Putting People First

John Beckett

From: Mastering Monday, © 2006. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, www.ivpress.com

Never be sympathetic with the soul whose case makes you come to the conclusion that God is hard. God is more tender than we can conceive.

Oswald Chambers


Attending Billy Graham’s crusade in New York City on June 2005 was a poignant, precious experience. Dr. Graham, age eighty-six, spoke with the same sincerity, simplicity and clarity that have marked his ministry for over fifty years. I found myself listening intently to every word.

It was youth night and I was flanked by thousands of young people. They seemed to fully represent the incredible cross-section of races and national origins only New York City can produce.

Toward the end of his address, Dr. Graham leaned forward on the podium, fixed his eyes on the young people and declared with great deliberation, “God…loves…you.”

If indeed this was, as many expect, Billy Graham’s final crusade, he could not have deposited with his listeners a more desperately needed legacy than the message encapsulated in those words.

God loves you.

I trust these words burned in the hearts of those who heard them–as they did in mine. It is because of the Father’s great love for each person that every follower of Christ is called to put people first. Yes, many forces mitigate against this priority in the business world: trade-offs with profits, dealing with under-performers, interpersonal problems. Yet from God’s perspective there is no greater priority on this earth than people.

In this chapter I will expand on this theme. We begin with Megan’s story, an account describing one of the most remarkable events I’ve ever experienced in the workplace, or anywhere.


Megan’s Story

Vic had recently been appointed our plant superintendent, and I dropped by his office to chat and see how he was getting along. His broad smile and upbeat attitude confirmed his enthusiasm for his new position. That’s why it was all the more disconcerting when he stopped by my office later that same day. Gone was the smile. His grim expression belied an obviously heavy heart.

“One of our employees, a young lady, asked to see me,” Vic said in a somber voice. “She requested a day off for personal reasons. Without probing, I told her that would be fine. But then she lingered as if there were something more she wanted to say.” Vic paused and shook his head, “Mr. Beckett, she told me she needed time off to have an abortion.”

Vic was getting choked up. “I tried to talk to her, to tell her the company would do all it could to help. But she said she had no choice. Her mind was made up.”

“Vic,” I said, “I’m not sure what we ought to do. But why don’t we take some time now to pray about it.”

Vic agreed, but added that he couldn’t give me her name. He had pledged to keep it confidential.

At home that evening, I explained the situation to my wife Wendy. We, too, prayed for this young woman, unknown to us but known to God.

It’s not completely unusual for me to wake up in the middle of the night. (Usually I can chalk it up to having too much to eat.) But that night was different. I awoke around 2 a.m. with our employee on my mind. Suddenly–to my amazement–I “saw” her face and knew her name. Could I be dreaming? No. I was awake.

The next morning, still processing the unusual experience, I sought Vic out first thing. I realize you can’t tell me who spoke with you. But if I were to tell you her name, could you confirm it?”

“Yes, I guess so.”

“Well, it was Megan, wasn’t it?”

Vic was shocked. “Of all our employees, how did you know?”

I told Vic what happened the night before. We sat for awhile in stunned silence and then agreed to have Megan join us.

“Megan, I want to say first that Vic didn’t break his confidentiality with you. He never mentioned you by name. But he told me about the situation.” Megan’s eyes got wider, wondering what was coming next.

“Vic and I prayed about this yesterday, asking that the Lord would help us know what to do in the situation. Then last evening my wife and I prayed about it. Can you believe that during the night I woke up and your face and your name were right there in front of me? I knew it was you! This morning I told Vic about what happened, and he was as surprised as I am. Now I need to ask you a question, Megan. What do you think this means?”

She shifted nervously in her chair. Then she answered, “I think God must be telling me something.”

“That’s the way I see it,” I said.

As we continued talking, the tears began to flow. Megan opened up her difficult world–financial hardship, drug-related concerns with the father of her unborn child. “I just don’t know how to cope. I don’t see how I can make it. It’s not what I want, but I don’t think I have a choice.”

I asked Megan if we could pray together, and she said, “Yes, that would help.”

“Lord,” I prayed, “You must love Megan a lot. She’s facing this huge decision. Would you help her know the right thing to do?”

When Megan left my office that day, neither Vic nor I had any idea what her next steps would be. Against every natural instinct to do otherwise, it seemed as though she had steeled herself for what she described as the most difficult decision of her life.

Would Megan show up to work the next day? If not, she would be following through on her decision to have an abortion. When I came into work the following morning, it was the first question I asked Vic.

“She’s here,” Vic said with guarded optimism. “I hope this means she’s changed her mind.”

“Let’s speak with her,” I said.

As Megan walked into my office, she looked as though a thousand pound weight had been lifted from her shoulders. With tears streaming down her face and an ear-to-ear smile, she burst out: “I’ve decided to keep my baby!”

I cried. Vic cried too. We laughed. We hugged. We assured Megan of our intention to stand with her in whatever she needed–help with medical expenses, time off, needs for the new baby, whatever. We would see that she got that assistance.

