On almost any day of the week, Chris Hobgood can be found strolling the halls of the headquarters of HomeBanc Mortgage in Atlanta, chatting up employees in his low-key way. He asks them about their families, their work, then listens intently to their answers. "If you ever need anything," he usually says, "please let me know."
Hobgood might seem like a hands-on manager, but he's not even an employee of HomeBanc. He's the company chaplain. A chaplain in a corporate setting may seem odd, but it's old hat to HomeBanc's 1,300 employees. There are an estimated 4,000 chaplains tending employee flocks nationwide, and their ranks are growing. Chaplains can be found at firms as diverse as Summit Electric in Albuquerque, N.M., snack food maker Herr Foods in Nottingham, Pa., and Texas-based poultry processor Pilgrim's Pride. The transient nature of the workforce and the fact that many Americans do not have an ongoing relationship with a clergy member make chaplains an appealing workplace benefit. "People spend the majority of their working lives here," says HomeBanc CEO Patrick Flood. "And I believe that if we recognize their needs and try to create a climate that makes them better people, the byproduct will be better, happier, and more productive associates."
For rent. Some companies hire their own chaplains. But many, like Hobgood, are employed on a contract basis. Two of the largest providers of employee chaplains are Dallas-based Marketplace Chaplains USA, with 1,600 chaplains counseling employees of 254 companies in 38 states, and Corporate Chaplains of America in Raleigh, N.C., which has 75 chaplains on its payroll ministering to some 300 firms. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated in Charlotte, N.C., for example, has 19 chaplains on call from Corporate Chaplains for its 5,000 employees. "We recognized that we needed to try to deal with our employees as whole employees--bodies, mind, and soul," says Lauren Steele, vice president of corporate affairs. "It's been enthusiastically embraced by our employees, primarily because it's completely nonintrusive."
Typically, chaplains visit the workplace once or twice a week and are generally on call 24-7 for emergencies. Whether it's a suit and tie when visiting HomeBanc or jeans and work boots at Pilgrim's Pride, the clerics leave their religious garb at home and dress to blend in with staffers. They also make hospital visits, offer premarital counseling, and officiate at weddings and funerals. The chaplains are asked to keep track of the number of people they see but are never asked to disclose the content of the consultations. "Recently, we had an employee who was so upset about a conflict with his supervisor he was in tears, but we couldn't get at what was going on," says Dave Butters, human resources manager at the Pilgrim's Pride plant in Marshville, N.C. "The next day, I saw the employee talking to one of the chaplains. Later that day, he was smiling and gave me a big thumbs up. I don't know what happened, but it was obviously something good."
While the vast majority of chaplains at Marketplace Chaplains and Corporate Chaplains are Christian, they also have Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist clergy available by request for staffers. Sometimes, the chaplain services run into skepticism prompted by fears that they would act more as missionaries than as counselors. The services say they've been able to assuage most of those doubts by assuring companies that employees would not be pressured to participate. And the chaplain services say the increased emphasis on spirituality in the workplace post-9/11 has also helped quell misgivings. "We are there as caregivers, not as a representative of any denomination," says Gil Stricklin, the former Army chaplain who founded Marketplace Chaplains in 1984. "My personal faith motivates me, but I don't use it to religiously harass anyone in any way."
Even employees who attend church regularly take advantage of having a man or woman of the cloth at the office. One HomeBanc employee consulted Hobgood for the first time last summer when he became overwhelmed as he tried to help an unemployed, drug-addicted family member get back on his feet. "The strain was destroying me personally, professionally, and taking a huge toll on my family," he says. "I didn't know what to do so I went to talk to the chaplain at work." The friendly ear and advice the employee received from Hobgood helped him cope in a constructive way. "It ultimately didn't work out, but I'm at peace with that because I can look back and say we did everything to help."