When Is Discrimination OK?

Very interesting post on Business Week: “Can Small Businesses Start a Gay Rights Movement in Mississippi?

I totally support nondiscrimination in any public accommodation or retail setting—and I’m delighted to see the “We don’t discriminate. If you’re buying, we’re selling” campaign in Mississippi. But at the risk of alienating some of my friends, l think service businesses–especially values-based ones—are a different case. Before you jump all over me—read the language I send to new prospects for my marketing and consulting services:

Please note that I reserve the right to reject a project if I feel I’m not the right person for it. This would include projects that in my opinion promote racism, homophobia, bigotry or violence–or that promote the tobacco, nuclear power, or weapons industries–or if I do not feel the product is of high enough quality that I can get enthusiastic about it.

Notice that this language doesn’t discriminate against a person or class of people–but it certainly does discriminate against a set of beliefs.

Now, if I reserve that privilege for myself, how can I possibly justify withholding it from someone else who runs a service business and has different values than mine?

Also, there’s a provider quality issue. If I were forced to write a piece of marketing copy for a product whose values I despised, I would do a terrible job. Even if I consciously tried to do my best, it would come out shoddy and insincere, because I wouldn’t believe in what I was promoting. By the same token, I can’t imagine why a same-sex couple would WANT to hire a homophobic wedding photographer (one of the examples cited in the article); the pictures will be terrible.

If you’re renting a room, buying a sandwich, riding a bus, patronizing a theme park…yes, you should have the right to be served. But if a service provider is being asked to use specialized skills to support a cause that service provider finds morally repugnant, I’m not at all sure we should coerce that behavior.

Please comment below. I’d love to get some good dialog going on this.

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11 Responses to “When Is Discrimination OK?”

  1. Shel and Ted, I disagree. When somebody sells a product or service, they should be willing to sell it to anybody without discrimination. This requirement should not be limited to narrow markets such as utilities. If an individual, or even worse, a corporation, is allowed to discriminate based on religious beliefs, then basically any discrimination can be justified, and we are back in the 1950s. An owner of a cafe could refuse to serve lunch to a black person or a mixed-race couple. If a service-provider’s beliefs would compromise the quality of the work, it is up to the customer to evaluate that in deciding whom to hire. I can decide what businesses to patronize, without giving any reason, but a business must make its services available to all.
    Here’s a real-life example in my own job (environmental consulting). Recently, a colleague told me he had a meeting with Koch Industries, excited about what a great new client that would be. My first thought was, I surely would not want to work for a company like that, given how different my values are from the owners. But we are not going to turn down business (nor should we) because I don’t like the Koch brothers. If they asked us to prepare a document supporting their denial of climate change, we couldn’t do that (because lying conflicts with company policy). On the other hand, we can help them clean up their contaminated properties or comply with environmental laws.

    • Sorry for the delay in approving, Michael. I somehow thought I’d taken care of this ages ago, but maybe I forgot to click “apply.”

      I understand the dilemma. I had to face, years ago, my issues about having Smith & Wesson as a client. I decided that since they were hiring me to work on recruitment materials for their police training courses, and I believe that cops should be well-trained, there was no values conflict. Had they wanted me to work on their gun materials, I would have said no. I did say no when I was asked by a local PR person to subcontract for another company involved in the weapons industry, with a jingoistic pro-violence campaign.

  2. People discriminate in the marketplace all the time based on their preferences regarding cost, value, convenience, brand etc.
    I don’t see why it should be any different for vendors. You are not a regulated utility or common carrier with a statutory obligation to serve. As a practical matter, your specialty is only likely to appeal to your target market, which excludes most evil doers, to borrow a phrase from George W. Bush.

    • Ted, very true. I would have to question the wisdom of someone who WANTS to hire someone diametrically opposed to their values to perform a service where alignment is crucial. They’re just not going to get a good product. I know that if I can’t get behind a product or service I’m hired to promote, I’m would create inferior copy that would ultimately damage my brand–so I just turn down the assignment from the get-go.

