By now, you’ve probably heard about the Red Hen incident, involving US president Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
On Friday evening (June 22), Stephanie Wilkinson, the owner of Red Hen, a small farm-to-table restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, asked Sanders to leave her establishment.
Naturally, Wilkinson’s decision launched an emotional national debate, with critics on both sides of party lines. There are those who view the Red Hen protest as more evidence that Americans need to learn how to be civil with each other despite their differences. They see a dangerous precedent.
For Wilkinson and her defenders, however, the decision to passively and peacefully protest the Trump administration—notably, at the end of a week in which the news cycle was dominated by reports of undocumented children at the US-Mexico border getting separated from their parents by the US government—felt more urgent and personal than protecting the cause of polite civil discussion. Like many millions of Americans on the left and right, they do not want to normalize the Trump White House. Not after Trump appeared to support neo-Nazis at a white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Not when he routinely equates immigrants with animals.
In the US, hate crimes against people of color, minority religions, and minority sexual orientations are up since Trump’s election. In some cases, Trump’s name has been invoked.
Some Americans no longer have to ask themselves what it would take before it’d be appropriate to take a stand that goes beyond posting an angry update status on Facebook. That includes Wilkinson and her staff at the Red Hen.
“I’m not a huge fan of confrontation,” Wilkinson told The Washington Post. “I have a business, and I want the business to thrive. This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.”
The Red Hen as a lesson for leaders
Of note to leaders in the service industries and beyond, Wilkinson did not act alone, though as an owner/operator she would have had the right to do so. Instead, she tells the Washington Post, she called her employees together and said, “Tell me what you want me to do. I can ask her to leave.”
In the end, Wilkinson was acting on her employees’ conviction that when a public official from the Trump administration enters the restaurant, it’s no longer business as usual. Some of her employees are gay and are uncomfortable with Sanders’ defense of Trump’s plan to ban transgender people in the US military. Others were aghast that Sanders had defended Trump’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents, a stance the administration has since reversed.
Wilkinson recognized that her kitchen staff and servers needed to be heard, and she honored their request, which is exactly what’s required of today’s business leaders. As Ford Motor Co. futurist Sheryl Connelly recently told Quartz, in these polarizing times, allowing employees to have a voice should be seen as a form of self care. Citing Ford research, she advises that companies ought to offer employees time and space to protest or support causes, and indeed some already do .
Asking Huckabee to leave despite the business risks also puts Wilkinson in alignment with another trend in US corporate culture: CEO activism. Consider Amazon declaring its intention to build its new headquarters in a state where the laws reflect its progressive values. Or Blackrock CEO Larry Fink’s letter to shareholders calling for company leaders to abandon neutral ground when the social contract is at stake. As the world’s biggest investor, he is telling CEOs to start prioritizing the common good, or risk losing Blackrock as a shareholder.
We can argue about what we mean by common good, but several airlines seemed to recognize it last week when they announced their refusal to assist US officials in transporting separated family members to various US detention centers, or out of the country. Google, meanwhile, recently announced it will not renew a contract with the Pentagon that would have improved the US military’s artificial intelligence capabilities, after employees made their discomfort with the program known.
Sure, the what-if-the-situation-were-reversed debate will and should continue. (What if your employees support views that don’t agree with your own? It’s a fair question.)
Meanwhile, leaders might want to at least consider the point at which they, too, would put personal ethics before business interests, and pull a Red Hen.