The Flourishing Culture Podcast Series
“The Importance of Family-Supportive Practices in Christian Organizations“
July 13, 2020
Intro: The interruptions in our normal routines caused by the COVID-19 crisis is challenging us to rethink our approach to many things. Yes, it is allowing us to rethink our Christian values and how we apply them in our lives and our organizations. So how do we, as Christian leaders, encourage flourishing families, especially at the beginning of our children’s lives? Well, listen in to this new challenging research on how Christian organizations deal with key family-friendly policies.
Al Lopus: Welcome to another episode of the Flourishing Culture Podcast, where our goal is to equip and inspire you to build a flourishing workplace. As we all face today’s leadership challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we believe having a healthy culture is more important now than ever before. We are here to help you eliminate toxicity, improve your employees’ engagement, speed up new innovation, and grow your organization’s impact.
And before we meet our guest today, I urge you to subscribe to this podcast. As a result, you’ll receive our action guide. It’s our gift to help you lead your organization’s culture to the next level. To subscribe, simply go to bcwinstitute.org/podcast. Hit the Subscribe button, and receive our free action guide.
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And now, let’s meet today’s special guest.
It’s really a pleasure to welcome Dr. Denise Daniels, the professor of management at Seattle Pacific University. Denise, welcome to the Flourishing Culture Podcast.
Denise Daniels: Thank you, Al. It’s really nice to be here.
Al: Looking forward to our conversation. So let’s just start off with a simple question: What do you love most about your job at Seattle Pacific?
Denise: You know, I’d say there’s two things, and they both have sort of a similar foundation. I really enjoy teaching, and I really enjoy the ability to do scholarship, both from an explicitly Christian perspective. And so when I’m in the classroom, I enjoy being able to share my faith and talk about Christian principles in the context of management. And the research that I have done over the past several years has really all been framed by and oriented by my own faith commitments and my own faith understandings and trying to understand how people of faith engage their faith in the workplace.
Al: So you’re part of the business school. What are some of the courses that you teach?
Denise: I am. I’m part of the School of Business, Government, and Economics at Seattle Pacific, and I teach things like organizational behavior and leadership and human-resource management, so management courses that are targeted towards people who are interested in becoming managers.
Al: Well, that’s perfect, because that’s exactly who our audience is here.
So, Denise, we’re recording this at the early stages of the pandemic. Tell us a little bit about the status of things that SPU and what you see the short-term future looking like.
Denise: Yeah. You know, there’s just a lot of things that are changing so very quickly. Every day something new happens. We are on quarters, and so we were just finishing up winter quarter when this really started to hit in Seattle. And consequently, the university decided to shift all of our courses online for the last couple of weeks of the term. And so faculty really ramped up and got things online and taught their last week of classes and gave finals via online modalities. And we’re now in spring break, and we’re gearing up for spring quarter, which will start here in a week and a half, and we’ll be teaching spring quarter online exclusively, which is really new for us because we really focus on our face-to-face relationships, and we’re trying to figure out how to do those relationships via distance, which I think everybody is doing right now kind of across the country.
Al: That takes you all the way through June.
Denise: That’s exactly right.
Al: Hopefully, a fall term will be back in person, yeah.
Denise: Yeah. We’ll see how things play out here.
Al: It’ll be interesting to see just how things adjust and what the new normal will be when we’re done.
Al: Yeah, right.
Well, you’ve been part of a research team investigating practices that support families and Christian nonprofits and Christian-owned businesses. What drove you to the interest in this topic, which is our general topic for today’s discussion?
Denise: Yeah. Well, this is an area that I teach in—I teach human resources, as I mentioned earlier—and so a lot of the practices that H.R. is engaged with are focused on how to attract and retain and keep good employees through a number of means. And some of those include things like benefits and family friendly kinds of practices. So it was an interest of mine generally, anyway.
But then the Center for Public Justice, which is a think tank in Washington, D.C., and it’s got a Christian foundation, they reached out to SPU and asked if we would be willing to partner with them on a project that they were doing: evaluating the family-supportive practices of faith-based organizations. And so a number of us were interested in this project, and I worked with several different faculty colleagues at SPU, including Randy Franz, Vicki Eveland, and John Godek. I want to make sure to name them because they were part of this as well.
Al: And what was the goal of your research? What specifically did you want to find out?
