Does Chick-fil-A controversy risk turning off young employees?


Numerous Chick-fil-A restaurants employ young people — a demographic that increasingly supports gay marriage. (Jebb Harris/AP)

As the Chick-fil-A brouhaha rages on—the controversy over president Dan Cathy’s comments about gay marriage have prompted everything from record sales and Friday’s protest “kiss-ins”—some news outlets are starting to ask the question of what it’s like to work at the chain amid the uproar. The Daily Beast featured a column from an anonymous gay employee for the chain, while The Huffington Post quoted employees (several anonymously) who report being subject to critical comments from the public.

But of course, it’s not just gay employees who support gay marriage. Numerous Chick-fil-A restaurants employ young people—many of them surely attracted, at least in part, by the company’s college scholarship program, which offers $1,000 scholarships to some employees and has awarded more than $30 million total. And judging by the statistics, the majority of young people support gay marriage. (According to research by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 59 63 percent of millennials believe gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry legally; a Gallup poll puts support at 71 percent among 18- to 29-year-olds.)

Sure, many of Chick-fil-A’s young employees may very well agree with Cathy’s views. The company has always been known for its Christian principles, and has been concentrated, historically, in states with more conservative views. But given the numbers above, there’s a good chance at least some of its existing employees, as well as many the company would like to recruit as it expands its presence, see things differently.

As a result, how are the restaurant managers, franchise owners and corporate executives talking about this issue internally? What are they saying in team meetings to those workers who (whether they voice it or not) might feel uncomfortable about being in the middle of this firestorm? And what does this controversy do, not only to Chick-fil-A’s public brand, but (borrowing language from the human resources field) to its “employment brand” among the young people it needs to hire?

Chick-fil-A has released statements saying that “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.” The careers section of its Web site says the company “is an equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate in employment decisions based on any factor protected by federal, state or local law.” And no doubt the company has any number of local franchise owners or restaurant managers who have been sensitive to how the uproar may be making some employees feel. (E-mails and a phone call to the company requesting comment were not immediately returned.)

Who knows whether or not Cathy’s remarks will create risks for his sales over the long term—a temporary boost appears to be underway, and customers can have short-term memories. But at a time when young people increasingly support same-sex marriage, what kind of risks do they create for the company’s pool of potential employees?

More from On Leadership:

Chick-fil-A bites into gay-marriage debate

Full coverage of Chick-fil-A

The psychology of Olympic medals


View Photo Gallery: Chick-fil-A’s chief said the fast-food chain set a record in sales on Wednesday as conservatives flocked to the restaurants to back the ownership’s stand against same-sex marriage. On Friday, the chain’s opponents have called for a same-sex ‘kiss in’ at restaurant outlets.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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