompanied her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi back to Israel, after both Naomi’s and Ruth’s husbands have died. Since Naomi and Ruth are widows – and Ruth is also a foreigner – neither of them has access to land. Life is a real struggle for these two women.

Boaz inquires among his servants about Ruth. He discovers that she has been working hard all day, gleaning what she can from the harvest. Boaz also learns that he and Ruth are distantly related by marriage, though this does not entail a direct obligation on his part. He approaches Ruth in the field and not only offers her the water from his servants’ buckets but also asks her to share in the lunch prepared for the harvesters. This is remarkable and generous hospitality, and Ruth knows it. She says to Boaz,

Oh sir, such grace, such kindness – I don’t deserve it. You’ve touched my heart, treated me like one of your own. And I don’t even belong here! (Ruth 2:10 The Message).

Furthermore, after lunch Boaz quietly instructs his servants:

Let her glean where there’s still plenty of grain on the ground – make it easy for her. Better yet, pull some of the good stuff out and leave it for her to glean. Give her special treatment. (Ruth 2:15-16 The Message).

As a result of Boaz’s generosity Ruth returns home with nearly a sack full of barley – rich pickings that will provide for her and Naomi for some weeks.

The story of Ruth continues, of course, with Boaz eventually offering to become Ruth’s “kinsman-redeemer” and marry her. The author of the Book of Ruth ends the narrative with a dramatic flourish: Ruth’s child by Boaz will eventually be the grandfather of King David!

So the point of the story is not so much the way Boaz looks after people, but rather Yahweh’s grace in weaving a non-Jew into what eventually becomes the royal family of David’s line. Ruth, the penniless foreigner, is the great-grandmother of David. And while the cynics amongst us might suggest that Boaz has mixed motives for his care of the young and no doubt attractive Ruth, nevertheless the story is one of remarkable compassion and care. We get the sense from Boaz’s reputation and behaviour that he is a businessman who puts a premium on the needs of people more than profit. His example, though light years culturally from ours, is worth learning from.

The Cadburys – going the extra mile with employees[2]

Crème eggs and milk chocolate bars might seem like the height of decadence today, but originally the Cadbury family got into the candy business in order to promote healthy living, with dreams of social progress and Christian compassion.

Victorian Britain, home to John Cadbury and his sons Richard and George, had serious problems. Industrial workers, including mothers and children, spent their days in dirty, dangerous factories, and their nights in cramped tenements. Widespread alcoholism deepened the workers’ poverty, and contributed to domestic violence. While the Salvation Army attacked these ills with “soup, soap, and salvation”, the Cadbury family chose cocoa.

The Cadburys belonged to the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers. As dissenters from the Church of England, they were locked out of the country’s Anglican-allied universities, and as pacifists they would not serve in the military. So they became entrepreneurs.

In 1831 John opened a shop near the centre of gritty Birmingham, selling coffee and tea—wholesome alternatives to harder drinks. He soon added cocoa to his product list, powdering it himself with a mortar and pestle. By 1878 the business, now managed by his sons, had grown to employ 200 workers. It was time to build a larger facility.

The brothers purchased land in the countryside near Birmingham and dubbed the site Bournville. They intended to build not only a state-of-the-art factory, but a village as well, to enable their employees to escape the dingy city. The village featured modest cottages with gardens, spacious public parks, swimming pools, and eventually shops, schools, and churches. All Bournville lacked was a pub, an indication of the founders' convictions about alcohol.

The Cadburys sought to make work life pleasant, too. The factory complex featured such avant-garde amenities as heated dressing rooms, a kitchen, and cricket fields. Days began with Bible study, and continuing education classes took place in the evenings. The brothers periodically circulated among the workers, listening for good ideas and occasionally performing odd jobs. One worker recalled their hands-on attentiveness: “To see Mr. George and Mr. Richard go down on their knees and crawl under a table to see if the water pipes were hot enough, made a great impression on all of us.”

The Quaker conviction that all people possess an “inner light” which links them to God and accords them equal stature with each other, meant that the Cadburys’ board governed by consensus, and company committees included representatives from all levels of the organization. The bright cottages and continuing education opportunities likewise aimed to elevate workers’ dignity.

Not that the enlightened chocolatiers were without their critics. Trade unionists and socialists accused the Cadburys of giving their workers just enough money and power to keep them in their place. Other observers sneered at the paternalism of Mr. George and Mr. Richard, who would, for example, dismiss a female employee with a Bible, a rose, and a small monetary gift when she was about to marry. They did not believe wives should work.

In 1901 the Cadburys’ reputation was put to the test through accusations that they were exploiting the use of slave labour to get their cocoa. Half their cocoa was sourced from plantations on the islands of Sao Thome and Principe in Portuguese West Africa, worked by indentured labourers in conditions of slavery. The Cadbury brothers spent four thousand pounds on two private investigations to ascertain the facts, and William Cadbury made a trip to the islands himself in 1908. It wasn’t until 1909 that they stopped trading with the islands. This episode culminated in a widely publicised libel case brought against them by the Standard newspaper in 1909, accusing them of being hypocrites in championing the rights of workers at home and ignoring them overseas. They were accused of acting far too slowly because they continued to buy cocoa from this source until 1909. The Cadburys replied that during this time they were attempting to reform the circumstances of their workers rather than remove their primary source of income. They won the court case.

Despite these gripes, the Cadburys enjoyed the affection of hundreds of loyal workers and excited the admiration of many other late Victorian industrialists. Upon George's death in 1922, more than 16,000 mourners paid their respects at the Bournville “factory in a garden”.


1. Read back through the case study of Roger. Discuss the questions we listed, namely:

  • What you think Roger should do?

  • What do you do with underperforming workers?

  • Is there a certain level of performance that one should expect from an employee?

  • At what point does your commitment to helping workers grow and develop personally need to be moderated or even sacrificed by the need to make money?

  • To what extent do you seek to work things through relationally and informally, or at what point is it necessary to respond bureaucratically and legally?

2. Read back through the case study of Kim. Discuss the questions we listed, namely:

  • What should Kim do?

  • What do you do when your boss takes advantage of your willingness to serve – effectively exploiting you?

  • What are reasonable expectations for remuneration and workload?

  • At what point does your preparedness as an employee to go the extra mile need to be moderated by asserting some boundaries?

3. Read back through the case study of Jerry, the middle manager, and discuss the questions we listed, namely:

  • What should he do in this situation?

  • Does he have any responsibility as a senior employee to advocate for improved working conditions? If so, what type of advocacy is appropriate?

  • Should he support the growing mood to have the union intervene?

  • What about pushing for profit sharing and other incentives?

  • What might it mean for Jerry to love God by loving his bosses?

4. Can you think of any possible equivalents in our society to the practice of harvest gleaning? (Note that gleanings weren’t a “handout”. Finding and collecting the harvest leftovers was painstaking work.)

5. Are there any situations in your particular context where you are struggling with the tension between people needs and profit obligations? Share them with the group and invite discussion and prayer.

6. Often it is assumed that in the long term honesty and integrity pay in business. However. Amar Bhide and Howard H. Stevenson disagree. In an article published in the Harvard Business Review (Sept-Oct, 1990), entitled “Why Be Honest If Honesty Doesn’t Pay”, they share the findings of their extensive research. “There is no compelling economic reason to tell the truth or keep one’s word – punishment for the treacherous in the real world is neither swift nor sure.” Doing right does frequently cost, in economic terms. Likewise, putting the needs of people (employees, customers, fellow workers, those in need, etc.) ahead of profit will also cost. Do you agree or disagree?