Over the last month or so, I have been watching the controversy surrounding a certain fast food restaurant and the strong social statements that they have been making. Throughout the following weeks, a storm of controversy has erupted which has resulted in high level politicians getting involved and local groups calling for boycotts and buycotts. Suggestions and accusations have been made on both sides ranging from the passive, maybe we should just ignore them, to the aggressive, if you don’t like free speech then get the hell out of America before I shove the constitution up your ass! Neither side seems to have a clear cut win because there is so much gray area involved.
I have been watching this situation closer than most current events for a couple of reasons. One, I am a supporter of equal rights. There are no second class citizens in my mind and the civil rights that are granted to one demographic should be granted to all. I’ve always appreciated the summarized statement surrounding the equal marriage debate of: Don’t like gay marriage? Then don’t get one. Just because your belief system frowns upon it, does not mean that it should be banned nationwide. While you are planning your third marriage to that trophy wife or sugar daddy, the lesbian couple down the street that have been together lovingly for 15 years would sure appreciate the legal status and benefits that you take for granted.
This aspect of the situation was summed up very nicely in a post by Alvin McEwen at Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters earlier this week with some very simple answers as to why people are upset about the restaurant owner’s stance. http://holybulliesandheadlessmonsters.blogspot.com/2012/07/simple-answers-to-questions-about-chick.html
The base line started with Dan Cathy’s statements about his religious and personal views on what marriage should be. Upon the initial questioning and backlash from the LGBT community and supporters, Mr. Cathy defended his statements and his stance as a person and as the leader of his company. Through the charitable arm of Chick-Fil-A, Mr. Cathy has directed millions of dollars to specific organizations that oppose equal marriage and in many cases have fought in this country and abroad to specifically ban it and in some cases even criminalize it. After more backlash and uproar, the company came out with a public relations statement that basically attempted a “washing of the hands” saying that they employ and serve without discrimination and will leave the equal marriage debate up to the government. Probably sounded pretty good to whoever crafted it. The problem is, it didn’t really address the issue. People were not upset about your employment diversity or your service practices. They were upset about the money you were filtering into the government through the lobbying organizations you support. Where’s the apology for that? Oh, right. You aren’t sorry for that.
Here’s the thing though. Even though I have painted this in a somewhat damming light for Chick-Fil-A and Dan Cathy, he doesn’t have to be sorry. Everything he has done is well within his rights to free speech and commerce. It is his business and he has made no bones about the fact that he has and will run it on biblical based principles. He has the right to use the money the company earns in the ways that he sees fit. This side of the coin is the other reason that I have been watching this so closely.
As a small business owner, I am intrigued by the events that are unfolding. There is much to learn for all of us as people and as business owners from the actions and reactions surrounding this controversy. First off, as I said, Mr. Cathy was within his rights to say what he did and donate to who he wanted to donate to. As the leader of a business, you can coordinate where your dollars are spent. All businesses do this and most, hopefully all, companies that donate a portion of their income to charitable organizations do so in line with personal beliefs that they hold. Again, this is their right. However, the consumer also has a right to object to those donations. In our society, we have the options and the ability to choose where we spend our money. This choice can be made from any mindset or preference from not liking the color of the sign to not agreeing with the company’s stance on social issues. This is the pro and con of being in a free market society. As a business owner, you can run your business how you like. However, you need to be prepared that there will be reactions for every action you take.
This is a challenge that I see in my company and one that unfortunately becomes the ruin of many small businesses each year. How do you appeal to the largest number of people and still remain true to your core beliefs about how your business should be run? There are a few questions that you need to ask yourself before venturing into this arena unprepared.
First, are you aware of your intended and potential customer demographic? In other words, do you know who you are going to be serving? You may have the best idea and plan in your head for a custom home electrical design service, but if you open up shop in the middle of Amish country, you might find yourself a little challenged. Similarly, if you are planning to open up an adult sex toy store down the street from the local church, be prepared for a little backlash.
Second, if you know your demographic, are your personal beliefs going to clash with theirs? What do you do when your customer base turns out to be a group that you do not agree with? Maybe even a group you hate? The question here is can you run a business professionally and set your personal beliefs aside? If not, you will likely need to relocate your business, or fail. Most often this seems to happen in a gradual state. Very few people with that strong of personal convictions will choose to open up their store in an area supported or surrounded by an “undesirable” demographic. More often than not, this occurs in an area where the business has been successful but the neighborhood around has changed over time. A new generation or ethnic population moves in and the consumer base is shifted dramatically. Are you open to this change? Are your goods or services still relevant to this new group?Are you willing to market to them? When you find yourself faced with this kind of situation, you are forced to reconcile your personal feelings versus their needs as a consumer. If you can look past the difference in opinions and welcome them in, it is likely that they will as well. However, if you allow your prejudice to invade your business, you will feel the effect in your sales and profits. Alienate your customers and you only have yourself to blame.
Lastly, are your activities outside of your business in direct contrast to the image you are portraying? So you have come to grips with the change in your local demographic. You have decided that you are not going to hold anything against the gays, blacks, jews, christians, asians, single parents, or whomever else you felt took over your neighborhood. You are going to welcome them into your store and greet them with a smile. After a little while, you may even start to notice that they are really no different than you and you might even make a regular customer or two out of the deal. As your business grows, you decide to get yourself involved in charitable work and seek out some groups that will put your company’s money towards platforms that you feel will really help solidify America. You dig into your beliefs and pull out those core tenants that you have built your faith and your life around and send your money towards groups that honor those. However, those beliefs you propped up and the groups you supported have actively been lobbying against your new local demographic. Maybe not them personally, but groups like them and sure enough, they found out about your donations. Not surprisingly, you have suddenly found yourself some enemies. Are you prepared for the reaction? Are you and your business strong enough to withstand boycotts or protests?
The lines you need to walk as a business owner are very thin. Every company that is successful will eventually find itself the target of someone’s hate. There will always be a group on one side or the other that will get pissy with how you present your professional image or where your philanthropic energy goes. However, it is important to be cognizant of what you are doing with your business and where your donated dollars are going. We are living in a more progressive and interconnected society than ever before. Funneling your money into any organization that actively supports division and inequality will likely find you in controversy. If you reconcile your company’s mission statement to encompass diversity and equality in your service and employment, then you had better make sure that the activities your company participates in support that mission statement.
I’m not saying that everyone has to support equal marriage or equal rights in any way. That is a personal choice. But, if you are a business owner and you are seeking to provide non-discriminatory service, then you need to examine all aspects of your business. If you can’t find it in your heart to support equality through your donations but don’t want to alienate your customers, then donate to organizations that benefit animals or ecology. There are options out there for you to avoid getting yourself wrapped up in a debate that you cannot win. You do not have to be a supporter of LGBT rights organizations if you don’t want to. You also don’t have to support the groups that are pushing for division either.
For those that choose to maintain their position of support in these organizations that promote inequality, division and hate, know that you have that right. But myself and many more like me also have the right to call you out on it and tell you that we disagree and will not support you with our dollars.