Then I sensed the Holy Spirit “tugging my sleeve.” My next words were not premeditated but came out spontaneously. “Megan, you’ve seen how much the Lord loves you and cares for you. Would you like to invite him into your life?”

It was almost as though she was prepared for that question. Without hesitation she said, “Yes, I would.” We talked briefly about what it means for a person to come to Christ, and then the three of us prayed. I’ll never forget her countenance as she opened her eyes and looked up. In those brief moments, Megan had been transformed into a new person.

Even now, I can’t find adequate words to describe how much this experience meant to me. To see the Lord’s enormous care for that young lady in trouble. To witness the miracle of God revealing her identity to me in the middle of the night. And above all, to see this take place in a normal manufacturing company with “ordinary” people like Vic and me. Two lives saved–Megan’s unborn child and, spiritually, Megan herself. What an awesome privilege!


Workplace Difficulties

While we can, and should, view each person in the workplace with compassion, practical issues remain: poor habits, substandard performance, bad attitudes and unsuitability for a particular job. I find these issues are commonly on the minds of business people. They want to know how to deal with them and whether they can be resolved redemptively.

In my view we should make every reasonable effort to help people work through their difficulties, going the extra mile to turn failure into success. Sometimes problems are those of timing. Megan didn’t come to a place of coping with her unplanned pregnancy until her personal crisis was fully formed. The prodigal son didn’t come home until his stomach gnawed with hunger. It is tremendously satisfying when a struggling employee is able to see the difficulty and make needed adjustments. But there are times when even our best efforts are insufficient. Then it may be necessary to take the toughest step of all: termination. However, when it’s done with compassion and grace, the outcome can be redemptive.

This was brought home to me in an unusual (and humorous) way. Of all settings, I was in a dental chair being prepped for the replacement of a filling. Just as my mouth was full of dental hardware so I could only mumble, the dental technician said, out of the blue, “You’re Mr. Beckett, aren’t you?”

I grunted assent.

“Well I want to thank you for firing my husband.”

I was stuck. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. I could only listen to the ensuing monologue.

“It happened ten years ago,” she said. “A few days after your company hired my husband, he was notified he had failed a drug test.” (Later, we changed our policy. We now wait for testing results before a person begins to work.) “You may not recall,” she continued, “but you called him into your office before he left. You said, ‘You realize I don’t have any choice but to terminate you. But I want to tell you something. You’re at a crossroads. You can keep going the way you are, and the results are very predictable. Or you can take this as a wake-up call. You can decide you’re going to turn your life around.’”

I’m sure the technician could see the beads of perspiration on my forehead under all the paraphernalia as she continued: “I want you to know that my husband took your advice. Today, he’s a good father, a good husband, and he has a fine job. Thank you for firing my husband!”

I wish I could say that all our terminations have turned out this way. They haven’t. With some, there has been lingering resentment and a sense of injustice. But I am grateful that many have “made lemonade” out of the lemons, moving on to productive and rewarding careers. Regardless of the outcome, however, we must be prepared to take action when a situation can’t be brought around. In a strange way, it’s an aspect of our care for people.


People versus Profits

Workplace difficulties frequently appear when decisions pit people against profits. Nathan Sanders, a pastor and counselor to business people in Federalsburg, Maryland, asked me: “Should a business owner pay more attention to the welfare of his employees or to profitability?” This is a tough question, with many nuances and many practical implications. But from a biblical perspective, we’re never wrong to put people before profits. Ultimately people produce profits, and without people there would be no profits, not even a business. The right people, properly placed, respected and rewarded, are the single greatest key to increasing business and profitability. This is what Jim Collins means by “getting the right people on the bus.”

But Collins also says we’ve got to get the wrong people off the bus. He cites a Wells Fargo executive’s view on this difficult issue: “The only way to deliver to the people who are achieving is not to burden them with people who are not achieving” (Good to Great, p. 53). We make every effort to help people work through difficulties, often with good results. But we’ve also erred in having the “second mile” become the third, fourth and fifth, putting off the inevitable termination. Of course, that final step, when other options are exhausted, should be taken with compassion, but it must be taken. The price is simply too great otherwise.

I know of no business today that can survive while failing to improve productivity, use its resources more wisely and employ its people more creatively. Global competition is too intense. We tell our employees that we need to “continually earn the right to manufacture in Northern Ohio.” Complacency is not an option. We must steadily improve what we’re doing if we’re going to stay viable.



The contentious topic of outsourcing is too vast to adequately cover here, but I’d like to offer a few thoughts relating to people. Shipping jobs overseas has been wrenching for many, especially in the manufacturing sector. Yet this same shift is estimated to have saved U.S. consumers roughly $600 billion since the mid-1990s (Fortune magazine, October 4, 2004). What is the “higher good,” especially when we consider the benefit to foreign workers, who, perhaps for the first time, are enjoying opportunities to earn a good income, providing for their families and even owning their homes? While many would argue otherwise, I believe outsourcing may be a case where short-term loss to some will, longer-term, be more than offset by gains to others worldwide, and ultimately to our own country.

