Where Logic Meets Love

Faith, Ethics, and Work: What Does Success Really Look Like?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

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Faith, Ethics, and Work: What Does Success Really Look Like? | Faith Permeating Life

In recent months, as I've immersed myself in job search strategies and career advice (for my job search coaching business, helping Mike with his job search, and preparing to find a new job myself), something has started nagging at me.

I have a much better grasp now on what it takes -- or what many experts say it takes -- to succeed in the working world: to land a great job, get promoted, save up a lot of money. And much of it has been positive, helping me to be more assertive, more knowledgeable, more focused on defining and achieving my long-term goals.

But I've also discovered this truth: Many of the things that help one advance in Western work culture are directly contrary to who I want to be as a Christian, or simply a good person.

I'll share a few examples, but I want to say first that I recognize that many of these things shouldn't make a difference in your career. In a perfect world, all that would matter would be that you worked hard, produced quality work, and achieved positive results for your company or organization. But the fact that something should be so does not make it so.

While I am far from being the kind of person whose primary goal is to move up the ladder into upper management or who measures my worth by the size of my paycheck, I am nonetheless realistic about the fact that my long-term goals cost money. I want to give myself the best opportunity to support our family comfortably, and I also feel that, being someone who identifies as female, I benefit women generally when I assert myself in order to be paid and recognized in accordance with my abilities and responsibilities. I'm personally not cut out to be completely self-employed, so this means that my ability to be paid a fair salary is directly related to how I am recognized and rewarded in a professional working environment.

So that's where I'm coming from when I think about these things.

Promoting oneself
This is something Mike struggles with even more than I do, so when I help him write cover letters I have to push him to talk about his strengths and not just why he would love the job. The oft-repeated advice in business is that you have to promote yourself because no one's going to do it for you. (I have not always found that to be true.) On the other hand, Christianity celebrates humility and not drawing attention to the good things you do.

Where the rubber meets the road
An example of when this might put me in a dilemma is if I'm in a meeting and someone else takes credit for something I did. Do I subtly find a way to point out that I actually did the work? (Don't be like most women, who let themselves be a doormat because they're too afraid to create conflict.) Or do I keep quiet and trust that the truth will come out anyway? (Trust in God to take care of you; be a person of honest and hard work regardless of whether you get the credit.)

Wearing makeup
What originally prompted me to start thinking about this topic was MJ's 40 Day Makeup Fast. Whereas MJ struggled with what her addiction to makeup was doing to her self-identity, I have wondered if the fact that I never wear makeup is hurting me professionally. Do people take me less seriously or compare me less favorably to other professional women? Yes, it's a gender double-standard, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. But Mike hates makeup, and I hate the feeling I get when I wear makeup: that my real, God-given face somehow isn't good enough.

Where the rubber meets the road
As I think about going for job interviews soon, I've gone back and forth about whether or not I should go back to makeup. Part of me says, Be your true self! If they don't like it, you don't want to work there anyway. But the job-coach part of me says, Give yourself every advantage! You wear your nicest suit, right? Don't let them find any reason to disqualify you before you land the job.

(Update: Want more information on why I don't wear makeup? 'Becca wrote a great follow-up post explaining all the reasons she doesn't wear makeup. Pretty much everything she says is spot-on for me.)

Gossiping/office politics
This is probably the area where the book Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office convicted me the most. Yes, I am that woman who just sits at her desk and works hard and doesn't want to exchange office gossip around the water cooler. But that whispered chatter is often how relationships are built, and relationships are vital to a successful career. It took me long enough to learn NOT to indulge in gossip with my friends, because it was mean and hurtful and not a Christian thing to do (plus things often got back to people). Now I have to learn how to encourage coworkers when they come over to talk office politics with me? I get the advantage of it... but it just makes me feel kind of icky.

Where the rubber meets the road
It makes sense that the people who know ahead of time which jobs are likely to open up or which offices are going to be reorganized are in the best position to use those situations to their advantage. I would have been at a much greater disadvantage if my boss hadn't been so connected and shared his knowledge with me when it was going to affect our office. Now that I'll be starting a new job, I have to decide how much effort I want to put into building those personal relationships with coworkers, even if it includes discussing other people in the office. Is there a gray area, like I'll listen to things but not repeat them if I'm not sure they're true? Or I'll discuss only those things related to my office or the organization as a whole? That seems difficult and potentially hair-splitting.

For-profit work
One of the reasons Mike wanted to leave his previous job was that, at the end of the day, everything came down to making more money for the restaurant. In his position now, his primary objective is to be a role model, mentor, and support for students at a critical transition period of their lives. I feel like I would find it difficult for me to be fully engaged and excited about any job in which the top priority was profit. But the reality is that non-profit jobs just don't pay as much. I once heard someone -- Tim Ferriss, maybe? -- say that he didn't understand how someone felt they could have the maximum positive impact on the world if they were making a relatively small salary, with the implication that you should get the highest-paying job you can and then spend your money where you think it will have the biggest positive impact on the world. But could I do that without hating my job and/or getting sucked into feelings of pride and greed?

Where the rubber meets the road
In the bit of job searching I've done so far, I've been looking almost exclusively at non-profits. Occasionally I will venture over to look at for-profit postings, but they almost immediately make me go bleeeccch and retreat back over to Idealist. Then I have to wonder if I'm doing a disservice to my future kids -- are we going have to scrape together money for adoptions, or adopt fewer kids than we planned? -- or to Mike, who feels like his life calling from God is to buy dozens of acres of land and open a retreat center / farm. I trust God to find a way... but I also know he gave me the brains and skills to be a very successful professional, and I wonder if that's part of the way.

Tell me: Do you struggle with these kinds of dilemmas? Are there other ways professional success has come up against your personal ethics or faith? How have you dealt with it?


