Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby and against the U.S. government in a case revolving around health care for employees. I’m a business person, not a lawyer, so to me it was key to understand from a business viewpoint exactly what Hobby Lobby “won.”
It appears Hobby Lobby’s leaders “won” the right to refuse to provide certain kinds of health care to their employees as had been mandated by the Affordable Care Act. The justification primarily being that such health care (all associated with female birth control) violated religious beliefs of the company owners.
As a business person I wondered what the outcome would be if the next case is brought to the court by a business owner who happens to be a Christian Scientist. Would this next company be allowed to eliminate offering vaccines – or maybe health care altogether – because the owners don’t believe in modern medical treatments?
This may sound extreme, and missing the point revolving around the controversy over birth control. But not really. Because the point of business is to legally create solutions for customer needs at a profit. Doing this requires doing a lot of things right in order to attract and retain the right employees, the right suppliers and customers by making all of them extremely happy. I don’t recall Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, Peter Drucker, Edward Demming, John Galbraith or any other historically noted business writer saying the point of business to set the moral compass of its customers, suppliers or employees.
I’m not sure where enforcing the historical religious beliefs of founders or owners plays a role in business. At all. Even if they have the legal right to do so, is it smart business leadership?
Hobby Lobby competes in the extraordinarily tough retail market. The ground is littered with failures, and formerly great companies which are struggling such as Sears, KMart, JCPenney, Best Buy, etc. And recently the industry has been rocked with security breaches, reducing customer faith in stalwarts like Target. And profits are being challenged across all brick-and-mortar traditional retailers by on-line companies led by Amazon, who have much lower cost structures.
All the trends in retail bode poorly for Hobby Lobby. Hobby Lobby does almost no business on-line, and even closes its stores on Sunday. Given consumer desires to have what they want, when they want it, unfettered by time or location, a traditional retailer like Hobby Lobby already has its hands full just figuring out how to keep competitors at bay. Customers don’t need much encouragement to skip any particular store in search of easily available products and instant price information across retailers.
Social trends are also very clear in the USA. The great majority of Americans support health care for everyone. Including offering birth control, and all other forms of women’s health needs. This has nothing to do with the Affordable Care Act. Health care, and women’s rights to manage their individual reproductiveness, is something that is clearly a majority viewpoint – and most people think it should be covered by health insurance.
So, given the customer options available, is it smart for any retailer to brag that they are unwilling to offer employees health care? Although not tied to any specific social issues, Wal-Mart has long dealt with customer and employee defections due to policies which reduce employee benefits, such as health care. Is this an issue which is likely to help Hobby Lobby grow?
Is it smart, as Hobby Lobby competes for merchandise from suppliers, negotiates on leases with landlords, seeks new store permits from local governments, recruits employees as buyers, merchandisers, store managers and clerks, and seeks customers who can shop on-line or at competitors to brandish the sword of intolerance on a specific issue which upsets the company owner? And one where this owner is on the opposite side of public opinion?
Long ago a group of retired U.S. military Generals told me that in Vietnam America won every battle, but lost the war. Through overwhelming firepower and manpower, there was no way we would not win any combat mission. But that missed the point. As a result of focusing on the combat, America’s leaders missed the opportunity win “the hearts and minds” of most Vietnamese. In the end America left Vietnam in a rushed abandonment of Saigon, and the North Vietnamese took over all of South Vietnam. Although we did what leaders believed was “right,” and fought each battle to a win, in the end America lost the objective of maintaining a free, independent and democratic Vietnam.
The leaders of Hobby Lobby won this battle. But is this good for the customers, suppliers, communities where stores are located, and employees of Hobby Lobby? Will these constituents continue to support Hobby Lobby, or will they possibly choose alternatives? If in its actions, including legal arguing at the Supreme Court, Hobby Lobby may have preserved what its leaders think is an important legal precedent. But, have their strengthened their business competitiveness so they will be a long-term success?
Perhaps Hobby Lobby might want to listen to the CEO of Chick-fil-A, which suffered a serious media firestorm when it became public their owners donated money to anti-gay organizations. CEO Cathy decided it was best to “just shut up and go sell chicken.” Business is tough enough, loaded with plenty of battles, without looking for fights that are against trends.