They’re Paying, So You’re Praying: Prayer at Work? Are You Kidding Me?

More and more, I am hearing stories from employees about the way their bosses run their businesses. I don’t quite know why people are becoming so bothered by it now--my best guess is it’s that people feel entitled to some unrealistic level of agency over their work life, but that’s beside the point. Work is not a democracy. The real meat and potatoes of this conversation thus becomes about how to deal with it. Someone I’ve known for years brought up a prime example of this issue the other day when we were talking. He had been on a company staff retreat, at which the owner opened the program with a Christian prayer, as he had at every retreat for the previous fifteen years. The next month, at one of their senior training meetings, some of the VPs questioned the practice and shared that some of the people in their divisions had been uncomfortable. Apparently this owner took a moment and then said, “Last I checked this was my company, and so long as I’m paying, you’re praying.” And whether you agree with him or not, you can’t really argue with his logic.

In fact, these sorts of rituals are far more common in privately owned companies and beyond than those who haven’t experienced them might think. Have you ever seen the documentary on Madonna? Like many musicians, before going on stage she has her “employees” say a group prayer. When do you think was the last time Madonna or any of her troupe was in Church? Some people think of it as good luck, and for others it is tradition. Then there are those, like my friend’s boss, who take their prayer more seriously. One way or another, owners of private companies have wide latitude to dictate these sorts of things. And it isn’t just prayer, of course, there are lots of ways for owners to impose their will--well-intentioned or otherwise--on their employees.

Let me offer a slightly different example. My first year out of college, I was living with my parents and working in sales for a big Midwestern furniture manufacturer. Just before Thanksgiving, I got a call from my mom while I was at work. She was very confused to find a large frozen turkey addressed to me sitting on her front porch. She told me there was a note from my boss wishing me a happy Thanksgiving and wanted to know who this man was who was sending frozen poultry to her house. I hadn’t heard of this very generous tradition where the owner bought every one of his employees a turkey for the holiday, but I can tell you my mom was very thankful once I filled her in on all the details. I understand this tradition even continues at the company to this day. Now, setting aside the generous intention of the tradition, what if I were a vegetarian or a vegan or a card-carrying PETA member committed to ending all of humanity’s carnivorous tendencies? Surely, there are people who don’t want a dead turkey on their front porch. This doesn’t mean that the tradition is in bad taste or that it isn’t munificent, yet, there will undoubtedly be employees who are less than thrilled with the way it impacts them.

This is the reality of working for these sorts of companies. When you accept a job at a privately owned company, part of what you are accepting is the policies and whims of the owner. Whether it is prayer before lunch, a nap room, or a frozen turkey, the boss is paying and so you either accept it or quit. We all know of sales businesses where the owners do not drink for religious reasons and don’t even want liquor on their expense accounts. Try closing a deal like that! But they are the ones who pay the checks. Bottom line is that a privately owned company is not a democracy. When you accept a job, you should know about the culture and the boss, then with that information, you can accept it or not. It’s your choice before, but once you’re there, they’re paying, so you’re doing what they want.

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