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Ask an ethicist: Should we publicly support SSM?

by The Ethics Centre
13 November 2017
I’m the CEO of a much loved Australian retail brand. We’re a family oriented company with values like inclusivity, diversity and fairness. Recently, there’s been a lot of internal discussion about how we should involve ourselves in the same-sex marriage postal survey. We’ve been supporters of LGBTI community initiatives and campaigns in the past. Plus, it seems consistent with our brand values to encourage people to “Vote Yes”, but we have never advocated for a political position before. 
I’m concerned that in taking a side we might alienate some of our customers. I also know a number of good, loyal staff members who don’t believe in same-sex marriage and who might feel uncomfortable if we publicly advocate for one side over the other. What should I do? 

Gone are the days when politics was a taboo subject for the break room or water cooler. Today, companies are facing more and more pressure to tie their flag to the mast of social issues, political causes and ethical campaigns. It’s even more difficult if you’re a well known and much loved brand, because people from every creed and code are going to want to use you as a mirror.
People want to see themselves and their own values reflected in the organisations they buy into as customers, which creates an ethical minefield for business leaders to navigate. And like navigating an actual minefield, you’ve got to think each step through carefully.
What’s motivating your desire to weigh in on the campaign? Are you thinking this would be a good PR move or a good way to promote a new product? Or are you genuinely committed to the cause? People expect organisations to act in good faith and be radically transparent in their reasoning. If you’re in it for a quick buck or as a way of making yourself popular, it’d be better to get out fast. Hypocrisy is a sure fire way to erode the faith people have in you. 
A good way to test your motivation is to ask what you'd do if things were different. Would you still throw your hat in the ring if the majority of your employees opposed same-sex marriage? If the majority of your customers were ‘voting no’, what would you do?
Let's say you're in it because you genuinely believe it would be better if the yes campaign gets up. Why do you think that? You've mentioned you believe it’s more consistent with your brand values, but does the organisation have a clear statement on what each of your values really mean? For instance, the importance of family has been a regular argument in favour of the no campaign. 

Just like customers use organisations as a mirror, employees can do the same. It's easy to assume everyone shares our definition of “family” or “equality”, but when dealing with big ideas we can often be talking across one another unless our terms are clearly defined. This reminds us why organisational values can’t just be words on the wall – they need to be explained, understood and lived by everyone in the business.
This is all the more important given you know some employees won't agree with getting involved in the yes campaign. The ethics and culture of organisations are a strong factor in recruiting and retaining staff. If some employees no longer see themselves in your activities, there's a chance they'll go elsewhere.
What's more important to you: the risk of losing committed staff or the ethical value of speaking up?
Answer supplied by The Ethics Centre’s moral philosopher, Dr Matthew Beard. If you have a question you would like to put to our experts, please email