Denise: Yeah. We were trying to understand the values and practices of Christian organizations, with respect to their family-supportive practices. And we use that term family-supportive practices, and it may not mean a whole lot to a lot of people, but we were thinking about, what are the ways that these organizations engage with things like paid time off, like sick leave, like family leave? So it was sort of the things that we think of as benefits in organizations. What were the kinds of benefits that these organizations provided that would support the families of the employees that they were working with?
Al: Gosh, that sounds like it was right up a Christian’s alley of—
Al: —being family friendly and supporting families.
So give us a taste of the kinds of organizations that you were interviewing, and why did you focus on those organizations?
Denise: Yeah. Well, we initially focused on four categories of organizations. We looked at churches; we looked at charities; we looked at educational institutions, so those could be K-12 schools or it could be higher-ed institutions; and then we looked at Christian healthcare providers. And those were driven out of some theoretical work about the sacred sector and the types of organizations in the sacred sector. We also, after we did those four—and all of those would be considered nonprofit kind of categories—after we did those, we also looked at some for-profit organizations as well. So we did look at some businesses that are explicitly Christian in their mission or have some explicitly faith-driven commitments in the ways that they do their business.
Al: Well, that’s right up our alley, so our listeners are in all of those categories. So, boy, I’m looking forward to learning more.
So when you started your research, what are some of the family-supportive practices that you were looking for?
Denise: Well, one of the things that we asked about was paid time off, and so things like vacation and sick leave or just general PTO. We were looking at things like flex time, disability policies, family leave, parental leave. So we really asked about a number of different practices that organizations might engage in. A number of these were very small organizations, and what that meant was that they might not have policies in place. So we asked about some hypothetical questions. If you had an employee in this circumstance, what might you do? So we were not just interested in policy, but we were really interested in practice. What do people actually do? because a lot of organizations, as I said, don’t have those policies. But what is it that they practice?
Al: Hm. So, yeah, I’m looking forward to what you found out. But early on in your research, I’d love to hear about what caught your attention when you started this research. You know, for instance, was there something that surprised you early on as you were looking at these paid-time-off-type policies?
Denise: Well, there’s a few things that come to mind when you ask this question. I would say the first thing that actually comes to mind wasn’t a surprise, but it was good for us to see. It was nice. And that is that these organizations all, really to a one had a very strong, mission-driven emphasis on why they wanted to care well for their employees, and that was very explicitly faith based for these organizations. They said, “We care about our people because these are people made in God’s image. We care about our people because God cares about families, and we want to care about families.” So there really was a very, very strong and explicit sense of a mission-driven orientation for why they thought about their employees in the way that they did. So that was really excellent.
But some things that maybe were more surprising were kind of the range of practices that we saw. So one of the things that we decided to do early on in terms of trying to make comparisons across organizations was that we looked at how much time off would an employee at an organization have after the birth of a child? This was something that we were able to compare in a standardized way across organizations, and so that was really helpful for us. What was surprising was the huge range here. And so we had anywhere from zero to 125 days off for parental leave. So that’s an enormous difference across these organizations.
Another thing that I think I was surprised by, and I alluded to this a little bit earlier, was just how few of the organizations actually had standard policies and how many of them operated on a case-by-case basis. And I really think that this was driven by their desire to be really flexible and generous with their employees. But there is a potential downside to it, which is you end up potentially not being fair across employees. When you don’t have a standard policy, you’re doing everything on a case-by-case basis. You know, Sally might get something better than Suzy does, or something.
Al: Mm-hmm. You’re really looking at birth practices. And what I find interesting, so from zero, providing zero parental leave to six months—
Al: —that’s an amazing range. A hundred twenty-five days is about six months. And so you found this tremendous range and a lack of real written policies, which case by case, one on one. Yeah. That’s a ripe environment for injustice or unfairness, yeah.
So, in the executive summary of your research report, you state many respondents deem their workplaces family friendly and were motivated to meet the needs of individual employees. So give us a practical example or two of how employers are doing this.
Denise: Yeah. We asked a lot of questions, and we heard stories back. And so we heard stories about things like so-and-so was diagnosed with cancer and we allowed him to work from home, or we guaranteed his job when he was well a year and a half later; that kind of thing, where people were really engaged with the personal lives of the people that they were working with. One organization, they had a female employee who was pregnant, having a difficult pregnancy, and they basically gave her a year to be home with her newborn child and then come back in her same role. And then, all sorts of just very personal touches: people making sure that an employee was federal, and there were meals that other employees in the organization were taking over on a really regular basis. So just being a community for these folks. And it was very heartening and very heartwarming to hear some of those stories.
Al: Yeah. It’s great to hear the compassion just in those two situations. That’s great.
