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How risky is it to speak out on such a controversial issue?

Marilyn Carlson Nelson

Marilyn Carlson Nelson is categorical in saying that business has “already voted” against the November ballot measure that would make same-sex marriage unconstitutional in Minnesota. And posed as a work-force issue, few would disagree with her.

But there is a world of difference between creating an inclusive workplace culture and providing GLBT-friendly benefits and taking a firm, public stance on an issue many customers likely view as divisive. Indeed, calls from MinnPost to several major business-sector organizations that routinely lobby on everything from education to energy were met with similar, polite replies that member organizations could go there if they wanted, but the advocacy groups needed to remain neutral.

So just how risky is it for a business leader to speak out on such a hot topic?

The General Mills Chair in Marketing at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, Akshay Rao has to issue a couple of disclaimers before answering: He teaches at an institution named for Carlson Nelson’s father, thinks of her as a friend and agrees unabashedly with her feelings on same-sex marriage.

Perhaps not as risky as one might think
All that said, Carlson Nelson’s decision was perhaps not as risky as one might think, in his opinion.

“She might get a phone call or two from someone on the Republican side of the aisle,” said Rao. “But the odds that this is going to damage her either personally or her corporation are slim.”

It is undeniably true that businesses try not to engage in activities that dampen demand for their goods and services. But the corporate chair’s very public declaration of her feelings isn’t likely to cause people to boycott the company’s hotels.

“The risk has already occurred,” explained Rao. “It’s no secret that Carlson is hospitable to the LGBT community.

Applying hospitality view to the state
“She’s saying, ‘Let us not develop a brand image as a state that is inhospitable to anybody,’ ” he added.

And if no one feels betrayed, there’s little chance of a backlash from people who want to punish or damage the Carlson brand.

“Think back two years when Target and Best Buy were in the hot seat for having provided money to Minnesota Forward when [Tom] Emmer was running for governor and opposing gay rights,” he said. “The outrage then came from people in the LGBT community who believed that these corporations were friendly to them. That episode stands in stark contrast to this.”

Indeed corporate America may become the biggest, if not the most openly vocal, foe of Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows businesses to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence the outcomes of elections, Rao said.

“Now it’s open season on them to get phone calls from any and everyone running for office,” he said. “So now when they contribute they have to give to both sides so as to not get caught in a kerfuffle like Target’s.”

Shareholder suits against Target, 3M
Two investment firms recently filed shareholder suits against Target and 3M demanding that they “not divert shareholder resources toward political ends that they may not support and which may cause public controversy.”

And businesses that believe same-sex marriage is good for the work force or for any other reason can make their views known for a whole lot less. Backed by a growing body of research that supports this view, two dozen business leaders last year wrote to state lawmakers in New York, urging legalization.

Signatories included real estate mogul and publisher Mort Zuckerman, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein and MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings CEO Ron Perelman.

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