Bahai News - Religious principles shape businesses

Religious principles shape businesses

By Geeta Sharma-Jensen
of the Journal Sentinel staff


April 6, 1998


The muezzin's call to prayer is a sound of daily life in Islamic countries. But occasionally, that sing-song call ululates through the carpeted offices of Kachelski, Atta & Straub on Wisconsin Ave. near the river.

Startled attorneys and staffers look up in amazement, but soon they shrug and go back to work. It's only attorney Othman Atta's loudly malfunctioning computer, accidentally bellowing the muezzin's call to prayer through the hushed corridors of the law firm.

Five times a day, Atta's computer calls him -- usually softly -- to pray as his religion requires. And five times a day, he prostrates himself, often behind the closed doors of his office.

"When he doesn't answer the door, we know not to disturb him," says Erich Straub, a non-practicing Catholic who's one of Atta's two law partners.

Every day, in businesses here and there, Milwaukee-area workers like Atta unroll prayer mats, sit cross-legged or cross themselves in centuries-old rituals that signal time with their God. Their prayers reaffirm their faith. But for many, it goes beyond affirmation. The workplace timeouts are an expression of their ethics and principles, a part of the way they conduct not only their personal lives but also their business dealings.

Attorney Atta turns away clients who want liquor licenses because his Islamic faith prohibits alcohol. Architect William Wenzler, a Christian, turns his back on lucrative commissions because the proposed projects might house stores his faith considers pornographic.

Medical College of Wisconsin psychiatrist Ashok Bedi uses Hinduism's teachings regarding mankind's place in a Supreme Universe to help counsel clients. And Cedarburg architect Tom Kubala designs integrated buildings that spring from his Baha'i belief in the oneness of mankind and oneness of religion.

Catholic Norman Yerke, chief executive officer of Mega Construction Inc. in Elm Grove, said he runs business decisions past his "spiritual director."

He also refuses to let his employees work on weekends, especially Sundays. "If your workers are working more than 50 hours in a week -- why you are doing a disservice to them and their families," he explains. "God expects us to have a balance between our home and work lives."

"The Holy Bible says there are certain things you should and you shouldn't do, and that means more to me than anything else in the world," says Edward L. Watson Sr., 55, who owns a painting contracting business and also is an associate minister at Jeremiah Missionary Baptist Church.

"I'm not caught up in doctrine. I'm caught up in what the word says. And if we do that, then we have to run our businesses that way."

Todd Miller, an Orthodox Jew, also looks to his faith for professional guidance. "When it comes to how I behave in business, I go by our laws -- a higher standard than the secular laws," says Miller, 40, who owns Miller's Carpet Co. in Milwaukee.

To him, a moral decision is much more important than a legal one. When in doubt, he abides by the ruling of his rabbi. He did so recently when a client, displeased with the way Miller's shop had laid a carpet, refused to pay a bill.

Miller protested that his workers had followed the explicit demands of the client's maintenance staff. Miller's lawyer said he was correct to do so. But Miller's rabbi said he knew the proper way to do the job -- and should have done it correctly regardless of the demands of the maintenance staff.

So Miller waived the $6,000 owed him for the job.

"The Torah gives us our rules. It is a blueprint for our lives," he explains. "My ego and my best sense said I did what I thought I was supposed to do with the carpet. But if I'm wrong, I don't want to live with what's wrong."

Honesty, fairness, proper treatment of employees are all of paramount importance to Miller and others like him, no matter what their faith.

They don't pad estimates or bills. They don't cut corners. They won't let their employees lie on the telephone. "Sorry, he's not in," when someone is in, is a no-no at these companies.

Nabil Salous, 36, a Muslim who runs Salous Mens Wear in Milwaukee, said he refuses to lie even to cater to his clients' vanities.

If a customer is considering a higher-priced suit, even though it isn't made much better than a lower-priced one, Salous says he will tell the customer which suit hangs better on him. If that means he sells a less expensive one, that's how God wants it, Salous says.

Some Milwaukee Muslims have abandoned their grocery store businesses altogether rather than survive by selling alcohol and pork, which are prohibited by Islam.

Yerke, of Mega Construction, trying to follow his Catholic faith's humanitarian principles, regularly counsels troubled employees. Staffers say he loans money to needy employees, does the paperwork for the business of a former worker whose wife died, and contributes heavily to charity. In 1981, he kept a secretarial job open for two months when a woman he had just hired broke her ankle just before she was to start.

Ethical behavior and principled decisions, however, are hardly the prerogative of those in organized religions.

Take Alterra Coffee Roasters Inc. on the east side. When buying coffee beans in Guatemala, the company visits farms and chooses those that use not only environmentally friendly farming practices but also pay and house their workers well and treat them respectfully.

Ward Fowler, president and an owner of the fast-growing coffee firm, says he "does not have a whole lot of interest in church." But he and his partners are willing to pay a premium for coffees from these special farms because of their own principles.

"Morality was on deck long before Christianity was dreamed up," says Anne Gaylor, president of the Madison-based Freedom from Religion Foundation. "Business people don't have to be religious to be moral."

Running a business according to one's moral or religious tenets is far easier in a smaller, private firm where chief executives do not have to answer to public shareholders.

Yet, despite the obvious conflicts between capitalism and religious tenets, experts say the two are compatible.

"Religious principle is the basis of modern or democratic capitalism, which depends on trust," says C. Edward Weber, professor emeritus of strategy and business ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "It's not easy for either public or private business to make the right decisions. They often have to go against the tide. It takes courage and compassion."

In his 1995 book, "Stories of Virtue in Business," Weber recounts incidents -- many from the Milwaukee area -- of ethical decisions made by individual men and women in large companies, decisions that sometimes cost them careers or friendships or good will.

He recalls the Wisconsin bank executive who declined a windfall from the sale of his bank so the money could be used to help those who might lose jobs.

And in Milwaukee, several individuals have formed the "Favre Forum," a group that meets monthly at the exclusive University Club to discuss ways to balance work, family and faith.

Gaylor, of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, says right action based on religion also is open to interpretation. "The Bible is a grab bag that you can reach into and pull out a rationalization for any conduct."

So, Christian managers of a strong company can rationalize large layoffs by saying their future survival is at stake. So, too, Catholic-run firms can ignore that faith's social teachings and prevent workers from organizing.

Gene Laczniak, professor of marketing at Marquette University who writes and lectures on business ethics and competitive strategy, says his own work leads him to believe that the typical business manager operates "from economic utilitarianism."

"They have one set of morals for their marketplace and another for their personal lives," he says. "They look at the economic advantage and the economic disadvantage, and they choose the action that maximizes their own advantage as long as it doesn't violate the law.

"They believe it's economic gamesmanship and this is gamesmanship to be played competitively, fiercely, and intently."

Saying too many business people forget that the true purpose of capitalism is economic efficiency for the common good, Laczniak says religious principles "re-establish the centrality of the common good in business practices."

Small, private firms can remember that far more easily.

Even in such firms, though, religious practices sometimes depend on the good will of others -- as attorney Atta has found.

His partners do not complain when he declines drunken driving and some criminal cases for religious reasons. "This is a big positive in my firm," Atta says.

There was one nearly touchy incident, however. Atta did not want to serve alcohol at the firm's recent open house. His partners wondered if lawyers and clients in beer-loving Milwaukee might think them cheap. There was much discussion. In the end, Atta's partners chose to respect him and his Muslim guests and family.

They left out the beer and beefed up the hors d'oeuvres.


©Copyright 1998, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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