Another consideration: Thomas L. Friedman, in his insightful book, The World is Flat, says, “Most companies build offshore factories not simply to obtain cheaper labor for products they want to sell in America or Europe. Another motivation is to serve that foreign market” (p. 123). In fact, he notes that the U.S. Commerce Department finds that 90 percent of the output from U.S.-owned offshore factories is sold to foreign customers.

This is actually our motivation with one of our companies as we open a manufacturing facility in China. The products we make there will be used in Asia rather than shipped back to the United States. China itself is a vast, rapidly growing market with over one billion potential customers, an opportunity too great to be ignored. In addition to the jobs we create, we want to “export” what we have learned about building a business that honors God. We want a company in mainland China where each person is deeply respected, where core values and high ethical standards are non-negotiable and excellence in quality and every aspect of performance is the norm. It will be a challenge, we know, in a country where the prevailing culture is so different from our own. But we believe that God wants to extend his kingdom not just into China but into workplaces around the worlds, helping enable and ennoble the lives of those who are often in greatest need, physically, economically, and spiritually.


Guiding Principles

As we confront the challenges surrounding the employment of people, companies can help themselves enormously by establishing and communicating governing philosophies and guidelines. One of our core values states our expectation that each employee is to have a “profound respect for the individual,” whether that person is a fellow employee, a supplier, a customer, or a member of the community. We then expand on our expectations regarding our work environment as follows:

  • We want our work and our work relationships to be dynamic, challenging, rewarding, and respectful–and all employees to be knowledgeable and well trained, with a strong sense of accountability and personal responsibility.
  • We anticipate ongoing change, and want change to be viewed as an opportunity, not a threat.
  • We expect individual growth, and will encourage such growth by providing easily available opportunities for education and training.
  • We will foster a culture of innovation throughout the company encouraging both large and small improvements.
  • We want to build on the concept of teams and teamwork, encouraging good communications, mutual support and respect for our fellow employees, regardless of position.

These guidelines are beacons pointing toward a work environment that encourages our people to flourish in their work and have an integral role in our company’s success. We consider these principles the practical outworking of an underlying reality: God cares deeply for people.


A CEO with a Heart for People

During the Reagan administration I was privileged to make several visits to the White House. On a few occasions I was part of a small group who met with the president. Mr. Reagan always struck me as a person who had a genuine interest in others. In fact, one time I was with about twenty guests and watched in amazement as the president made his way around our conference table warmly greeting each by name.

On one of my visits to the White House, I was with a large group touring this elegant building dating back to the 1800s. I had been through the White House before and was a little ahead of the rest of the group. When I arrived at the final room on our tour, the only other person in it was an imposing Secret Service agent. As I walked over to greet him, I noticed a large painting of President Reagan nearby. Instead of my customary “hello,” I pointed to the portrait and said, more brashly than usual, “What do you think of this guy?”

“We love him!” It was not what I expected to hear, especially from this tall, muscular guardian of the president.

“What do you mean, we love him?” I asked back.

“Look,” he said, “I’ve worked for seven of them.” (My mind did a fast rewind to the immediate predecessors: Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower. He had worked for all of them.)

The agent continued, “I’ve seen him in good times and bad, even at 2 a.m. on Air Force One when he’s dog tired. He’s always the same. He’s interested in us. He wants to know how we’re doing. He asks about our families. We love him!”

This testimony “from the trenches” spoke volumes to me about this CEO. In the midst of his myriad responsibilities, he was interested in “the little guy”who, in his estimation, was not little at all. The President of the United States had an intrinsic and profound respect for every person. He had a heart that reflected that of the heavenly Father, for God cares deeply about people. So must we.

From: Mastering Monday by John D. Beckett. ©2006 by John D. Beckett. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

John D. Beckett was born and grew up in Elyria, Ohio, the oldest of three children. After attending public schools in Elyria, he graduated from M.I.T. in 1960 with a Bachelor of Science in Economics & Mechanical Engineering. Following graduation he worked as an engineer in the aerospace industry.

He joined his father in a small family-owned manufacturing business in 1963, becoming president in 1965 upon the death of his father. He is now chairman of the company, and has helped guide the business to worldwide leadership in the manufacture and sales of engineered components for residential and commercial heating. The company, with its affiliates, currently has sales exceeding $100 million, with more than 600 employees.

Mr. Beckett has long been active in both church and community-related activities. He helped found Intercessors For America, a national prayer organization, in 1973 and continues to serve as its Board Chairman. He is a founding board member of The King’s College in New York City and a director of Graphic Packaging Corporation, a NYSE-listed manufacturing company.

His first book, Loving Monday: Succeeding in Business Without Selling Your Soul, was published in 1998 by InterVarsity Press. The book is Mr. Beckett’s account of how he has sought to practically integrate his faith and his work. It is currently available in over twelve languages. In 1999, Christian Broadcasting Network named him “Christian Businessman of the Year.” Mr. Beckett received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Spring Arbor University in 2002, and was named manufacturing Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young in 2003.

Mr. Beckett resides in Elyria, Ohio with his wife, Wendy, to whom he has been married since 1961. They are the parents of six children and grandparents of seventeen.

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