Peter recently blogged about the controversy surrounding Chick-Fil-A. While this debate is currently receiving the most attention, it is not uncommon for CEOs and other leaders of business organizations to make their voices heard on emotionally charged issues. In fact, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who is usually pretty low-key when it comes to the media, made his voice heard on the same issue by donating $2.5 million to support the passage of a same-sex marriage referendum in Washington state. So did Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, shelling out $100,000. Although the marriage debate is the most recent in the news, CEOs of consumer products companies have been speaking out for a long time.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz denounced dysfunctional Washington DC (which is really not taking much of a risk) and called on citizens to boycott campaign contributions in the belief that if you shut off the money supply, Congress might decide that the two parties actually have to act responsibly. What was surprising was that immediately 140 CEOS signed on to his pledge to not make contributions, including leaders from NASDAQ, J.C. Penny, AOL, and the New York Stock Exchange, to name a few. The belief is if the maxim that you get what you pay for holds true, then stop paying for it and you might actually get want you want. Could you get anything worse in this case?
Costco’s website prohibits carrying firearms into its warehouse stores even in jurisdictions where it’s legal to carry. Jim Sinegal, Costco’s retired CEO, believed that maintaining his values was more important than losing customers with differing views. That’s a pretty gutsy move, although I suspect that most people would not stop shopping at Costco because of it and I haven’t heard of any huge protests by gun owners. Given all the crowds around the free food samples at Costco, I’d rather not be pushed out of the way by a gun-toting, angry customer who didn’t get there in time to retrieve the last Polish sausage.
Fortune asked the question, should chief executives be speaking out on hot-button issues? In other words, is it worth it to speak out on your personal beliefs if it risks the company you represent? Fortune ended up riding the fence on this one, using Schultz to represent the positive side. “We believe companies that do so [speak out on issues] will also see a positive increase in the bottom line—customers want to support companies that have values similar to their own. On the negative side, Adam Galinsky , Professor of ethics and management at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management warned, “All it takes is one or two high-profile cases in which a CEO of a major company makes a very strong political statement that leads to true discernible costs for organization.”
Entrepreneurs should probably think carefully about taking strong public stands on hot-button issues, whether social or political, especially in the early stages of developing your brand. Unless your organization targets only people who believe what you do, and that’s rare, do you really want your customers to stop to consider whether they agree with you or not on socio-political issues before they buy your product?
We all know intuitively that we must be buying products from companies whose CEOs have different values than we do, and we probably agree that they certainly have a right to hold those values. But is this a case of ignorance is bliss? Do we continue buying their products as long as the values we don’t believe aren’t thrown in our faces? It’s a tough question that will probably play out many more times before we have a good understanding of the real impacts of CEOs speaking out on issues their customers don’t all agree on.