Should companies take a public stand on social issues?

That’s a good question. Conventional wisdom says companies should think long and hard before putting a stake in the ground on controversial issues. Whatever side you land on, you’re likely to make a large percentage of your customer base extremely happy – and an equal percentage extremely unhappy. Chick-fil-A (a client), Nike and Airbnb, among others, have experienced the sales and reputational impact that comes with taking a public stand on a divisive issue.

Consumer response, of course, is important. But what about employee response? After all, your employees can be your biggest ambassadors – or your most vocal detractors. And, recent studies indicate that today’s employees place a high priority on working for an organization whose values align with their own and that demonstrates its commitment to addressing societal issues.

Over the last several years, Walmart has found itself in the crosshairs of the gun control debate. The company, whose retail stores historically have sold firearms and ammunition, attracts a broad spectrum of customers with a wide range of opinions about gun safety and First Amendment rights. As the nation’s largest private employer, Walmart also is home to more than a million associates whose opinions are likely as varied as its customers.

The issue came to a head for associates on August 3, when a gunman shot and killed 22 people and wounded 24 others at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. The tragedy occurred just a few days after a Walmart associate killed two other associates in a store in Southaven, Mississippi.

Associates were understandably rattled. Some organized walkouts in protest of Walmart’s firearms sales and policies, saying they no longer wanted to be complicit in gun sales. Others remained silent.

On September 3, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon sent a memo to associates announcing changes to the sale of firearms and ammunition in retail stores, along with other steps that signal a much more public stance in the gun control debate. With an employee base as large and diverse as Walmart’s is, communicating potentially divisive changes is a Herculean task. Here’s how McMillon nails this challenging communication:

  • Outlines the decision process. Whether they agree with a decision or not, employees want to know that the decision-making process was thoughtful and fair. The memo reinforced the immediate priorities in the aftermath of the shootings, stated that the current situation is unacceptable and reiterated previous company actions in a way that illustrated the new actions as a logical progression.
  • Acknowledges opposing viewpoints. The “inconvenience” to some customers is tempered by an increased focus on the needs of hunting and sport shooting enthusiasts. There’s no right or wrong implied in opposing viewpoints, but instead an attempt to balance the needs of associates and customers on both sides of the debate.
  • Shares probable impact. When product lines are removed, market share is impacted. The memo provides a transparent view of what that is likely to mean for the company, eliminating uneducated guesses and rumors.
  • Helps associates to help customers. Walmart’s “respectful request” of customers to no longer openly carry firearms in its stores is a challenging one for associates, since they are the face of the company. The memo offers context for the decision, along with a promise to provide guidance on talking with customers about the new policy.
  • Puts a stake in the ground. McMillon makes a bold commitment on behalf of the organization to actively seek to engage in the debate at a national level. He provides context for this step forward and the company’s upcoming involvement in the national conversation about responsible gun sales. Whether associates agree or disagree, there is no lack of clarity about the company’s stance.
  • Shares a personal connection. Walmart’s heritage as a friend to hunters and sportsmen is mentioned several times and will help to reinforce the We’re the same great company we always have been message. McMillon further builds trust with associates by sharing his own history as a hunter and gun owner.

Gun control vs. First Amendment rights is an issue that isn’t going away any time soon. Given its size and reach, Walmart will be closely watched in the days and months ahead – especially by its associates.