Are you being served?

So there’s been a teacup-based-storm about M&S letting someone refuse to sell something which might anger their chosen magic man in the sky. This isn’t a new thing.. remember Asda and the ‘morning after’ pill?

I’m a ‘their gaff, their rules’ guy, so I think that they can do what they want to accommodate people with particular preferences. Customers and staff alike can go elsewhere if they don’t like it.

The public position, therefore, interests me not.. but I am interested in how organisations themselves are supposed to deal with this. Misanthrope Girl shows how quickly things can get silly. The employer has three options in these cases..

1. Zero tolerance: You’re selling what we’re selling. The end.

Easy. The downside is that you might piss people off  by not providing a route to solve a problem which has a mutually beneficial solution. For this to work, it has to be rigorous – as soon as a single accommodation is made you’ve switched to option 3. In an organisation the size of M&S, with so many decision makers at so many levels, this is unworkable.

2. Draw a line: We’ll accommodate preferences on one side of it, but not the other.

This is what most companies tend to do. The intention is to accomodate people with genuine issues in a clear and non-discriminatory way, whilst making sure people can’t take the piss. It’s, pretty much, impossible. As soon as a rule is written down you will find people queueing up to abuse it, push the boundaries, or say why it’s unfair. Witness, if you will, any company where they have tried to implement a dress policy that’s somewhere between ‘strictly business attire’ and ‘free for all’. If you draw the line at ‘religious beliefs’ then how do you police that? Which religions count as religions.. how come the Christians don’t have to work on Sundays, but the Jedi’s (0.7% of the population – more than Judaism, Sikhism and Buddhism) aren’t allowed special leave on May 4th?

3. Case-by-case: If you have a preference then talk to us and we’ll see what we can do.

This should work. This should always be the answer. The best thing about this is that it leaves it to the employees to decide if their issue is important enough to raise. Democratise it. If you’ve got a big issue then you’ll find out in due course and then (and only then) should you have to write a rulebook. This is even an approach used in areas of employment law – such as ‘flexible working’ where you have a statutory right to ask for it, but your employer has the right to say no.

Unfortunately, this option is fraught with it’s own problems. What happens with it emerges that Milly Muslim was transferred from the food hall because she didn’t want to sell booze to infidels.. but Cathy Catholic was refused a move out of homeware where she had a problem selling duvets to gays? Ladies and gentlemen, we have a clear-cut case of religious discrimination even if Milly was granted her transfer because the food hall was overstaffed anyway, and Cathy didn’t get hers because her store only actually sold homeware. Claims of this nature can be expensive and disruptive. Careers can be ruined. Organisations like M&S fear giving too much discretion down the chain of command – not just because the senior people are managerialist control freaks, but because the implications of a decision can go far beyond what would be conceived by a supervisor or store manager.. and when lower level people make mistakes that hit the headlines the calls are for the guys at the top to fall on their swords.

If you’ve spent time working at the levels of a company where the wider implications of these decisions are felt, then you’ll understand why there isn’t actually a right answer. I’ll look at the decisions organisations take with interest, and I’ll decide whether I think they got one right or wrong.. but I won’t judge them either way because I know how hard it is.

As an aside.. as a trainee auditor I was informally offered the chance to decline assignments at companies in the meat business because I was vegetarian. I’m not *that kind of vegetarian*, and I never did decline a meat-based client, and the only person I knew who used that ‘exemption’ was lying about being a vegetarian to get out of going to an abattoir stocktake on a Saturday.