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Managing Quaker Identity in the Workplace - Some thoughts and ideas

I submitted an article for the Q&B website in November 2008, prior to commencing a PhD in Quaker Studies in January 2009. The article focused on my initial impressions of Q&B immediately after attending the annual conference at the Woodbrooke Study Centre in Birmingham. Since submission I have started the first stage of my study, working with my supervisor, Ben Pink Dandelion, to academically strengthen my research proposal. I hope to collect data by informally interviewing Quakers and would like volunteers from Q&B to talk in depth, at a future point, about their Quakerism. As Q&B members see themselves explicitly as Quakers within the workplace, they appear to be an ideal body from which to draw relevant information. This article is, therefore, both a brief exposition of my research ideas and an awareness-raising exercise for my thesis within the Quakers and Business group.

Research Outline #1
Firstly, I see autonomy and agency as central to the concept of Quakerism. In other words, it appears to me that one of the main features of Quaker belief is that individuals are largely free to choose what they believe and are seen as free to act – or not to act - upon those beliefs. From this point of view, a Quaker life can be seen as essentially a moral one. Modern Quakerism in the UK is often described as ‘liberal Quakerism’. This view of Quakerism regards one’s ethical choices as primarily an individual matter of the conscience. Although its roots are in Christianity, Quakerism embraces diversity. It does this by recognising that individuals should be led by their consciences rather than doctrine. In terms of work, for example, this approach to belief can have many and diverse outcomes. It is these ethical choices and outcomes in which I am principally interested.

Generally speaking, ethical theories can be divided into two groups: those which view the rightness of actions to be determined only by their beneficial outcomes; those which hold that certain moral principles can never be compromised, even if actions based on them result in less than beneficial outcomes. Work, it seems, often involves a conscious need to balance these two different perspectives. Part of my study involves seeking to discover whether there is a particular Quaker way of solving this practical dilemma.

Research Outline #2

A second aspect of my research centres more specifically on how Quakers manage their identity within the contemporary world of work. This often involves ideas of character and personal association with the demands of current work practices. For example, work in the past, indeed the not-too-distant past, was most often based on a typical industrial model. This generally involved workers performing hierarchically pre-determined tasks with mostly measurable outcomes. In the typical model, it was visibly productive. However, the nature of the economy has more recently altered, for example to more service-based and customer-focused models. In general terms, workers are required to perform their jobs differently, often being required to understand (rather than simply know) and, importantly, to engage other people. To undertake these roles, workers are now often employed because their character or personality is suited to their particular job role. There is a strong personal identification with the job, because of this, and an awareness that performing successfully at work can be strongly equated with the suitability of one’s character: for example, job descriptions can often be extended to lists of appropriate personal qualities.

This situation is understood by employers who might also even extend the definition of the job role so that the worker’s character and, possibly, moral frame has to adapt and even change. Increasingly, too, organisations are adopting explicit company values, a secular personal and collective ideal which can be conveyed to staff. This might be done in a quasi-religious fashion. Indeed, workers might be expected, at least implicitly, to ‘sign up’ to a (possibly alternative) ethical perspective.  I hope to uncover, through this research, whether Quakers discern any deliberate or unintentional attempts to expose them to an alternative moral framework within the workplace. It would be especially interesting to find out how this ‘otherness’ was perceived by those at different levels of responsibility and whether there really is a Quaker way at work. If anyone has any comments on this or any related issue in the meantime, I would be more than pleased to discuss them via my email address or on the telephone. (See Q&B ‘Member’ section)

Mark Read