Inside Perspective: Balancing personal beliefs against corporate responsibility

Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc., a Canon Group Co.  He is also president of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. The views expressed herein are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position or viewpoint of Océ North America Inc., Canon Inc. or any of the Océ or Canon companies.

As in-house lawyers, we must be fair-minded, we must be good examples, we must be sympathetic and empathetic.  For most of us, this is not so difficult.  However, we live in a complicated world.  The workplace is a very diverse place.  In-house lawyers encounter diversity in every form: cultural, color, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation, ethnic, religious.  How do we ensure that “we all just get along” without compromising our personal beliefs and moving the business goals of the company forward, all while protecting the company from legal risk?

I know the general counsel of a very large public company.  On his desk is a Bible, on his wall is artwork with quotes from that Bible.  Personally, I feel very comfortable in his office because I share in his beliefs.  If I was an employee of this man, would I feel as comfortable if he had a Quran on his desk and Islamic art on his walls?  In such a case it would be the responsibility of that general counsel to make me feel just as comfortable under the latter circumstances as I do under the former.

How does one practice one’s personal beliefs without “offending” someone who believes differently?  In the corporate world, I do not wear my religion on my shirt sleeve, I do not preach or engage in religious discussions (unless invited to do so).  To behave otherwise would not only be counter to the manner in which I share my religion with others outside the office, but could also arguably create exposure for the company by evidencing a perceived (not actual) prejudice in my way of thinking.  Of all the offices within the corporate structure (except for perhaps Human Resources), the general counsel must demonstrate absolute freedom from any hint of bias for or against someone who is not like them.

On the other hand, should in-house counsel be relegated to a state of exhibiting absolutely no spiritual life whatsoever?  That would be quite unfair to those whose beliefs require them to reach out to others who may be spiritually in need.  How, then, do we as in-house counsel “practice” our religion?  Just like the business situations we encounter daily, we have to find fair compromise, balancing two of the most important aspects of our lives (work life and spiritual life), walking a fine line between the permissible and the impermissible.

In many cases, people in our position offer “testimony” to their faith through the way they live their lives, their interactions with clients, their daily practice of the principles they adhere to, their efforts at instilling those principles (not the religion) into the culture of the business.  In other words, through example.

There are so many issues dividing us today.  My hope is that although we have diverse viewpoints, we look to the common moral threads running through each of our belief systems and, within the workplace at least, apply them.  Make no mistake, I am not advocating that we act in a morally relative manner.  Rather, we must respect each other’s belief systems, hold true to our own principles,  and practice our own traditions while being sensitive to creating a perception of bias for or against one belief system or another.

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