A chicken sandwich with religion on the side

I have often viewed mixing business and religion – or, more specifically, the values, stances and opinions that a business owner may derive from his or her religious beliefs, particularly when the business has no religious connection – as contrived and cheap attempts to curry favor with customers.  Recent events, however, should remind businesses that such a strategy can become an unnecessary risk to a company’s reputation.

The risk was illustrated vividly during the past week of historic change in the United States.  The U.S. Senate passed major immigration reform legislation.  Earlier, the Supreme Court issued a string of major decisions, striking down a key part of the U.S. Voting Rights Act, then issuing two major gay rights decisions: striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and letting stand a lower court ruling that struck down California’s Prop. 8 and, as a result, made gay marriage legal in that state.

Perhaps overlooked by many was the ill-advised Tweet by the president of fast food chain Chick Fil-A following the Court’s gay marriage decisions:

“Sad day for our nation; founding fathers would be ashamed of our gen to abandon wisdom of the ages re: cornerstone of strong societies.”

The Tweet was quickly removed from the company’s Twitter feed, and a spokesperson did her best to defuse the controversy with a Tweet saying the company’s president:

“…has his own views but we are focused on providing great tasting food and genuine hospitality to everyone.”

The controversy, however, had begun.  While the company may have hoped attention would turn to its products and services, it remained focused on the executive’s personal views on a sensitive social and political issue.

Most Americans are aware that Chick Fil-A, a company begun in the Southern United States, built its brand on identification with “down home,” Christian “traditional values.”  It puts those values into practice, for example, by not opening on Sunday’s, so that employees can attend church.

As the spokesperson’s follow-up Tweet illustrated, however, a corporation that takes such an approach in today’s diverse society cannot “have it both ways.”  Although the company president was moved to use his bully pulpit on a social issue, the spokesperson sought to move Chick Fil-A past a controversy it didn’t need.  “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

Of course, it doesn’t work that way. Any organization that decides to stake its reputation on an issue in this manner m risks the consequences, which can easily be divisive and negative.  Someone in company management needs to ask, “What in the world does religion have to do with serving a good chicken sandwich?” And if we position our company in this way, won’t consumers avoid us due to their reluctance to support certain political positions?

Which leads, perhaps, to a broader issue, something that consistently baffles business people in countries outside the United States.  Why, they ask, are people in this country – which led the world in separating church and state – so inclined to mix business with their own religious views? As the global economy has developed, successful and sensible companies have recognized that business success should not depend on the sect you belong to or whom you associate with, but on performance, innovation, competitiveness and achieving company goals.

The best of intentions

Such risks to a company’s reputation, however, are not limited only to such public controversies.  At a company where I once worked, the talented and committed CEO was very supportive of employees, often seeking their views on how the company could improve and succeed.  In a commendable effort at employee communications, he would periodically email all 100 employees an update on company progress, priorities plans.

The CEO, however, would often include in the emails comments on the importance of his faith and beliefs.  Although never emulating the Chick Fil-A president by commenting on controversial social issues, the CEO was eager to share how his religious principles guided him in leading an ethical and successful company.

During a conversation on company communications, I suggested to him that although employees understood and respected his values and beliefs, such comments could risk making some employees uncomfortable, or could distract from the company’s principal mission and focus.  At first, he didn’t entirely agree and was somewhat defensive.  But eventually he did acknowledge that he could talk with employees about company values and commitment to the company’s goals without introducing an element of religion.

Unlike the Chick Fil-A president, he knew that leading all employees in a successful business purpose did not require them to endorse or even agree with any belief that, in essence, is something each employee is free to choose and decide on privately.

Successful corporations, to use a rather outdated term, “respect diversity” not simply out of a desire to recruit the best talent from a work force that is much more diverse than just a few years ago.  It also reflects a professional understanding that employees, customers and other stakeholders consider certain beliefs and choices matters of private, personal choice. Although religion has played an important role in U.S. history, so, too has the American belief in individualism and desire privacy. In today’s global economy, that belief has become universal.

The values and ethics of a business are certainly important to employees and their commitment to a company’s mission: they provide the basis for the firm’s identity and reputation. When a company, however, decides to express a religious view – totally unrelated to its business purpose – on a sensitive public issue, it must tread carefully.  An impetuous Tweet by a national executive can pose an warranted risk to his own company’s reputation.


2 Comments on “A chicken sandwich with religion on the side”

  1. Michelle says:

    “Bully pulpit” really? Here’s a thought eat at ANY fast food chain then eat at a Chic Fila it’s more than chicken that makes those workers smile.

  2. Mary V. Hagen says:

    Good post. It reminded me of my sister’s experience with an oil company in Denver. Company had been started by a wildcatter (friend of John Hinckley’s dad, as a matter of fact) but had gone public before Barbara went there to work. Anyway, the CEO could never make the transition to hear of a publicly held company. He used to walk the halls of the company asking every employee if she/he had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Definitely not a comfortable situation for all employees, including Barbara. I asked her what she did. She avoided the whole thing by hiding in the ladies’ room until he’d left her floor.

    Suzi Kanyr Hagen Minneapolis, MN, USA USA Mobile: +612-220-9953 Poland: Mobile: +48-79-349 3617 Email: suzihagen@me.com Skype: suzihagen Blog: http://hello-all-from-suzi.blogspot.com

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