  3. It depends on the service, doesn’t it? Providing IT, or accounting, or janitorial services, is probably very different from marketing the client.

  4. I completely agree. And here is why. One of the freedoms we enjoy as Americans is freedom of speech. This includes the freedom to be wrong and to be offensive. The problem is when we decide to start limiting one groups’s speech we open the door to limiting any other group’s speech. And what usually results is mob rule. Which is almost always ugly. The constitution is what protects each of us from the lowest to the highest and gives us redress. If we pick a group to attack no matter how good it might sound we are essentially allowing whim and popularity to govern us-and it didn’t work too well in high school.
    I may not like your opinion, but if I respect and defend your right to have it I can expect to gain the same from you. I have lived in a land where those freedoms did not exist except for those in power and then only when they managed to maintain that power. It is not a good thing for the citizens. I also had friends who managed to leave another such land. They told me that the way things were you did not even dare to speak freely to family or friends because everyone was brainwashed as informers-and if you did not inform and the authorities found out you were punished for not informing. It was a hellish way to live. When I see the comments online from various issues I am almost afraid to post, because even though I have not taken a position on any specific topic you listed in the article there are always those who assume they know where one stands and get abusive. And as long as that is the way we respond to those with different viewpoints we aren’t likely to solve our mutual differences or problems with any sort of decent solution. I have always been taught to treat people decently no matter who they are. This has allowed me to have good relationships with people who may not think like me, believe like me, value the same things, vote the same way or act like me. And since no one is just like me anyhow, which is probably a good thing, I get to choose who to interact with without alienating those to whom I merely smile or nod politely and go on down the road.
    Part of the problem with activism is that few people take kindly to having their nose rubbed in it. There are much better means to an end which allows me to let another opinion stand without having to force them to come around to my way of thinking.
    I have a relative who thinks he has to always browbeat the rest of us into agreement. What has actually happened is that he basically pontificates and we avoid him as much as possible, smile politely letting him think we are on the same page and go our separate ways with nothing solved. It means this person has lived a somewhat lonely life and all of us have lost the benefit that we could have gained from each other. But he is not open to even hearing another opinion or solution or question.
    We are not clones and I do not think we should be. But it seems that no matter the issue, the opposing side has to go bat-**** crazy and attack the others. It is scary to see. I don’t know the solution, except that I continue to live a life that values others even those who think I am crazy or wrong. And continue to do my best to be a light of decency and kindness in my sphere of influence. Which in the end is all I have control over.

    • Bobbi, thanks for your long and thoughtful response.

      I have found there’s plenty of room in my life for people who disagree with me–and that I’d have very few friends if I only surrounded myself with people who totally agree with me. I’m too capitalist for the hard left (“my gosh, he sent his kids to charter schools, the traitor!”) and too socialist for the hard right (“he thinks government CAN actually be part of the solution, sometimes”) ;-)–I live my life not on labels but on beliefs.

      The thing is, I treat everyone with respect even if I vehemently disagree (I think Ted Cartselos, who also commented on this post, would validate that). And thus, I don’t have many problems with trolls–and when they do show up, others have actually flocked to my defense. I agree with your paraphrase of Voltaire (think that’s who said it).

      As for rubbing people’s faces in my activism…while I’ve been on the barricades at hundreds of demonstrations since the 1960s–and I see that role as very important in shaping the culture and the discourse, I think my most successful activism is the kind that creates allies out of former enemies, finding common cause, framing issues as “motherhood and apple pie”–or simply focusing on how they can profit by shifting their viewpoints. Dialogue! So I love it when skeptics come and say, “you make gong green fun and easy and profitable.”

  5. You make a great point Shel. Services are more personal in nature than say a stock item that sits on a shelf. I hate guns and weaponry. I couldn’t sell it to save my life.