The letter and the Spirit

Ian Kirk-Smith considers some recent events at Friends House

For the past few weeks there has been a protest, mostly on a Monday, just after noon outside the front doors of the headquarters of British Quakerism: Friends House in central London.

The protesters are urging Friends House to ‘reinstate their staff’. The staff in this case refers to people who were employed on zero-hours contracts and who are now no longer employed at Friends House.

The existence of zero-hours contracts in Friends House, once it became widely known, prompted action by the management. Several contracts were terminated. They were replaced by new posts that guaranteed fixed hours of work. However, there were fewer positions than previously.

Three individuals, who were initially appointed by Friends House (London) Hospitality Ltd, decided to protest about the way the matter has been dealt with. The hospitality company is a wholly owned subsidiary of Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM). All of the directors are Quakers – as are the trustees for BYM, the ultimate employers. The staff allege that they were discriminated against.

The story is now – through the protest, posters placed in public spaces and the release of information disseminated by some media outlets – in the public domain. This is not good for British Quakerism, when so much excellent, unreported, work is being done in many areas.

The recording clerk of BYM, Paul Parker, has written a press release on the situation. It is available on the Quakers in Britain website and gives some background to the story. It states that Friends House acted promptly and professionally and Paul Parker writes: ‘In all of this BYM has sought to treat its current and former employees fairly, compassionately and with the dignity which it believes each human being is entitled to expect’.

Britain Yearly Meeting trustees, in an article entitled ‘Taking Stock’ in this week’s edition of the Friend, place the story in a wider context. It is a measured and informative piece.

The staff of Friends House, whether they are serving coffee or engaged in peace witness, are dedicated, hard working and committed. Many are passionate about their work. Quakers in Britain should be proud of what is being done, in their name, on the Euston Road. However, this story prompts a number of questions. It is hard to avoid them and it does no good, in the long term, to put a lid on them.

To what degree is there a clash of ‘two cultures’ operating in Friends House – the culture of the outside world and that of the ‘Quaker way’. To what extent is the Quaker way – and this means having a rigorous and absolute commitment to the application of Quaker values – at the heart of everything done at Friends House from recruitment to the treatment of individual concerns? The problem is that the Quaker way means different things to different individuals. At Friends House there are both Quakers and non-Quakers employed. It is often a case of personal perception or interpretation. It is also impossible to implement change without tensions being created.

Unintended consequences happen in all organisations, particularly when they are undergoing change. What unintended consequences may have arisen from the development of Friends House as an efficient, complex organisation and, increasingly, as a place for income generation?

Why were zero-hours contracts introduced into Friends House in the first place? Did no one discern that they might be in conflict with the Quaker way? Why did the Friends House branch of the Unite trade union, which is made up of members from both the hospitality company and BYM staff, not oppose the introduction of this kind of contract in the headquarters of British Quakerism? Does this story prompt other questions concerning the treatment of employees at Friends House?

There are very positive initiatives happening at the moment – such as ‘Being a Quaker Workplace’, a process supported by BYM trustees. These need to be encouraged and developed. Listening, compassion and tenderness will always find a way forward if allied with trust. There is a difference between following the letter and following the Spirit.

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