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How Should an Owner React When His Employee Shuns a Same-Sex Couple?

When a religious employee refuses to help a same-sex couple, the storeowner must decide how to react.

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Hannah Rowley had been working at Barrus Jewelers since she was 16 years old. Aaron Barrus, the store’s third-generation owner, had known Hannah and her family through their church for as long as he could remember. Growing up in a family-operated business in a very conservative, suburban town in the Rockies, Aaron was used to the idea that his best contacts — for customers as well as service vendors and employees — came from within their tightly knit community.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal is a fictional scenario designed to read like real-life business events. The businesses and people mentioned in this story should not be confused with actual jewelry businesses and people.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected]

Aaron gave Hannah her first job as a part-time “general assistant” — running errands, dusting shelves and helping his mom with office organization. Hannah proved to be dedicated, responsible and a quick study, asking a lot of questions and seeming to use every spare minute she had to learn all she could about diamonds, gems and the business in general. After two years of part-time work, the timing of Hannah’s high school graduation happened to coincide with the retirement of Barrus’ only full-time employee — the store’s top salesperson — and Hannah wasted no time in letting Aaron know that she very much wanted the job and a long-term career with the store. Though nervous about her youth, Aaron was pleased with her commitment and ability. Within a year of coming on full time, her sales numbers rivaled those of her predecessor — and as her skill and knowledge base continued to grow, so did her productivity.

In recent years, business at Barrus had been growing at a steady pace, due largely to a significant population influx brought on by the opening of a huge high-tech company’s new office in the area. Updating procedures, adding two new staff members, bringing in new product lines and renovating the showroom all helped Aaron and his family hold their position as the “hometown favorite” for fine jewelry. While they continued to take good care of the families who had supported them for generations, Aaron was more than pleased to see the growing number of new faces coming into the store every week.

Hannah had always been a devout member of their church. It seemed to Aaron, though, that after her marriage and the birth of her first child, she seemed to become even more conservative, appearing to shy away from any conversation that drifted from business, family or the friends they had in common. Since she was always professional and polite with customers, he chose to look at her introspection as a reflection of her developing maturity and never considered it a problem in the store. 

One particularly busy Friday, Aaron noticed Hannah greet a young woman at the door and bring her back to the bridal area. It appeared she was shopping with a friend and Hannah was preparing to show her some rings. A few minutes later, a visibly upset Hannah interrupted the discussion he was having with a visiting uncle and said she needed to talk with him. She told Aaron she would not have any further conversation with the women she had been waiting on, as they were looking for wedding rings for each other. She also told him that if he was, in fact, a “man of God,” he would ask them to leave and not be party to their choices.

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Aaron was dumbfounded. To his knowledge, they had not had a same-sex couple in the store looking for rings before and they hadn’t had any training or even conversation on the topic — but he still would never have expected Hannah to behave in such an intolerant manner. He asked her to sit down in the break room and wait for him while he went out to talk to the customers. As he approached, he could tell that the women were far from happy. He introduced himself as the owner of the store and before he could say another word, one of the women said, “Your employee just told us quite plainly that we are not welcome here.” Aaron immediately apologized and assured the women that Hannah’s personal views did not reflect those of his family or of his business. They thanked him for his time, but made it clear they would be shopping elsewhere. 

Aaron sent Hannah home with a plan to meet before opening Monday. He spent all weekend considering the situation and still had no idea how he could reconcile Hannah’s behavior with his sense of tolerance and good business. Then, Sunday afternoon, he found the following 1-star review posted both on Yelp and Google by a Melisa Arder:

“Barrus Jewelers needs to step into the 21st century. Friday, my soon-to-be wife and I went into the store to look at wedding rings at the recommendation of our new neighbor. Having just moved to town, I trusted his judgment and had no reason to think that my experience would be any different than his. When we walked in, we were greeted by Hannah, who seemed pleasant enough. She pointed us toward the wedding rings at the back of the store. When she joined us, she made a comment about how smart it was to shop in advance, and asked which of us was getting married. I was a bit confused and said, ‘We are.’ It took a minute for the idea to register — but then her expression changed completely. She said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you. I will send the storeowner over to talk with you.’ And she abruptly walked away. The storeowner was apologetic — but too late. I told him we wouldn’t shop where we weren’t welcome. Yesterday, we drove 30 miles into the city and spent $8,800 on two diamond rings that we bought from Jackie at Sanderson’s, who was honestly happy for us and delighted to be a part of our celebration. I knew we were moving to a more conservative part of the country — but I certainly didn’t expect this kind of treatment in a higher-end jewelry store.”

The Big Questions

  • Should Aaron respond to the review — and if so, how?
  • How should he handle Hannah?

