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Monday, May 30, 2016

Elders and HR Departments

Gotcha, Mr. Employee!
Having recently experienced a round of mandatory workplace sensitivity indoctrination administered by our Human Resources department (part of a company-wide initiative, not the result of any particular violation on my part), I’m struck by the differences in how offenses are handled between believers and between my fellow employees.

When I say “not the result of any particular violation”, I should probably append the word “yet” just to be safe. The number of ways one may offend in the workplace today is truly remarkable, and there’s no guarantee I will not fall afoul of their ever-morphing web of ultra-flexible guidelines at some point.

They’re like flypaper. I kid you not.

Don’t Bite Your Lip

Our HR department, for instance, expects to be informed if, in the process of correcting an erring employee, a manager happens to clench his jaw or if tension is observed in his neck. The famous British “stiff upper lip” is rarely stiff enough; it cannot appear as if you’re remotely in danger of losing your cool. And whatever you do, don’t bite it!

A clenched jaw is only a Level One offense and probably will not even result in a reprimand, but HR would certainly like to have a record on file just in case one day the employee goes postal and starts hurling chairs.

I’ll try to restrain myself.

I observe at least three major differences between modern workplace behaviour-management techniques and the scriptural method of resolving offenses that divide followers of the Lord Jesus:

Biblical Offenses are Quantifiable

In our HR Bizarro World there is no unequivocal definition of “offensive”. In fact, an “offense” can occur without a victim. Yes, that’s correct: a third party is free to report perceived violations that don’t actually impact them personally on the basis that a hypothetical employee might have theoretically taken offense (assuming he or she had actually been present, which they were not).

If there’s anything less quantifiable and more ephemeral than that, I can’t think what it might be.

Biblical accusations demand an actual violation of some particular agreed-upon rule. When the “two or three witnesses” principle was laid down in Deuteronomy, it had to do with “crimes” and “offenses” that violated the law given by God to Moses at Sinai. All Israelites had promised to abide by everything God had said, so there was always a mutually agreeable understanding of the term “offense”: God’s.

The principle of using multiple witnesses to establish the truth of a matter is restated by the Lord Jesus. If I bring witnesses to establish that you have offended me and the witnesses find nothing offensive about what you said or did, that ought to make me rethink my position. If they agree with me, I have strengthened my case. Either way, we are dealing with objective definitions of right and wrong, not perceptions about motive.

If you’re accused of something, it’s awfully nice to know what it is and what standard it violates.

Biblical Offenses Require the Offended Person to State His/Her Case

While some companies still require a complainant to stand behind their claims, many (including the last two I’ve worked for) will investigate a complaint against a fellow employee in complete confidentiality in order to protect the feelings and anonymity of the complainant. The potential for systemic abuse in such a situation is significant: employees with grudges can say absolutely anything they like knowing they’ll never have to face the person they’re accusing and have their credibility challenged.

Not so among believers. It may be that a third party never has to be involved at all:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”
Having the offended party take the initial step of confronting the offender directly has a couple of benefits:
  1. For all but the most pugnacious, face-to-face confrontation is fairly unappealing. The pause occasioned by digesting the responsibility of stepping up and owning our unhappiness with someone’s behavior gives us a chance to assess just how offended we really are. That’s not a bad thing. Maybe my complaint could be more carefully worded. Maybe now that I think about it, it’s not actually worth fussing over.
  2. Having to state our case to someone directly involved in the disagreement without the benefit of a supportive third party forces us to be scrupulously honest in our accusations. Only a complete reprobate can look his fellow Christian in the eye and lie baldly about something both parties know to be untrue. And hearing the offender’s side of the story directly from him or her may cause us to reassess our position.
In contrast, many attempts at resolving workplace complaints fail to make the accuser accountable for proving his or her case.

Biblical Offenses Lead to a Conclusion

The tendency of modern workplace resolution procedures is to turn single offenses that might be dealt with in a ten minute meeting into diagnoses and ongoing treatment plans. Rather than having made a single offensive remark, the offender is labeled a “racist”, “sexist”, “homophobe”, “transphobe” or characterized permanently in some other way: “has anger issues”, “doesn’t play well with others”, etc. While this may be useful in perpetuating the need for HR employees, it has little to do with solving actual problems between employees. An employee sentenced to weeks of reindoctrination and performance assessments for a single offense is more likely to bear an ongoing grudge than one who is forgiven.

Scripture, on the other hand, recognizes that “we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man”. There are no perfect employees (including those in HR), just as there are no perfect Christians.

The object of confronting an erring brother or sister in Christ is not to win a contest but rather to solve a problem; to have the dispute over with, satisfactorily dispensed with, done and dusted. That doesn’t mean no other disagreement may ever arise between the same two parties, but if it does so, the earlier offense should have been forgiven and forgotten. It does not form part of the discussion.

The point is to “win” or “gain” your brother, as the Lord put it.

In the kingdom of heaven even a repeated offense may be forgiven. Love, after all, covers a multitude of sins. It doesn’t exhume them and repeatedly humiliate the repentant sinner.

Elders are Not HR

Elders, thankfully, are not the church’s HR department. While they may occasionally be called upon to settle issues between believers, taking such things to the church is very much a last resort (and I suspect most elders have enough to do without being dragged into personal disputes). While those of us who work in the corporate world may be used to a very different set of protocols for dealing with our problems, running to the elders should not be a kneejerk reaction among Christians.

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