A restaurant chain in California had to act quickly when one manager's political contribution sparked a fury. How do you protect your business this election season?

We’re in the midst of yet another volatile primary season in what promises to be an especially tumultuous election year. Many Americans are angry and frustrated with their congressional representatives, as evidenced by Congress’s all-time record-low approval rating of 11 percent. Adding to the cacophony, in early February, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overturned California’s controversial Proposition 8, declaring the state’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional.

As American citizens, we all have the right to engage in the election process and vigorously support our favorite candidates and causes. And while I would never discourage active participation in this vitally important component of our democracy, be aware that as a business owner, you (or your employees) could be putting your business in jeopardy. Volunteering, speaking out or donating money to a candidate or cause could alienate customers, vendors, suppliers, partners or even the banker thinking about funding your loan.

Your political contributions aren’t a secret …
In these days of social media and transparency, it’s nearly impossible to hide political contributions — they’re a matter of public record, available for anyone to see. Sign a petition on Twitter or Facebook? Same story.

Back in 2008, when Proposition 8 was first passed (outlawing gay marriage in California), passions ran high on both sides of this issue. Business leaders were pressured to take a side, not take a side or donate to both sides equally. Groups sprang up on Facebook urging consumer boycotts of the businesses they perceived as working against their cause. In fact, the Los Angeles Timesreported some activists posted messages on Yelp pointing out which restaurants donated to the “Yes on 8” campaign (anti gay rights).

More recently, while Wisconsin business owner Tami Lax, the owner of two restaurants in Madison, was supportive of the protesters who flooded the state capital last year, she didn’t want to voice her views. As Lax told Business News Daily, “I have my strong political opinions, but I don’t think it is right for me to wear them on my sleeves. I run my business for the betterment of my employees and community.”

How to handle employee contributions
While it’s in your control to decide if contributing money or sending a message is worth the risk, what about your employees? Or perhaps you own a franchise, and one of your franchisees jumps into the fray?

This actually happened to the El Pollo Loco franchise chain in California during the Proposition 8 fight. Reacting to a report that the franchise supported Proposition 8, consumer complaints started flooding in. The company acted quickly, explaining that while someone "associated" with one of its franchises appeared to have contributed to the "Yes on 8" campaign, El Pollo Loco in no way supported that cause. But it added that El Pollo Loco believes in the rights of people to express their opinions.

The franchise didn’t leave it there, however. A company executive wrote to an angry customer explaining she was supportive of gay rights and had voted against Proposition 8, adding, "I honestly believe that anger directed at El Pollo Loco over Prop 8 is ill advised, but it is certainly your right to eat wherever you choose. [However] you will be missing the world's greatest chicken." Sometimes humor works to defuse an angry customer base.

The employee question can be a bit tricky. This is the United States; we revel in our participatory democracy. But in fact, a lawyer I spoke to (who requested anonymity) says private-sector employees are not always protected by the First Amendment here. In many states, employees don’t have the right to discuss non-work-related issues on the job. Obviously, most businesses allow non-work conversations, but apparently that’s a “privilege” that can be revoked.

In some states, employees are allowed by law to express their political views. Most states do protect private-sector employees from being discriminated against, harassed or fired as a result of the content of their political views. Please check your state laws before creating any company policies. But remember, you certainly don't have the right to tell your staff what to believe, how to vote or whether or not to donate money.

It’s your responsibility to delineate your policies to your employees, and these should be codified in your employee handbook, which I do hope you all have and distribute to your staff. If something does go awry — if a customer gets angry at you or your company — address the problem immediately and:

- Find out what you’re being accused of and why.

- Form an internal crisis team and appoint one person to be the official company spokesperson.

- Be responsive, transparent and truthful.

- Be compassionate and understanding of all points of view in your response.

It’s your company. Only you can determine if the passion you feel for a candidate or cause makes it worth going public. Gini Dietrich, the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a strategic communications and online marketing firm, believes it’s not worth the risk. She says, “Politics is one of those things you shouldn't discuss, online or off, outside of the privacy of your home. We always advise clients to keep their political views to themselves.”

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