The Wayfair Walk-Out Over Sales of Mattresses to Baptist Children’s Family Services

The news stories laud the courage and activism of the Wayfair employees. However, one must look far and wide to find an important part of the story. Wayfair was not selling mattresses to ICE, as some stories reported, or the federal government, as most of the stories reported. Wayfair was selling mattresses to Baptist Children’s Family Services, a government contractor running detention centers. A nonprofit government contractor. A religious-based nonprofit trying to make conditions better in the humanitarian crisis at the border.

Regardless of how we feel politically about immigration laws, immigration policies, and who caused what or did what, we have those who serve those who are at the border, for whatever reason. Those who serve need food, shelter, sleep, and basic hygiene products to do so effectively. Shall we punish toothpaste companies? Shall we boycott dairies? Shall we boycott Frito-Lay if a bag of chips ends up in a detention center? Shall farm workers walk out because lettuce is making its way into meals there?

The praise for Wayfair employees not only misses facts, it misses reality. Corporate activism is depicted as the brave effectors of Generation X, Y, and Z employees who feel empowered to demand certain actions and views from their employers. From Google to Microsoft to Twitter and all up and down the Silicon Valley, these employees demand that their employers adopt their political views.

The Barometer is all for employee activism, but stunned on employee inconsistency in this realm. Employees rarely speak up about defective products, shoddy production, money laundering, or insider trading. The press coverage just is not there. Yet, these are the activities that bring a company down. So, this brave new generation remains sullen and mute on legal and safety violations because, “I don’t want to lose my job.” One wonders where the line is for what employees can tolerate in employers.

There is little thought, but plenty of emotion and few facts, that go into social responsibility issues and protests. Employees fail to grasp that their self-righteous indignation on their chosen issues puts their companies at risk. Wayfair is currently struggling financially. Turning down customers on the basis of their customers or sales (although not selling to a religious nonprofit that is giving teens a mattress on which to lay their weary heads seems slightly antithetical to social responsibility goals), is not an effective path back from the business red zone. Ironically, employees’ vocal positions on these safe, media-darling issues will produce the same negative consequences for their employers their reticence and silence on the legal and safety issues do: You destroy the business (not even taking into account the customer backlash that could follow).

Wayfair did agree to make a donation to the Red Cross (a donation greater than the profit Wayfair will make on the mattress sales). The Red Cross stays away all things border. Still not good enough to prevent the walk-out. Neutrality is insufficient in this era of emotion — my way, or no way. The employees may get their wish. Wayfair may not survive.

As the Barometer once said to a former student who was working for a defense contractor that made weapons and who was struggling mightily, “You may have to find a different company with social and political values consistent with your own.” Wayfair employees may soon be looking for such a company. The Barometer only hopes they can find such a company somewhere in a supply chain. Where is a company that sells products to entities, agencies, governments, other companies, and human beings that someone could not find objectionable? There is that line question again. We are now into secondary boycotts. Can tertiary ones be far behind? The Baptists are next. Followed by anyone who sells to Baptists. Followed yet again by anyone who sells to those who sell to Baptists. Followed by boycotts of those who defend Baptists. Followed by boycotts of those who were Baptists 40 years ago. You get the idea.

About mmjdiary

Professor Marianne Jennings is an emeritus professor of legal and ethical studies from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, retiring in 2011 after 35 years of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in ethics and the legal environment of business. During her tenure at ASU, she served as director of the Joan and David Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics from 1995-1999. In 2006, she was appointed faculty director for the W.P. Carey Executive MBA Program. She has done consulting work for businesses and professional groups including AICPA, Boeing, Dial Corporation, Edward Jones, Mattel, Motorola, CFA Institute, Southern California Edison, the Institute of Internal Auditors, AIMR, DuPont, AES, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Motorola, Hy-Vee Foods, IBM, Bell Helicopter, Amgen, Raytheon, and VIAD. The sixth edition of her textbook, Case Studies in Business Ethics, was published in February 2011. The ninth edition of her textbook, Business: lts Legal, Ethical and Global Environment was published in January 2011. The 23rd edition of her book, Business Law: Principles and Cases, will be published in January 2013. The tenth edition of her book, Real Estate Law, will also be published in January 2013. Her book, A Business Tale: A Story of Ethics, Choices, Success, and a Very Large Rabbit, a fable about business ethics, was chosen by Library Journal in 2004 as its business book of the year. A Business Tale was also a finalist for two other literary awards for 2004. In 2000 her book on corporate governance was published by the New York Times MBA Pocket Series. Her book on long-term success, Building a Business Through Good Times and Bad: Lessons from Fifteen Companies, Each With a Century of Dividends, was published in October 2002 and has been used by Booz, Allen, Hamilton for its work on business longevity. Her latest book, The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse was published by St. Martin’s Press in July 2006 and has been a finalist for two book awards. Her weekly columns are syndicated around the country, and her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Reader's Digest. A collection of her essays, Nobody Fixes Real Carrot Sticks Anymore, first published in 1994 is still being published. She has been a commentator on business issues on All Things Considered for National Public Radio. She has served on four boards of directors, including Arizona Public Service (1987-2000), Zealous Capital Corporation, and the Center for Children with Chronic Illness and Disability at the University of Minnesota. She was appointed to the board of advisors for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators in 2004 and served on the board of trustees for Think Arizona, a public policy think tank. She has appeared on CNBC, CBS This Morning, the Today Show, and CBS Evening News. In 2010 she was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Business Ethics by Trust Across America. Her books have been translated into four different languages. She received the British Emerald award for authoring one of their top 50 articles in management publications, chosen from over 15,000 articles. Personal: Married since 1976 to Terry H. Jennings, Maricopa County Attorney’s Office Deputy County Attorney; five children: Sarah, Sam, and John, and the late Claire and Hannah Jennings.
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