Alastair Campbell may have once famously said “we don’t do God” but for the chief executive of a modern company, this is no longer an option.
Last week, the world of faith and finance came together when the Lord Mayor hosted the annual dinner for archbishops and bishops at Mansion House.
Business likes to deal in numbers and the demographics pointing to the rise of faith are overwhelming. Worldwide surveys show that 84 per cent of the world’s population are religious.
In today’s world, faith is important to people’s identity. Modern businesses need to take this into account when dealing with clients and customers. Companies also need to be sensitive to the religious needs of staff, such as dietary requirements, prayer, and festivals, can reinforce loyalty.
The landmark case of the BA air stewardess who wasn’t able to wear a cross at work is one example of where this went wrong.
But increasingly large businesses have employee faith networks, as part of larger diversity efforts, and are trying to be faith-friendly rather than faith-neutral.
Religion, therefore, is not merely a constraint on business. On the contrary, I think there are some valuable lessons that companies can take from the heritage of the great faiths.
The first is around values and ethics. The great religions provide a framework for how to behave.
Granted, business can be ethical without faith, but faith is often a strong motivating factor.
The strictures of faith remind followers to prioritise the important over the urgent. They teach that while wealth creation has its place, there are things that are more crucial such as family and community. At a recent inter-faith event at a big international law firm, one of my co-panellists, a Muslim, reminded everyone that the “only people who will remember how late you worked are your family”.
Second, faith groups are brilliant at practising what they preach and carrying out social responsibility and charity. They have been doing their own versions of corporate social responsbility for hundreds of years.
For example, there are over 49,000 faith-based charities in Great Britain – 27 per cent of the entire charity sector. Today business realises that it needs to play a responsible role in society.
Third, faith groups build communities across borders. The Catholic Church is one of the most durable cross-border global networks, while the Anglican Communion brings together churches all over the world from the UK and the US, to Africa and Asia.
While faith groups are truly international, many businesses are also cross-border. They could learn from the way faith groups cultivate a following and a sense of kinship of their members across different countries.
So faith has much to teach business on values, social responsibility, and building an international network.
Most important of all, modern business is one of the best forms of inter-faith there is. It brings us into contact with people not like us, from different faiths and ethnicities.
This was the case in the eighteenth century when Voltaire wrote about the London Stock Exchange: “Here the Jew, Mohammedan and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith.”
But this is all the more the case today. Business is a primary way of encountering the other. More and more, business and the boardroom must learn to “do God”.