The Compassionate Enterprise

Copyright © 1998 John D. Beckett, Loving Monday: 108-114.

OUR RESPONSE TO TROUBLE when it visits can leave us in one of two places. Either it will harden us, making us bitter, even vengeful, or it will make us softer, more forgiving and understanding.

I believe God's intent is the latter—to bring us to a place of greater compassion. Over time, compassion will become a distinguishing attribute of an organization—not at the expense of accountability or effectiveness, but as the mark of a business that cares about people and highly regards their intrinsic worth and potential.

A Surprising Call

As I noted earlier, I was on the receiving end of a compassionate enterprise when I suddenly had to take the reins of the company after my father's death. Our business was in a precarious position with sales of just over $1 million, spread unevenly among a handful of customers. Most of our eggs were in one basket—a company in St. Louis that made furnaces for mobile homes. Dad had a good relationship with them, but I had just come on board, and this customer hardly knew me. Faced with my father's passing, they would have had every justification for finding another supplier.

The call from their engineering director caught me by surprise.

"John," said Bernie, "I want to say how sorry we were to hear about your dad's passing. We grew very close, and I looked at him almost as my own father."

I swallowed hard, knowing that as much as they appreciated Dad, they had a tough decision to make. I doubted we could sustain the loss of their business, but this was not the place to say so.

Bernie continued: "I know you must be concerned about our future burner purchases. I want to assure you of our complete confidence in you. We will continue buying your products. There won't be any change from our standpoint."

I could hardly believe my ears. As the words sank in, it was as though a thousand-pound weight lifted from my shoulders.

"Bernie," I replied, "I don't know what to say. I know you don't have to do this. There are several companies that would love to have your business. But I'll tell you this. We will move heaven and earth to be a good supplier to you. We won't let you down."

Bernie's response reflected compassion that is often absent in the modern business setting. His company was taking a risk, and Bernie knew it. But he also knew we were accountable to meet their needs. One major slip on our part and compassion would likely have been out the window. As it turned out, we rose to the trust placed in us, and we have now been their sole supplier of burners for over three decades.

Parallel Truths

The experience with Bernie's company is a good example of a principle which has application in the workplace: truths in the Scriptures often run on parallel tracks.

Two ideas may seem to be in opposition to each other—until they are fully understood when viewed together. The parallel truths in the bold step taken by Bernie were compassion and accountability. These two complement each other. Neither on its own is complete. Compassion without accountability produces sentimentalism. Accountability without compassion is harsh and heartless. Compassion teamed up with accountability is a powerful force—one which we have found can provide a great incentive to excel.

In business, it is not enough that compassion and accountability simply be present. They must be in balance. The modern work world is characterized by imbalance, with the scales heavily tipped away from compassion toward accountability. A way to begin bringing them into balance is found in the Golden Rule, which requires us to put ourselves in the shoes of the other person.

The model for biblical compassion is found in Jesus Christ, where we see great sensitivity toward the person but also a commensurate requirement for responsible action. A good example is the story in chapter 8 of the apostle John's Gospel about a woman who was brought to Jesus, having been caught in the act of adultery. The Jewish law for this sin required death by stoning—a cruel, protracted form of execution.

Her accusers saw this as a chance to test Jesus. But in response to their charges against the woman, Jesus merely bent down and "doodled" on the sandy ground with his finger. When they continued pressing him, he looked up and said, "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first." One by one the accusers left, convicted by their consciences.

Then Jesus addressed the woman, asking if anyone condemned her. "No one, Lord," she responded. "Neither do I," he said. "Go and sin no more."

In his admonition that she sin no more, we see accountability balancing the Lord's clear compassion. So it was each time Jesus extended mercy. There was an expectation that the person would take responsibility.

Compassion at Work

In our work, we find opportunities all around us to show compassion. Here are some examples:

Advent Industries

Some years ago, during a time of high unemployment in our area, we found an unusual way to extend compassion in the workplace. In our hiring, we were getting the best of the job candidates, but I was sobered by the large numbers who needed work and yet were virtually unemployable. With records tarnished by crime, substance abuse or dropping out of school early, they would be the last to find work.

We decided to do something about it. I spoke with Ed Seabold, a business acquaintance, about the concept of starting a new company to hire and train these disadvantaged people. Ed, a no-nonsense manager with a heart of gold, immediately offered to leave his current work and run it. Advent Industries was born, set up as a profit-making company to do subcontract work for our company and other area businesses. When we went to the schools, the police and the courts to find people "bad" enough to fit our employee profile, they were more than cooperative in providing us "worthy" candidates.

Soon, Advent was employing over fifty people in a demanding but supportive work environment. For most of these employees it was their first legitimate job. We had to teach them how to work, how to respect authority, even how to cash a paycheck.

We knew how far we had to go the day Ed left his office door locked while he was out for a few hours. On his return, he unlocked the door and noticed that someone had been inside and had made coffee. Querying the workers, he learned that a few of them had simply removed ceiling tiles, dropped down through the ceiling, made their coffee and gone back to work! That was the last time Ed locked his office.

Compassion combined with accountability has brought great reward during the twenty years Advent has been in business. Over a thousand people have gone through its program, which lasts six months to two years. Many washed out, unable to handle the disciplined work environment. But many others have gone on to success in other area businesses. As a result of their experience at Advent, they possess not only the needed skills, but also a sense of self-worth and purpose.

Every business enterprise has the opportunity to be "The Compassionate Enterprise." Biblical truth, custom-tailored for each situation, makes the way possible. The powerful example modeled by Bernie years earlier has permanently cemented for us the truth that compassion, not just accountability, belongs in the workplace.