Are you a liberal Democrat? Perhaps you’re a conservative Republican? Are you passionately committed to a political cause? Do you make no secret of what you believe? Maybe you’re none of the above, but one or more of your employees are. If you nodded affirmatively to any of these questions, you could be putting your business in jeopardy.
Sharing our views (political or otherwise) is certainly within our rights as American citizens. And I would never discourage people from speaking their minds. But if you are a business owner, you have to weigh the consequences of speaking out versus alienating customers, vendors, suppliers, and the like.
It’s important to remember here that contributions to political campaigns are transparent; they are available for any and all to see. A lot of controversy was kicked up here in my home state of California last November as voters grappled with Proposition 8, which, when passed, overturned the legality of gay marriage in the state. Passions ran high on both sides of this issue. There were reports before Election Day that business leaders who were against the Proposition received letters demanding they withdraw their support of organizations fighting Prop 8 and donate the same amount of money to the pro Prop 8 campaign.
The rhetoric was equally as hot on the other side, especially after the Proposition was passed. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, “Dozens of groups have sprouted up on Facebook.com urging its members to boycott businesses — restaurants, jewelry stores, car-repair shops, and more. Other activists have gone onto Yelp.com and other business rating sites, posting messages telling users which restaurants donated to the ‘Yes on 8’ campaign.”
Now if you’re the owner of the business, you can weigh the possible outcomes and make your choice to speak up, contribute, or stay out of it, at least publicly. But what if it’s one of your employees who is involved? Or what if you’re a franchisor and one of you franchisees jumps in the fray? This is where it gets tricky. This is the United States; we revel in our participatory democracy. And you certainly don’t have the right to tell your staff what to believe, how to vote, or whether or not to donate money.
So what do you do if the situation comes up? Many would advise you need a written policy, but even this can lead to problems. This week, according to Editor & Publisher, a publication covering the news industry, members of the News Media Guild union objected to guidelines issued last week by the Associated Press (AP), which delineated social media rules of behavior. The union claims the guidelines infringe on their members’ freedom of speech. In particular, AP is asking their employees to monitor their Facebook pages to make sure they delete objectionable posts from their friends. In addition, employees were told they can’t post about “AP’s internal operations.” According to Wired.com, other media outlets also have created policies for their employees. “Reporters for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post have been told not to ‘friend’ confidential sources,” Editor & Publisher columnist Joe Strupp wrote this month. Reporters at the New York Times are urged to show “common sense.”
Another battle is currently raging between Burger King and one of its franchisees, the Mirabile Investment Corp. Mirabile, which operates more than 40 Burger Kings in the South, says “global warming is baloney” and has posted that message on its roadside signs. Burger King has asked the franchisee to take down the signs, but so far the franchisee has refused, claiming their First Amendment rights entitles them to say whatever they want. Burger King counters that they have strict signage guidelines and told U.K. newspaper the Guardian, “We have asked the franchisee to remove the signage and have been told that the franchisee will comply.”
This is not an issue to be taken lightly. Have a discussion with your employees about what your expectations are. As I said, you can’t really tell them how to conduct their private lives, but you can and should talk about acceptable behavior while representing your business. And if something happens, if a customer gets angry at you or your company, don’t ignore it hoping it will go away. This is the age of instant communications. If you find yourself in this situation you should:
- Gather pertinent information.
- Form a crisis team and appoint one person to be the spokesperson.
- Respond quickly, openly, and truthfully. Don’t hide from the press or from customers.
- Be compassionate.
This is exactly what the El Pollo Loco franchise company did recently in response to complaints from consumers that the company had supported California’s Proposition 8. As a response the company quickly informed the angry customers that it in no way supported Prop 8 and explained that someone “associated” with one of its franchises appeared to have contributed to the “Yes on 8” campaign. The company then went on to point out that they believe in equal rights and the rights of people to express their opinions.
Then El Pollo Loco went a step further: They publicly issued a letter one of their executives wrote to a customer who was angry about the alleged Prop 8 support. After pointing out that El Pollo Loco was very supportive of gay rights and that she personally voted against Prop 8 the SVP concluded, “I honestly believe that anger directed at El Pollo Loco over Prop 8 is ill advised, but it is certainly your right to eat wherever you choose. You will be missing the world’s greatest chicken.”
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