  1. I struggle with #3 also. I love my supervisor, but she's a talker - with no malicious intent, she likes to know what's going on with everyone and likes to tell people what's going on with everyone else. I think she thinks it's her way of staying connected with people. I finally confronted her on it when she made a negative comment about another staff member, who had not been performing well recently, and that person's prospects of remaining employed. I told her later that it made me uncomfortable to hear that about a coworker, and she admitted she should not have said that and apologized. She has also encouraged me not to stay at my desk all day and let the staff "get to know" me, which I did appreciate as constructive feedback and have worked harder to develop relationships with other staff. But I still avoid conversations that sound anything like gossip, and if someone says something to me about someone else, I tend to just nod and say, "Huh," and promptly try to leave, forget it, and not repeat it. I think it's hard to walk that line: to consistently represent yourself as friendly and, at the same time, respectful of others' privacy and information. I figure, if they don't tell me directly, they didn't feel I needed to know! :)

    1. So glad I'm not alone on this! You are exactly right about the struggle between being friendly and being respectful of others' privacy. When I want to get to know people I work with, I feel like that means either asking questions about their life outside of work (which they may not want to discuss) or bringing up work-related topics, which tend to be some version of "So, did you hear...?"

      Good for you for speaking up when you felt uncomfortable about your supervisor's comment. I bet a lot of people have been in that kind of position and not known what to do, since on the one hand it's like, "Oh, this person trusts me, this is a sign that we have built a closer relationship," while on the other hand you feel you need to stop those kinds of comments. And it can be even more awkward when it's your supervisor!

  2. I also have a lot of trouble talking myself up or boasting of my achievements for job applications and interviews. I really would prefer to be humble, but I think it's true that it often comes across to potential employers as a lack of confidence. A really interesting study I read about recently found that people who score much higher in trait narcissim do much better a job interviews and are viewed as more confident because of how much they talk themselves up (regardless of whether they actually would be better at the job).

    I also am concerned about gossip. I think it not only impacts job prospects, but also whether I just generally get along with colleagues - if they're not gossiping with you they might be gossiping about you! I don't really have answers about that one either unfortunately.

    1. I think I saw something about that study on narcissism also, and it makes sense. The whole job search process is kind of weird, how it puts more emphasis on people's ability to talk about their work than to actually do their work.

      It's possible people are gossiping about you if you're not gossiping with them, but it's just as likely they're not talking about you at all. And in a work setting, that could be just as bad -- if your name never comes up, people don't think of you when they need someone to join a group or take on a project. That's one of the reasons building relationships with coworkers is so important.

  3. Conflicts of faith/ethics at work is actually what caused me to decide not to pursue a career in journalism three months before I graduated from college.

    After working with a paper for 20+ hours a week, I realized just how much I had to do to move up the ladder as a journalist and just how much of that I wasn't willing to do. It put me in an awkward position for a while, because if I wasn't going to do what I had studied to do...what was I going to do?

    I'm still figuring it out, but now that I'm in an actual office environment, I struggle a lot with the gossip thing. My other coworkers love to bash each other behind each others backs and I have to remind myself that that isn't professional or Christ-like behavior.

    1. Wow, that would be tough to make that decision right before graduating. I bet there are also many people who have gone into journalism, or worked in media in some way, and then left because of those ethical issues. I personally didn't want to go into journalism (despite majoring in it) because of the hours, but the more I learned about the problems with newspapers, the less I wanted to get involved in that anyway. I feel like there will always be a conflict when you have to serve the dual purposes of reporting the news and helping the paper make money. Do you report on what people should read, or what they want to read / will read? I don't blame you at all for getting out of that.

  4. Hi Jessica! This is Mary Kate from UD. Even though we have some differing opinions on things I always enjoy reading your blog. I think for-profit work can be good for a lot of people depending on their talents and gifts, etc. I have always found that my gifts and talents are more in line with being in non-profit work, and I am happier there too.

    I also don't wear makeup- it's because I have issues with self-image anyway, and I don't need to be covering up my face. Also, it can cause you to look older than you are down the road when you DON'T wear makeup, and can do some damage to the skin according to some reports. And it can be a huge waste of money- something else that your post touched on about "waiting for life to start". My husband and I have a huge amount of debt, almost all of it student loan debt, and I feel like we have to get it all paid off before we ever REALLY get to do anything in life. We also have to live with my in-laws and they have been great, but we would really like to live on our own sometime soon.

    My current job right now allows me to have a flexible schedule and not really be caught up in office politics since I work independently and only have a staff meeting with everyone else once a month. It's also the highest hourly wage I have ever made so it really isn't bad in a lot of ways. Only problem is that I only get paid when I see my clients, so if they cancel or if I take time off, I don't get paid.

    1. Hi Mary Kate,

      Thanks so much for commenting! I didn't know you read my blog :)

      That's a really great point about the financial aspect of wearing makeup. Even when I did wear makeup, I used it so infrequently that things like my mascara would "expire" after I'd used them only a few times, and then I had to decide if being wasteful or being unsanitary was a bigger issue. If I did want to wear makeup to interviews, I'd have to go out and buy a whole bunch of stuff, and then it would probably just sit around for another year.

      I hear you on the student loan debt. We were blessed that only Mike had debt and his parents are paying off part of it, so we basically just threw most of our extra money at his undergrad loans for the past few years and got them finally paid off last month. What a huge financial suck those were. Now we just need to pay back my parents the loan they gave us for his grad school, and then I feel like we can FINALLY start saving up for our big life goals. Of course, how quickly we can accomplish those will depend on my salary -- which goes back to non-profit vs. for-profit work :)

      Good luck to you and your husband on your goal of getting your own place!


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