Restaurants Address Rise in Employee Activism

Justin Butler

Although Justin Butler’s Duck Donuts franchise is in an affluent suburb, Butler’s employees were still concerned back in early summer that the rioting surrounding the death of George Floyd while in police custody would affect them. 

"With us being in Woodbury, we didn’t experience the immediacy of physical security, but we had plans in place and meetings and conversations about it," Butler said. "I told them, ‘shut off the fryer and leave immediately. I can replace equipment, but I can’t replace you guys.’"

Many of Butler’s employees are high schoolers, some grappling with a range of emotions following canceled graduation ceremonies, family members losing jobs and the rise in Black Lives Matter protests worldwide—many of which are youth-led. Butler said he had on-going conversations with his team focused on trying to understand one another’s feelings. 

He and staff brought food to a Twin Cities donation drive during the protests to encourage community involvement.

"It’s important as business owners that we understand where our people are coming from, and meet them where they are," Butler said. "Some people will say, ‘I just need a day off’...we need to grant it. We need to think through the internal emotions people are going through, who may not feel comfortable coming to work and sharing those (emotions), but they still go through it and it impacts their ability to perform."

Another factor causing stress is all of this social change is happening in the middle of a pandemic. 


From HR to the legal perspective

After a Taco Bell employee in Ohio was sent home and told he could not wear a Black Lives Matter face mask, the legalities of a mask policy sparked a conversation on whether brands should allow employees more freedom of expression at work.

Ron Gardner, a franchisee lawyer and managing partner of Dady & Gardner in Minneapolis, said unfortunately, there isn’t a standard answer.

"Franchisees (as well as independents) are caught between needing to satisfy the needs of employees to express themselves and the desire of not offending any customers," Gardner said. "The material I’ve seen in advising people is that if you didn’t have a policy before, now is a really bad time to announce one, because one way or the other, you draw attention to yourself."

However, if a franchise has no policy in place, it leaves operators adrift and alone to decide for themselves. With no one-size-fits-all solution, Gardner suggested business owners examine their employee base, clientele and geography. The same holds true for independents.

"With the chance of alienating an employee or customer, is that stronger than your bottom line?" Gardner said. "You have to ask yourself, is this employee’s value to me of greater or lesser importance to me than the enforcement of my policy? If you’re going to lose somebody because you’re enforcing a preexisting policy and they don’t agree with it, that’s a tough choice for people."

Gardner said previously the issue of employee activism hasn’t been so visible, and both businesses and lawyers are trying to navigate through a tricky situation. The emergence of conversations surrounding racial justice in the workplace is a new dynamic for many. Laws will need to catch up in response to these evolving issues as more and more cases get decided on whether or not there is a line between someone’s private speech and their employment status, Gardner said. 

"I think it’s fascinating people are potentially losing their jobs or franchises that maybe in this case was because they expressed their own opinions in areas in which there may be absolutely no affiliation between them and their employer," Gardner said. For example, does it make a difference legally if your Facebook or Twitter profile doesn’t identify your employer?  

"I think this is an issue where franchisees and franchisors need to be having a conversation with each other about brand protection and brand values, because if the system isn’t on the same page, then you’re going to get inconsistent results, which is going to lead to confusion," Gardner said.

Franchising isn’t the only business model to have this headache. A recent example of an independent restaurant owner caught up in a social media nightmare is when Holy Land  grocery, butcher shop and deli was evicted from Midtown Global Market over racial comments posted years previously by the owner’s daughter who was also an employee. 

During the height of the protests, many independent restaurateurs wrote statements expressing their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Talking about your company’s culture and policies should include ongoing conversations with employees and guests. 

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