Well, let’s get to some of the high-level conclusions your team made based on your interviews. Sounds like it was a really engaging process. So what were some of the outcomes?
Denise: Virtually, every organization that we talked to said that they were doing the best that I could. And I believe that they thought they were. All of them felt like they were operating in resource-constrained environments. All of them were struggling with finances in some way, shape, or form. What was so interesting to me was that, and again, I alluded to this, these huge differences between organizations in terms of what they were offering to their employees. And these differences often related to the context in which the organizations operated. So organizations that worked in states or municipalities with extensive laws that regulated family-leave practices had significantly better practices than those that were operating in lower regulatory environments. So everyone thought that they were doing the best they could, but interestingly, the ones who were really doing the best on an objective basis were those who were mandated to do so by law, effectively. And that was really surprising and maybe disheartening at some level because all these organizations wanted to do the best for their employees, thought they were doing the best for their employees, but the ones who were required to do better were doing better.
Al: Gosh, that is striking that laws are motivating these Christian organizations to do certain things, and it’s not compassion or other things or even their faith that are driving them. That’s the correlation between laws and practices, yeah.
Denise: Yeah. And it raises a lot of questions about the role of government and the role of organizations and what we would want in that domain. And I think it really raised a lot of questions for us about what we thought was the right thing.
Al: Yeah. So, the study concluded, as I recall, that Christian-led workplaces have an opportunity to really build on the unique strengths and align policies and practices with their family support of values. So tell us an example, a story, of where that’s already taking place.
Denise: I need to be careful here with how I frame some of this, because we did promise confidentiality to the organizations that we talked to. But let me tell you about New York City, which was a really interesting context. Now, New York City has really significant laws and regulations in place in terms of what they require. We talked to a particular organization there that was trying to meet those expectations and exceed them. And that was really neat to see. And so they were providing transportation for their employees to get into work. They were allowing work from home. They were providing very significant sick-leave and parental-leave practices for their employees, which was really great to see.
Another organization that we talked with actually had operations in all 50 states. And so because of that, they had regulations in some places that were significantly tighter than in other places. And what that organization decided was that they were going to provide the highest-level mandate to everybody, regardless of whether it was required in the place that they might be operating in that particular location. And so they basically looked across the country and said, okay, well, this particular locale requires this very high level of benefit and resource, and we’re going to provide that to every single employee, regardless of where they work. So there were some really interesting stories about organizations that were thinking through how to do this in a way that really would benefit their employees.
Al: I trust you’re enjoying our podcast today. We’ll be right back after an important word for leaders.
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Al: And now, back to today’s special guest.
So organizations that have multiple locations in multiple states, they’ll have different policies, the way they’ll handle these cases?
Denise: Yeah, conceivably they could. And again, it depends on the structure of the organization. So some organizations have a lot of—it’s almost like state’s rights. They have a lot of autonomy at the local level in terms of how they provide benefits to employees. And then other organizations are more federally driven, sort of, where they would have an organization-wide policy that would apply to everyone.
Let me think about this again. Let me back up on this question a little bit and say one other thing. A lot of organizations looked at what their particular strengths were, and they tried to capitalize on those particular strengths in terms of how they offered benefits.
So, for example, for an organization that might provide child care as part of their business, they would provide that to their employees as a free benefit. Other organizations might be in the camping business, for example, and they would allow their employees and their employees’ children to take advantage of the camping resources that they were providing for free to their employees, and obviously for pay to other people. So organizations were quite creative about trying to recognize the values that they had and the things that they could offer, and provided those to their employees in really unique ways.
One organization required its employees to travel quite a bit, and they recognized that the spouse and children of those employees might struggle with their employee being gone around the world so often. And so they offered to every one of their employees who traveled a travel-companion opportunity for somebody in their family to go with them. And they paid for a spouse or an older child to accompany that employee wherever they were traveling in the world. Not every time, but at least once a year, somebody in the family got to go with and see what they were doing, to try to communicate the value to the family, but also to recognize that this person is not a person by themselves. They’re a person in the context of a community, in the context of a family system, that’s going to be impacted by their travel.
Al: I love that idea of spouse travel, for example. On occasion, I can see that being very positive.
In light of your research, what I’m hearing is that you’ve written that sacred organizations really have some room to grow with respect to providing the time off after childbirth. So speaking as a professor and a mother yourself of grown children, four children, who work in faith-based organizations, do a better job with maternity and parental leave.
