Saturday, July 2, 2011

Be Careful What You Say

The Red Bull Nascar racing team recently fired a crew member for making derogatory comments about gay people. In the scheme of things, it was about a 4 on the Offensiveness Scale, with ten being the highest but, nevertheless, it violated Red Bull's corporate standard.

Lots of NASCAR fans were outraged, believing the Red Bull employee's constitutional right to free speech had been abridged.

Get a grip, people. The Bill of Rights and Terms of Employment have absolutely nothing to do with one another. While it is true that your government can't punish you for exercising your right to say what you think, your boss certainly can. In fact, your employers can pretty well treat you as they please, barring certain EEOC-type discrimination or the stipulations of negotiated union contracts.

This particular situation could have just as easily happened the opposite way. If the employee had worked for, say, a conservative Christian group and tweeted his support of gay marriage, he might have been fired for going against the stated philosophy of the people who write his paycheck.

In Red Bull's case, while they may, in fact, support gay rights as a corporate entity, I'd guess their disapproval of their crew member's conduct stemmed from a more practical root cause. Red Bull is one of the largest of the energy drink producers and marketers. How many of their consumers are gay? Presumably, their market share among gays is the same, proportionally, as their percentage of sales among straight customers.

People buy products for lots of different reasons, not always having to do with pure value. For instance, I buy all my home improvement products from Lowe's. Is Lowe's better than Home Depot? Are they cheaper than Menard's? Are they more convenient than Ace Hardware? Heck, I don't know. I patronize Lowe's for one simple reason: they sponsor Jimmie Johnson's Lowe's Chevrolet in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series. My loyalty is to Jimmie more than Lowe's. If he switched sponsors tomorrow, I'd switch right along with him.

To a corporate entity, a consumer is a consumer is a consumer. Their sales receipts don't chart whether customers are black or white, gay or straight, male or female (although they probably do market research that gives them a fair idea of who their target market it).  As long as you have the $$ to buy a Red Bull or a box of Cheerios or a refrigerator, that's all that matters.

If gays get the notion that Red Bull made no effort to reprimand an employee who insulted them, that might be enough in itself to produce a measurable decline in sales. There is no way Red Bull is going to allow that to happen.

Of course, social media enhances all these scenarios. The Red Bull crewman might have shared a laugh in a bar with his buds at the expense of gays in an earlier time. No one would have been the wiser and his job would have been secure.

But we now live in a realm where, like it or not, the utterances that may seem amusing or innocent when we post them to Twitter or Facebook are part of the public domain, where they can be judged by everyone in the circles that radiate around the network.

So, if you're independently wealthy or retired or survive as a beach bum, you can probably get away with saying exactly what you think but if you have an employer, you'd better consider them before you engage in provocative speech. (And, of course, if you're self-employed, you might want to give a thought to the customers who are your own ultimate employers - are you sure the guy who is considering hiring you to put a new roof on his house isn't gay....and on Facebook?)

It may seem like in this brave new world, we have to walk on eggs, considering each comment before we post but it isn't that hard, really. Like so much else, the answer is in the Golden Rule. How would you feel if someone said the same about you or someone you care about? If there is any possibility that it would be hurtful, then delete, delete, delete.