By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

Not long ago I finished going through Fortune magazine’s 2018 listing of the 100 best places to work.

I’ve been doing it for years and I’ve always found the experience both exhilarating and depressing.

  • It’s exhilarating because it’s a joy to read about all the different things innovative organizations are doing to treat their employees well.
  • It’s depressing because I’ve never found any explicitly Catholic organizations on any of the annual lists.

Perhaps you think that’s understandable – even okay – because the list is monopolized by high tech, high growth, high-flying, for-profit companies that can afford to give away the farm ... and do.

It’s true that many, perhaps even most, of the nation’s best employers are dynamic for-profit organizations that can easily afford to offer their employees a host of perks.

But the list also includes some nonprofits – and some of them have affiliations to religious organizations.

It’s also true that to be considered for a list an employer has to have at least 1,000 employees. Nonetheless, since employee evaluations determine which employers make the coveted list – and over  315,000 responded to the most recent survey – it seems to me that every employer, every supervisor, every team leader, can learn from the results.

Begging a question

Fortune lists the organizations in rank order, from SalesForce at the top to AT&T at 100. That’s all well and good, although it does put the focus on competition when it really should be on kindness and consideration.

One huge question is: Are these organizations compassionate and generous because they are profitable – or are they profitable because they are compassionate and generous with their employees?

While answering that question with a high degree of certainty may not be possible, we do know for certain that there are significant correlations between how an employer treats its people and how those people, in turn, treat their constituencies – be they customers, clients, patients, members, or whatever.

And then there is the issue of attracting good employees. Sure, money matters, but generally not as much as culture and consideration. Good people have choices. They avoid or leave toxic environments and flock to nurturing and empowering places. No one wants to become an employer of last resort.

Having studied the issue in depth, I made it a mantra in both the for-profit and nonprofit organizations that I led: “It’s essential that we treat our people well because they will never treat our clients any better than they are treated by us.” 

Did we make mistakes? Yes. Did we come up short sometimes? For sure. But in my personal experience, we were always rewarded in many ways by taking this admonition seriously.

Not all about money

Some people equate treating employees well with how much they are paid. But research shows that’s a gross oversimplification.

It’s true that if people are worried about meeting their basic financial obligations, their on-the-job performance is likely to suffer. But money alone is not a particularly powerful motivator when it comes to people liking their jobs and focusing on doing them well.

Today we speak of “external motivators” like wages and “internal motivators” like job satisfaction – and voluminous research shows that “internal motivators” are the most powerful when it comes to achieving high performance and low turnover.

Supervisors who know their team members, really care about them and are committed to nurturing them as workers and people are able to generate consistently high levels of employee engagement – and that ultimately leads to consistently high levels of performance.

And that’s true no matter whether the employer is a for-profit company or a nonprofit enterprise, including a school, parish or other church-related organization.

About the best

Here are some of the criteria used in the most recent survey of best workplaces:

  • Executive team effectiveness;
  • a spirit of innovation;
  • people-focused programs;
  • high levels of trust;
  • credible and respectful leadership;
  • pride in the work;
  • camaraderie;
  • employees consistently experience a great workplace, regardless of who they are or what they do.

Great perks like unlimited leave make the headlines, but the real key to ranking high – or just doing a good job as an employer – comes down to how well people treat one another, and especially how well executives at every level treat the people who report to them.

Questions of accountability

All of us should do what we can to make our workplaces better for the people who work there. But it seems to me that church-related organizations have a special obligation to offer good witness as employers because they claim a certain moral authority in society. We’re the ones who say people are supposed to love others as we love ourselves.

As a result, people are watching the church to see how it treats people – employees as well as members and nonmembers in the community.

When church-related employers, for example, profess the values of good family life but do nothing to assist employees with childcare responsibilities, what is the message that members and nonmembers take away from that?

Beyond witness, there is the issue of performance. To what extent are the depressing statistics about member participation today – be it sagging numbers for Mass attendance, baptisms, weddings or funerals – the result of church employees treating members as poorly as they are being treated?

Or more helpfully: To what extent can those who oversee church employees do a better job of nurturing their people so that these people do a better job of nurturing their congregations and communities?

I believe that if we focus more on making our Catholic organizations great places to work, we will discover that they also become great places to worship, to grow, to serve and to witness to the saving grace of God’s love in the world.

And that will matter much, much more than whether or not we show up on any list.



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