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Davis Journal

Businesses can lead the way for needed change

  Several weeks ago, I commented that business, not government, is often the best vehicle for needed change.  A reader contested my conclusion.  “Business is too slow to react,” he told me. “In the case of gay rights, for instance, a governmental court had to right the wrong, and the same thing happened with civil rights. The business community dragged its feet.”

He is correct in that drastic and speedy action needs to be taken at times. If a business has long dumped toxic chemicals into a public water supply, we can’t wait for an enlightened board of directors to shut off the poison.  A governmental board of health can more quickly plug up the spigot.

But the reader is wrong by thinking that business will not lead change.  Few humans in New York City, for instance, are earning the federal minimum wage.  In a city where apartment rents easily exceed $2,500 per month, a business couldn’t hire employees at such a low wage. 

It wasn’t long ago that conservative institutions refused to hire men with ear adornments. In most cases, that rule has been shelved. It is also common for retail businesses to turn away any applicants with visible tattoos.  That policy has also been eased since it’s difficult to find young men and women under the age of 40 who haven’t inked up!

Dress codes have been liberalized with male employees shunning ties and suits.  Customer protests led to higher wages and better conditions for farmworkers in the 1960s.  In the past two years wages have escalated at major retail companies due to a shortage of workers and high turnover.  Many tech companies have resorted to a fluffy list of employee benefits – in-facility spas, complimentary food, free pet insurance, etc. – in order to recruit talented staffers.

As long as businesses react to supply and demand and attempt to brand themselves as “doing good,” change will occur.  A perfect case is the evolving business policies on employee drug tests.

Most courts have so far ruled that employers can fire an employee if he or she tests positive for marijuana. However, the widespread use of medicinal marijuana is causing firms to analyze their previous bans, especially since marijuana is legal in some fashion for more than 50% of the country’s population. 

Granted, you don’t want your airline pilot to be buying doobies and edibles in Colorado or Nevada before climbing into the cockpit.  But if a sales clerk or restaurant chef tests positive for marijuana use three days ago, should this be grounds for dismissal?  And if it is, businesses may find it increasingly challenging to hire enough young sales staff for it to open the doors in states where recreational use is legal.  We don’t test for an after-work beer, why do we test for marijuana?  

Businesses will figure it out without government mandate. Some will look the other way (BYU’s “Jim McMahon rule”), others will steadfastly stay firm, and others will reevaluate whether recreational use is causing enough impairment to continue drug testing. 

Businesses cannot survive without employees, customers, and a reputation for goodwill and fairness.  In most cases, let them lead the way.