August 17, 2012
CSR: What Dan Said (A Footnote)
Posted by joanheminway

Christine notes in her post: "Frequent reader and commenter Jake suggests the CFA issue is a non-issue because the controversy is about the CEO's beliefs and charitable causes, not any anti-gay mission or policies of the corporation."  Specifically, Jake critiques our commentary on Chick-fil-A's "corporate stance against same sex marriage" and notes: "There is zero evidence that Chick-Fil-A has such a 'corporate stance' from the standpoint of hiring, customer service, or any other perspective save the protected First Amendment speech of the CEO." Admittedly, I find it hard to assess the accuracy of Jake's observation based on publicly available information.  

The corporate mission statement--"Be America's Best Quick-Service Restaurant"--is not anti-gay.  And as I note below, the corporation expressly articulates policies of inclusion.  As to Chcik-fil-A's "corporate stance," however, I am having a tougher time.  It may be useful to remind readers at this juncture that Dan Cathy explicitly joined his personal beliefs on the notion of family (which implicitly convey beliefs about the institution of marriage) to the corporation, at least as I have seen the matter reported:

Some have opposed the company's support of the traditional family. "Well, guilty as charged," said Cathy when asked about the company's position.

"We are very much supportive of the family -- the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.

"We operate as a family business ... our restaurants are typically led by families; some are single. We want to do anything we possibly can to strengthen families. We are very much committed to that," Cathy emphasized.

Of course, in the close corporation, there is some fluidity as among the owners, the managers, and the business entity.  But it seems that the "we" here is a reference to the business.  Based on these statements, I am unclear as to whether/how support is/would be given by Chick-fil-A to a family consisting of same-sex marital or non-marital partners (with or without children).  And what about families consisting of unmarried heterosexual domestic partners (with or without children)?

It is Dan Cathy's later radio interview--in which he specifically attacks gay marriage (as opposed to merely reafirming the corporation's support for the biblical definition of a family)--that kicked the controversy up a notch, however.  It is important to note that the statements in that interview, which were quite condemning (although Dan Cathy's tone was not), were conveyed as Mr. Cathy's personal beliefs.  The Christian Post and other news media have joined the two statements (from the press interview and the radio interview) together in their reporting, which compounds the injury to gay marriage supporters and blurs the individual/entity distinction further.  (Footnote to the footnote: As many of you know, I have written a bit about the individual/entity separation problem in the public company disclosure context in connection with Martha Stewart's legal troubles.  People central to their businesses are associated with those busineses, whether they like it or not.)  Commentators on the Chick-fil-A matter also have linked the Cathy radio broadcast statement to charitable giving by Chick-fil-A's corporate-affiliated foundation.  (Also here.)  There clearly are some association issues here that impact the public perception of the firm (which then becomes the public reality until controverted effectively).

In the wake of all of this, the corporation, as has been repeated in press releases in recent days, has reaffirmed its stance on inclusiveness in the operation of its business.  It has done so as to customers after Kiss Day:

At Chick-fil-A, we appreciate all of our customers and are glad to serve them at any time. Our goal is simple: to provide great food, genuine hospitality and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.

And more generally after Chick-fil-A Appreciateion Day:

The Chick-fil-A culture and 66-year-old service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect – regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender.

Given all this, it may not be fair to characterize Dan Cathy's statements as "the corporate stance." But I do think it's fair for folks to associate the Chick-fil-A business with his statements on gay marriage and question how, based on these statements, those aspects of the family's Christian beliefs (their narrow notion of family and marriage) may affect the conduct of the business.    It's a complex issue.  The operational effects of those beliefs may be unintended or unconscious.  And the perception issues may loom larger than the realities--something firm management always must look out for.  As outsiders to the corporate enterprise, it's hard to know how it all shakes out in practice at Chick-fil-A.


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