We are the World

In a world increasingly diverse and pluralistic, retailers in many ways are in the center of the maelstrom, having to deal with customers, employees and beliefs that are foreign to them. A clash of beliefs is inevitable…and not always pretty.

Examples of just such a clash enveloped both Wal-Mart and Kroger in recent months, gaining them headlines they probably would have preferred to avoid. Wal-Mart twice had situations—in Massachusetts and Ohio—where a staff pharmacist refused to dispense the Plan B “morning after” contraceptive pill because he said it ran counter to his religious beliefs. The same thing happened to Kroger in Georgia.

Now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ruled that the Plan B pill can be dispensed without a prescription to women over the age of 18, but requires that the over-the-counter medication should in fact be kept behind the counter to prevent underage girls from gaining access to it without a parent’s permission.

In each case, the woman looking to buy the pill had other options—there were other local pharmacies and more compliant pharmacists. But that isn’t really the point. The woman had a right to the pill, and the pharmacist decided to put his values above hers.

Personally, I’m on the women’s side. Like it or not, an individual pharmacist has a responsibility to operate within the law, not foist his or her personal morality on a customer. If a pharmacist has a problem, then get someone else to do it. But if there is nobody else available, they still have to live within the law. Or get another job.

There are, however, a lot of people who feel differently, people who believe that to require the pharmacist to hand out the pill is to violate his freedom to practice his religion. While I may disagree with these people, I cannot and do not doubt their sincerity.

What’s interesting is that when I’ve suggested to such folks that it would make sense for Wal-Mart or Kroger to have someone on duty to hand out such medications and prevent just such a clash of values, I often am told that this would be unfair to the retailer because it would increase costs. I disagree; I think it easily could be worth the investment to have someone on duty who can prevent public-relations disasters and negative headlines. And I believe, in the end, that it is the tolerant thing to do, both for the employee and the customer.

Another example of a culture clash recently occurred in Minnesota, where some Muslims who work at grocery checkouts in a Target supercenter said their strict interpretation of the Qur’an prohibited the handling of pork products, or even packaged pork products—and they refused to touch, scan or bag products that contain any amount of pork.

Now, this set off a small controversy, with some customers resenting the notion that these Muslims wanted them to adapt to their ways, while other, easier-going customers were perfectly willing to scan and bag pork products themselves.

Target released the following statement: “Providing guests with consistently fast checkouts is a key, fundamental part of our business and our guest-service commitment. As always, we continue to explore reasonable solutions that consider the concerns of team members while ensuring that we maintain our ability to provide the highest level of guest service.”

This strikes me as a reasonable approach taken by reasonable people, saying that they’re trying to do the right thing while admitting it is a work in progress. But it hardly is the universal reaction.

On my Web site, there was a fair amount of outrage about Muslims being catered to this way, and even some e-mail of the “Tell them to go back to their own country” variety. Such e-mails, of course, presupposed that the Muslims weren’t born in the U.S.A., which is nonsense. There are plenty of Muslims in the United States, and there are going to be more. We’d better get used to being tolerant.

(By the way, in some cases the people who wrote me and were intolerant of the Muslim beliefs were the same people who thought the pharmacists’ freedom of religion was violated in the Plan B scenario…so apparently, for some, freedom of religion is more a matter of political expediency and convenience.)

If we all learned anything from the Don Imus intolerance debacle of a few months ago, it ought to be that speed kills.

Forget whether you think Imus, who on his radio and television show described the Rutgers women’s basketball team in terms that were both sexist and racist, actually is a racist and misogynist or just, as he suggested “a good person who said a bad thing.” (I, for one, can’t imagine those words coming out of the mouth of a person without some level of bigotry in his character. But it also seems fair to say that while Imus may be a misanthrope, he’s a complicated misanthrope and hardly your garden-variety racist—not a saint, and certainly not only a sinner.) Once he said the words, they were all over the Internet and part of an avalanche that buried his three-decade-long career. He couldn’t deny them, couldn’t escape them, couldn’t even rationalize them.

Make a similar mistake in your store, show even the slightest hint of intolerance, and it could be captured for the ages by someone with a camera-equipped cell phone. In minutes, it could be on the Internet. And all the damage-control experts or public-relations consultants in the world may not be able to help you. It’ll be death by YouTube.

I’m not arguing that you should only show tolerance because you might be caught and punished for being intolerant. Far from it. But I do think we all need to be aware of the practical downside of making the wrong kind of mistake, the kind from which you may not be able to recover.

There’s a better reason for being tolerant, however. Our customers, more than ever, will reflect a diversity and pluralism of which this country ought to be proud. It’s why the nation was created to begin with. We shouldn’t just tolerate these differences in our employees and customers, but embrace them, and find new ways to do business that will show that when we talk about building community, we mean it.

Kevin Coupe is the founder and “Content Guy” of MorningNewsBeat.com, Darien, Conn., kc@morningnewsbeat.com.