Expanded Real Deal Responses

Daniel S. Cambridge, MA

And this is why you should always have a work manual for your store, even if you’re tiny. It should be something that lays out all possibilities clearly as well as the store’s policies for all of those possibilities, and all employees should have to read it and sign off on the policies. And one of those policies should have been that everyone who comes into the store is treated equally regardless of who or what they are. It’s also not a question of whether there are legal issues involved. It’s just the right thing to do. That being said, it is always possible to hand off sales to other associates or the boss, but it has to be done in the right way, and in this case without making it clear what the reason is for it. Yes, he should respond to the review with a sincere apology. He may not get the gay couple back, but it’s the right thing to do.

Denise O. La Grange, IL

We just had this Real Deal experience. A 17-year veteran who had worked with this company and its customer base since she was very young decided to leave because of our “all-inclusive” service policy. I thought, “How will I ever replace her production numbers?” One door closes, another opens: her college-educated replacement is a selling powerhouse and has absolutely no predispositions on anyone’s disposition except “what brings you in today — I’d be happy to help.” 

Aaron, fire her now! She can find an uber-conservative, soon-to-be negatively Yelped storeowner to employ her; let them forge their chosen path. Second, communities change much like today’s population, advancing the environment of tolerance with many socially sensitive agendas. Our business is to sell and service any customer by creating a safe, professional setting with a well-trained staff. Your clientele will continue to buy from you because of your integrity, quality, and service. Move forward; change is our only constant.

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Carole Sandler K. New Port Richey, FL

He should have apologized for Hannah’s actions and bent over backward to help these two lovely ladies. In life, we have to adjust to the lifestyles of others. Hannah believes in a punishing God. Most people believe in a loving God. When I was a little girl, my mom, dad and I were refused service at a restaurant because we were Jewish. This situation is just as hideous.

Cathy M. Austin, TX

People are people, and all should be treated fairly and with respect. If any of my employees showed prejudice against a specific group of people, it would be made very clear that all customers are equal in what they deserve from us: a quality, professional experience. Anyone that couldn’t provide that to every customer regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation or any other category would not have a job at our store. 

Michael J. Port Charlotte, FL

He must respond to the review! At the very least by saying the same thing he told the couple in the store and make it known that everyone is welcome in their store! Then make it abundantly clear to Hannah that although she is not required to assist every customer, the reaction and attitude that drove business away will not be tolerated. If she has an objection to helping anyone for whatever reason, she may politely excuse herself to hand off the sale. With regard to the “man of God” comment, I would simply say that everyone walks different paths, so it’s best she stay focused on her own.

Joel M. Red Bank, NJ

Employees should never judge potential customers. Their job is to assist the client in whatever way reasonable.

The store cannot discriminate against their employees due to their beliefs or religion, but employees must treat customers the same way. They should not discriminate against clients. I would advise the employee that they must treat all customers equally or terminate the employment.

Jim D. Kingston, NH

My reaction would be to fire Hannah on the spot and set about repairing the damage she hath wrought. While it might be easy to say, “We’ll do some training and see how things go,” I doubt it would prevent the same from happening again. Bigotry and intolerance take years to instill and are hard to unlearn. Having an employee espouse intolerance toward a client is unconscionable. Moreover, reviews like that can severely damage a business’s reputation. Hannah might be surprised to learn just how few in the community would agree with her. If Hannah goes public with her dismissal, sure the store could lose a few clients, but it could bring in a bounty of new ones who appreciate a business owner who is non-judgmental.

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Ronald S. Americus, GA

If Hannah can’t be tolerant of the gay couple, she needs to change jobs. If Aaron sides with her, he will continue to have problems that may send him to court. Let people love who they want to love. None of us is perfect and we need to stop acting as if we are and others aren’t.

Douglas Z. Hagerstown, MD

The religious freedom issue has gone too far and has become just an excuse to be intolerant of other views. Can a store that is open to the public refuse to sell to mixed race couples? To anyone wearing a maga hat? Can an atheist refuse service to a Christian? 

If this is what Hannah believes, she should find other employment where she would not come in contact with the public, since the public will be diverse. If this had happened in my store, Hannah would be fired on moral grounds, as this behavior would be in violation of my moral standards. 

Unless this town is part of an ultra-conservative cult, I doubt that many “conservatives” would sympathize with this type of intolerance. Do you only want to continue to sell to a small, ultra-conservative religious base? If so, you may find that you are left behind as the town changes.

I would publicly apologize to the couple on Yelp and Google, and invite them back in for a personal apology.

What’s the Brain Squad?

If you’re the owner or top manager of a U.S. jewelry store, you’re invited to join the INSTORE Brain Squad. By taking one five-minute quiz a month, you can get a free t-shirt, be featured prominently in this magazine, and make your voice heard on key issues affecting the jewelry industry. Good deal, right? Sign up here.

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected].

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