True story: I have a client - a landscaping company. The company's owner holds a "voluntary prayer session" every morning in the office before crews go out to work. The prayers are to God and to Jesus. He's a very nice guy and clearly a religious man. And he wants his employees to benefit from his own faith in the Lord. Remember...it's just "voluntary." And for the employees who choose not to participate and instead sit at their desks while the prayers happen in the adjacent conference room it's not awkward at all, right?
Which brings me to the Starbucks #racetogether fiasco. That wasn't awkward, right?
If you weren't paying attention, Starbucks announced this campaign with much fanfare. Part PR stunt, part marketing and partly a genuine attempt to help solve a big problem, the company asked its baristas to write "#racetogether" on cups so that a national discussion on race could be ignited. Of course, the plan backfired. The Internet lit up with its typical hatred. MSNBC actually had something to talk about. Pundits of all colors weighed in on their agreement/disagreement and their support/disgust. A senior PR exec at Starbucks literally had to shut down his Twitter account because of the negative comments and threats he was receiving. And last week the company ended its campaign, saying that "...the cups were always "just the catalyst" for a larger conversation and Starbucks will still hold forum discussions, co-produce special sections in USA Today and put more stores in minority communities as part of the Race Together initiative, according to a company memo from CEO Howard Schultz."
Starbucks is now one of many companies who have taken a stand on a social issues outside of their business, and who tried to get the world to either agree with them or at least in this case, just to talk. Remember some of the others?
Chick-fil-A's CEO has a history of speaking out against gay rights. Hobby Lobby has made it no secret that they are against a woman's right to choose. The owners of Urban Outfitters as well as food chains like Waffle House, Carl's and White Castle have historically supported right-wing causes. Peter Lewis, the CEO of Progressive Insurance is an outspoken supporter of investor George Soros and has poured millions into the ACLU, MoveOn and other left-wing groups. Payment provider Square prohibits gun store owners from using its service. Just last week Domino's CEO discussed the changes he'd like to see on taxes and Obamacare.
I believe that all of these people have the right intentions. Republican or Democrat, right-wing or left-wing, I believe that they are genuine in their efforts to educate the world and convince the masses as to what they think is the correct point of view -- theirs. It is completely acceptable for them to use corporate money to back their causes. And if they can get some good PR out of their efforts, or even change some thinking then I understand why they're sticking their necks out. They all have this in common. Oh, and something else: they've all spectacularly failed.
The lesson should not be lost on the leaders of small and mid-sized companies. Don't do this. Keep your opinions to yourself. Keep your personal opinions out of your business.
No one wants to know your stance on Obamacare. No one cares if you're a supporter of this presidential candidate or that in 2016. No one wants to look at your giant crucifix or Star of David in your reception area or read a psalm or prayer while waiting to see you. No one has any interest in whether you support gay rights, the right to bear arms, Roe vs. Wade or whether Obamacare will bring about the end to our society as we know it. And by no one I mean not your customers, your employees, your suppliers or your partners.
Everyone has their own views. No one wants to feel forced into accepting your views in order for them to work for or do business with your company. People don't want to discuss these issues with you in the work environment. If they want to at all, they prefer to discuss them at home, with their neighbors or at their own places of worship. And we don't feel comfortable when you're displaying your opinions in front of us, no more than the employees at my landscaping client feel comfortable when others are praying to Jesus near them.
So business owners, leaders of companies, managers of organizations, can we all finally learn from the lessons of those big companies mentioned above? I know you've got your beliefs and I know you've got good intentions. But keep them outside of your company. Your business should only be a place of business. Ship your products, perform your services, make your profits, employ people, re-invest -- that's how you're contributing to the world. And good for you. Meanwhile, please let the social issues be discussed somewhere else. Want to be a great business leader? Then mind your own business.
A version of this column previously appeared on Inc.com.
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