Those of us who are business owners and managers should be alarmed about the firestorm in Indiana and the debate about RFRA legislation, but not for the populist reasons that everyone in the news seem to be dismayed by. Social issues and matters of policy and law are deeply emotional topics. When they blow up, most of the regrettable mistakes that are made in reacting to an issue get made in the first few hours and days.
What greatly concerns me are the quick reactions of large, private companies that are publicly taking political positions on contentious social issues by way of press releases in support of this side or that. This is unwise in the extreme and not water that businesses should tread in. Purists for a cause are sure to disagree, but let me explain:
I once had a business partner in a new venture who suggested that we should designate some portion of business revenue to charity, and I argued strictly against this to his surprise (as he knew me to be a charitable person). It took me some time to help him understand that a business should be 100% devoted in every way to its stated reason for existing. It should be about and only about that mission, accomplishing it as efficiently as possible. When it gives to a cause, it is a marketing expense, not a charitable one (like when a bicycle shop sponsors a charitable fundraising bike ride.)
By investing all earnings in employees and returning leftover profits to investors, a business is the most socially responsible. This is because it maximizes the resources of each individual who gains income from the business to make their own decisions (speak with their own voices, vote with their own dollars) about matters of faith, conscience, belief, charity and other expressions of their humanity. These decisions are appropriately and deeply emotional and belong solely in the domain of the individual. The reason is simple, rooted in our individual, human freedom of choice.
When a nation institutes a law (for example, prohibition of theft) it limits human freedom of choice in the interest of all citizens where one person’s choice to steal removes another person’s higher right to enjoyment of his private property. Law serves a useful purpose this way. When a company institutes a policy (for example, requiring a dress code) it limits human freedom of choice in the interest of all employees where one person’s choice to come naked to work as a salesperson removes other workers’ right to work efficiently without distraction or have their success as a team limited by repulsed customers.
So when a company makes a rule, a policy, or gives money in support of a cause (even a non-controversial one), or simply makes a public statement about a debatable social topic that has nothing to do with its reason for existence, it becomes distracted, wastes resources and, worst of all, violates the highest individual human rights of its customers, employees and vendors.
A company, and particularly the larger it is, simply cannot make a choice about a charity, a political cause, or a matter of faith or conscience without invariably misrepresenting some of the people who buy from it, work for it, or sell to it. Whenever a company falls afoul of this (and these days try to find one that doesn’t), it is arrogantly presuming on the part of others it holds influence over, who may disagree, yet are getting pulled along into agreement by association. There is a legal concept for this: unconscionable. However, it has become so commonplace that we have accepted this occurrence and can scarcely avoid it.
Many would say “so, what?” or, if they agree with the company line, be happy that those who disagree are being forced to tow it. But they are never as satisfied when the shoe is on the other foot and they are being forced to tow a line they don’t agree with. Does quid pro quo not apply here — should not what is good policy for one be good for all?
Individuals alone in a free society must be left to make decisions of if or what God to believe in, who to give money to, whose ideas they agree with and who & what they wish to vote for. Does this mean there is no place for a business to speak to a political or social issue? Of course not as long as what the businesses is weighing-in on, speaking for all of its customers, employees and vendors, goes directly to its reason for existence. A telephone company should weigh in on communications issues, even contentious ones like internet neutrality. Planned Parenthood should weigh in on the abortion issue. But the telephone company has no place speaking to abortion, nor should Planned Parenthood take on FCC policies. These are out of scope, respectively.
So the firestorm of companies that have nothing to do with providing marriage services, including opining and dragging many with them into the very contentious debate over gay marriage right now, best remain silent. As has been critically pointed out by some media outlets this week, when companies do not leave such issues up to individuals, they not only violate the consciences of some of their vendors, employees and customers, they also make themselves hypocrites by their inability to apply hastily-released policy statements universally across all populations in which they conduct business. It’s incredible to watch a company criticize a state when it happily continues operations in countries that violate its own stated position a thousand times worse.
Lest this be critical only of company decision-makers acting unwisely, we must ask — why do they do it? Why do company managers, often reacting in fear, so quickly release such public statements that have nothing directly to do with their product or service? Consumers bear some responsibility for this and they (we, all of us), too, must be honest: As consumers, when we publicly threaten merchants great and small with boycotts and retribution for something they say (or are not willing to say) that has nothing to do with their product or service, then we are bullies. When we convict or impugn a business made up of many individuals, indict it and attempt to punish it financially by refusing to transact with it or call on others to do the same, we hurt both the innocent and the guilty. Vendors, employees of that business, and other customers who agree with us are hurt when that business gets hurt, thus we throw the baby out with the bathwater. We might as well not care about collateral damage in overseas wars and just drop bombs indiscriminately until our side wins. Do we believe that or should every care be taken not to hurt someone who is not bearing arms for their side? Should this concept apply any differently in wars of social opinion and conscience, or are scorched-earth policies the best method?
My old business partner and I eventually agreed that we could maximize our charitable giving, as individuals, by keeping our business focused on its mission, and allowing our individual, personal missions to focus on who we wished to give our charitable time and dollars to. It was right then and still is now.
If you are a company head whether you support or detest Indiana’s, Arkansas’s, or any other RFRA law or any other social issue for that matter, speak your mind as a private individual. You have no right to drag hundreds or thousands along with you who you have not gotten permission to speak for, who depend on you to make a living or obtain a needed resource, and who can speak for themselves well enough without you.
If a populist mob threatens you with wallet-retribution because you won’t sing their tune, ignore them. We need to remember that if there is anything true about an angry populist, it is that he and she will always flee to whoever they can get a rise out of. Being ignored is their worst scenario — and your best defense. Instruct your public-facing employees, if challenged by a representative of the mob, to answer a question aimed at luring your business into a trap by simply asking the activist to explain how their question has anything to do with your company’s core mission. When the activist stammers over that, respond by inviting the activist to feel free to ask any employee or associate of the business the same question, but on their private time and off company property.