Denise: It’s interesting. My own kids are teens and early 20s at this point. And when I was pregnant with our first born, there was not a maternity-leave policy at my institution at the time. I was fortunate with timing, and he ended up being born at the end of spring term, and so I had the summer, where I was able to be home with him and effectively use that as a maternity leave. But I was lucky in that respect. And I don’t think organizations can count on that kind of luck for their employees. And so certainly that has changed. And so with my first couple of kids, there was not an effective maternity-leave policy in place. With the next couple, there were increasingly positive systems put in place. And part of that was more and more organizations were seeing young women who are having children and realizing they needed to put policies in place to accommodate those births.
What was most interesting, I think, to me, about this research that we just did with faith-based organizations was that the leading edge right now is not maternity leave, it’s paternity leave. And more and more organizations are recognizing that it’s not just moms who may need time to be home to recover and bond with babies, but dads need that time as their family is beginning and as a new child is entering into that family system. They need some of that time as well to help out around the home and to bond with that child. And so more and more organizations are providing leave opportunities for dads as well, and I think that’s something that’s really, really positive.
Al: And I’d like to think that Christian organizations were the ones who were actually leading those initiatives, but they’re not. It’s really high tech in Silicon Valley, that, at least from my perspective, that’s leading those.
Denise: Yeah. I think that’s exactly right. And I think the explanation people give for that is, well, those companies have a lot of resources, and they can afford it, and they have employees who are very mobile, and they’ll take another job someplace else if they can get a better offer. And yet, I do think there is this idea that Christians should be on the leading edge of this. And when we see organizations operating in places where there are those higher-level legal structures that impose requirements for paid leave, organizations do better. And that suggests to me that organizations can do better even if they’re not operating in those settings.
So I think a lot of people are pretty reluctant to want more legal imposition, and I get that. I think there’s good reasons to be wary. But I also think it’s important to recognize that those legal structures that impose requirements like that increase the availability of parental leave for people, and that’s really consistent with Christian values.
They also level the playing ground. So there isn’t that fear that if my organization’s generous, that someone else will take advantage of us; or someone else will be able to do their work less expensively, and they’ll make more progress than we will. I think when you have that common ground that levels the playing ground, there’s not that fear that you’re going to be taken advantage of in the marketplace because everyone has to follow those rules.
Al: Well, let’s look forward 10 years to 2030. Already I’m feeling 10 years younger, just thinking about it. But talk a little bit about one or two family-supportive practices that you hope will be in place, where people can really flourish in faith-based workplaces in 10 years. What life-giving possibilities or outcomes of these practices excite you the most when you think in the future like this?
Denise: Yeah. I think there’s two things that I think about. Because we’ve been focusing so much on parental-leave policy, that’s obviously something that I hope we would continue to grow and develop and provide opportunities for new moms and dads to be home with the next generation and to cultivate really healthy and flourishing families. That’s going to be helpful for our culture broadly. That’s going to be helpful for our organizations. That’s going to have a lot of long-term benefits and payoffs.
But I also think there’s going to be increasingly a need for people to have opportunity to care for their elders, to care for their parents or, potentially, grandparents. And as I start thinking 10 years down the road, that puts me more and more into this category as well. And I would hope that we are creating cultures, particularly in Christian organizations, that value the ways that we care for others, and that value, people who are not productive any longer, but have been productive, and we value them because of not their productivity, but we value them because of the relational value that they have for us.
Al: Again, it seems like Christian organizations are just following the culture in terms of practices of other types of organizations, and this is really something to dig into.
Denise, when it comes to family support or practices, help us identify what the decisions, maybe the costs or even the responsibilities, of executive directors and their governing boards of Christian-ministry organizations or churches or Christian-owned companies who shoulder these decision-making responsibilities, what do they need to be aware of?
Denise: I think it’s really important for those organizations to be very thoughtful and very reflective on what it is that they actually value. Again, in our conversations, there was a lot of emphasis placed on we value family. We value our employees. We value them inside and outside of our workplaces. And we heard a lot of good examples of how those things played out. Faith-based organizations have a really strong value placed on family. But how that gets translated into practice, I think, is not as clear. And so it’s not just understanding of values, but then thinking about how do we play this value out in real life. And again, in places where there were strong legal frameworks, those organizations tended to be more generous; and in places with fewer legal requirements, those organizations didn’t provide as much to their employees, but they thought they were being generous. And that was what was really interesting. So I think making some comparisons, doing some real benchmarking across other organizations to see how are you comparing to other organizations, and what could you really do?
Al: Yeah, I think about the values and the practices, and is there integrity between the two?
Denise: That’s right.
