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US small business owners: discriminate at your own peril

By July 9, 2023No Comments

(This column originally appeared in The Guardian)

As a longtime owner of a technology consulting firm I have something to disclose publicly: I discriminate. I have turned down new clients and fired existing clients. I’ve never refused to do business because of the color of someone’s skin, sexual orientation or their religion. But I have refused to do business with people that behaved rudely, unprofessionally or were jerks to either myself or my employees. It had nothing to do with the services requested or their ability to pay. It was just my decision. I chose not to do business with these people.

Putting individual jerks aside, when it comes to last week’s supreme court ruling that allows businesses to discriminate against a whole class of people, I’d urge small businesses to think twice.

In this case, a web designer in Colorado didn’t want to perform services for an LGBTQ+ customer because of religious convictions. This is not the first time this has happened. California and Colorado bakers opted not to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. There are numerous other examples where businesses turned away customers and all for a myriad of reasons. One music store in Ohio refused to serve a supporter of Donald Trump. As long as they’re within the law, that’s their prerogative.

But if you’re a small business owner, be aware. You can decide not to work with a whole class of people if your beliefs don’t jive with them. But you do so at your own peril.

We need every customer we can get. Every dollar counts, at least for me. And it doesn’t just count for me. Small business owners aren’t just responsible for themselves. They are responsible for others. Their employees, customers, partners, suppliers and even their community. My family relies on my business for the income it provides. All of these people also rely on my business for the income it provides to them and their families. Turning away work just because you don’t agree with someone’s sexual orientation hurts not just those people (which is bad enough) but everyone that relies on that business for their livelihoods.

Big brands, retail stores and restaurant chains don’t question the religious beliefs or sexual orientation of every customer who walks in the door or buys a product because they have shareholders and investors. Even Chick-fil-A, whose public mission statement is “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us” will still sell a Spicy Chicken Sandwich to an atheist.

Because of their religious beliefs, the Colorado web designer has now pissed off the LGBTQ+ community, all their friends, allies and families. People talk. Small businesses live off of referrals and businesses of all sizes go out of their way to be seen favorably by the public. They advertise. They seek media attention. They sponsor events. They avoid controversy. The web designer in Colorado, is now famous. But not in a good way. Sure, there are some that are going to take their side. But when a business publicly does something in the name of politics or religion, they’re pretty much guaranteed of upsetting a significant number of both current and prospective customers.

So go ahead and discriminate. Scotus says it’s fine. But do so at your own peril.

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