A G.E. Refugee At Ground Zero

Jack Welch was on one of the political talk shows the other night, answering questions about life and money-making in the post–Sept. 11 era. Mr. Welch delivered his wisdom in the blustery manner befitting a great corporate executive with a best-selling book to promote. His inquisitor paid him all due deference, as one might do when in the presence of a great icon of the times. It would not have occurred to the inquisitor or the people who booked Mr. Welch’s appearance that his evident skill at firing people at General Electric does not necessarily make him an expert in, say, global affairs.

How much better television it would have been to hear Mr. Welch answering questions about the corporate culture he installed at G.E., about the bean-counting he encouraged and the dehumanizing way his employees-that is, those who were lucky enough to retain their jobs-were reduced to numbers. To get that side of Mr. Welch’s G.E., it is necessary to put aside the great titan’s auto-hagiography and turn to a lesser-known volume, In Good Company, written by a former G.E. employee who, it must be said, left Mr. Welch’s clutches quite voluntarily.

My friend Jim Martin worked for G.E. in the early and mid-1980′s, after graduating Wharton with a finance degree. His college years hadn’t necessarily trained him for what he found there-like the time one of his colleagues dared raise a question during a meeting with one of Mr. Welch’s managers. “You know,” this brave woman said, “G.E. expects us to work a lot of overtime and sacrifice a lot of our personal life.”

“That’s right,” came the reply.

“And I guess my question is whether …. “

“I know what your question is,” said the manager. “Your question is, ‘What does G.E. owe me ?’ Well, get this straight: G.E. doesn’t owe you a damn thing .”

My friend Jim wrote of this exchange: “Now, it was bad enough to suspect that the upper-ups thought that way, but it was quite another to hear them admit it in a public forum …. It was, I think, at that moment that I lost whatever allegiance to G.E. that still remained.” He didn’t have much to lose at the time, especially not after learning that employees at G.E. were assigned numbers that supposedly quantified their abilities: It was good to be a one, bad to be a three. Fours didn’t hang around too long.

And neither did Jim Martin. His book is not, in fact, an account of his years at G.E., but of his journey from an office in the G.E. Building on Park Avenue to membership in the Jesuits. A few weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal featured Jim in a story about clerics who’ve worked in other professions before answering the call. Jim’s picture accompanied the piece: It showed him ministering to workers at ground zero.

Bearing personal witness to the ruthlessness of G.E. under Mr. Welch and to the work of the selfless heroes of ground zero has given Father Martin-I’ll use his formal title now, even if he’s the only priest with whom I’m on a first-name basis-a perspective utterly absent in the media worship of Jack Welch, American icon. “I think having worked at G.E. and in the ruins of the World Trade Center, and having seen the culture created by Jack Welch and the morals of New York’s firefighters, I know which one I would pick for my hero,” he said. “It’s not a hard choice.” Mr. Welch’s publishers contend that their man is some kind of American hero, having made great amounts of money for himself-and while talk-show hosts may treat him like one, the public in general isn’t buying it. They’ve seen what real heroes do.

Father Martin arrived at ground zero two days after the attack. He said it was the “most profound experience of the Holy Spirit I’ve ever had in my life. This was a place where everything was informed by self-sacrifice, where hundreds of relief workers were motivated by charity. They were dog-tired and still gave of themselves. Everyone was generous, patient and kind. I never hear a voice raised in anger, even in this stressful situation.”

Father Martin tried to offer consolation and solace to all who sought him out. He, in turn, drew inspiration from their courage. “We’re being offered a parable through the firefighters,” he said. “What is the Kingdom of God like? It’s people working together, being other-directed, sacrificing. What is God like? He’s like the firefighter who runs into a burning building. If you’re looking for inspiration, you need to look no further than south of Chambers Street.”

And you can skip past the offices of those self-promoting moguls you see on television.