Al: I mean, that’s really what we’re saying here. And as we look at values and practices, I even think of the book of James of faith and works. You know, hopefully the two are aligned. And that’s interesting.
So this has been a great discussion. As we wind down our time together, I’d really like to be sure we mention that you’ve co-authored a wonderful new book, Shannon Vanderwarker, titled Working in the Presence of God: Spiritual Practices for Work. Perhaps you can take a page out of the book and suggest a spiritual practice or maybe even a shared perspective that could benefit both employee families and their organizations as they fulfill what God has given them to do. Any thoughts on that?
Denise: Yeah. You know, I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot over the past couple of weeks. And as you mentioned at the top of our time together, we’re at the beginning of this working-from-home-in-a-pandemic context, and people are working with their families all around them. I’m currently at home with three kids who are schooling from home, and my husband and I are both working from home, and that’s a lot of people trying to access the WiFi at the same time.
Al: Yeah. That’ right.
Denise: And some of the things that I’ve recognized is that, first of all, there is really not the separation between family and work that we sometimes imagine that there is, that how we are as families really is also how we are as employees. So to the extent that organizations can recognize that and can support their employees and their families really does advantage them in the workplace.
But I’ve also been thinking about this from this spiritual-discipline perspective, and I guess there’s two disciplines that have really come to the fore for me in recent days. One is that of gratitude and really trying to identify what is it that I am grateful for in this day and in this moment. And there’s a lot of fear right now. There’s a lot of fear out there. There’s a lot of uncertainty. There’s a lot of unknowns. But there are some things that we do know. We know that God is in control. We know that this is not beyond God. We know that the future is held by God. And we may not know the particular outcomes for ourselves or for our families or for our work, but we do know that God is in control. And many of us have circumstances in the moment where we have food. We have shelter. We have work. Some of us, that work is going to be challenged in the future. I think our economy is going to be really, really significantly challenged to try to attend to this situation. But what are the things that we can be thankful for? And that really changes your orientation about your work, about your workplace, which at the moment is our spare bedroom. It really does change your orientation.
The other spiritual discipline I’ve been thinking quite a bit about is that of Sabbaths. And, you know, for the last two decades, I’ve been really trying to practice Sabbath as one day a week set aside for not working; one day a week where we rest, where we reflect on God’s goodness, where we engage in relationships with others, and where we’re not trying to be productive. And right now we’re in a season of Sabbath, it seems to me. Yes, there is still some work to do for many people, but for some people there’s not. And so how do we use this time? How do we use this pause in our culture to think about what is God wanting for us? How do we strengthen our relationship with God? Are there ways that we can engage in relationships with other people from a distance through technology? It’s really wonderful, actually, to have the opportunities for technology that we do. Something else to be grateful for. But how do we think about this time as potentially a time of Sabbath, a time that God is working in us, but we are maybe not so fruitful in other domains of our lives, maybe not as fruitful as we have been. So those are the two that I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on recently.
Al: Gratitude and Sabbath. Thanks, Denise.
You know, I’ve really enjoyed everything that we’ve learned and what we’ve talked about. As I think about these kinds of practices, family-oriented practices, and what the values we have as Christian organizations, what they are and then what the practices are. And I’m really kind of caught by the fact that there are more defined and more beneficial laws, where there are laws in place, then that’s where Christian organizations have actually had more generous benefits. And I’d like to say that maybe that should be turned around. So that’s something to think about for our listeners as they look at their own policies and processes.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add to what we’ve talked about, Denise?
Denise: I think, again, in this time, in this time of uncertainty, I guess I would encourage people to be gracious and maybe generous in spirit to themselves and to those around them as they’re working in contexts that are difficult and unusual and certainly create challenges that we might not have anticipated.
Al: Gracious and generous in spirit to ourselves. That’s very wise.
And how about one last thing? Is there one final thought or encouragement that you’d like to leave with our listeners?
Denise: Yeah. I think it would be that it goes back to that notion of integrity and that notion of trying to focus on what it is that you value and then how do those values get played out in your own life and in your own organization, and being really thoughtful about making sure that those two things align and align well.
Al: Dr. Denise Daniels, professor of management at Seattle Pacific University, thank you for sharing your wisdom, insights, and stories, and thank you for investing yourself on a day like today where you’re not working in an office but out of your spare bedroom. Thank you for investing yourself into everybody who’s listening and benefiting from all you’ve shared with us today. Thanks, Denise.
Denise: Thank you so much, Al. It’s been a pleasure to be a part of this.
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