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The ‘Pretty Woman’ theory of customer relations

  Axial chapel windows designed by Marc Chagall for the Notre-Dame Cathedral of Reims, 1974. Photograph by Peter Lucas.

Axial chapel windows designed by Marc Chagall for the Notre-Dame Cathedral of Reims, 1974. Photograph by Peter Lucas.

The hullabaloo over the new crop of RFRAs (Religious Freedom Reformation Acts) raises an  interesting question about what we owe ourselves and others in the workplace, a subject that figures prominently in “The Penalty for Holding,” the upcoming second novel in my series “The Games Men Play.”

Granted, the workplace there is the NFL, a far more specialized and glamorous environment than most of us will ever know. But whether you work at the local Starbucks or for an NFL team, the questions ignited by the RFRA debate in Indiana and Arkansas remain the same: To what extent may I impose my personal beliefs on others? To what extent may I find offense in theirs?

The answers are actually simpler than you would think if you keep one thing in mind: A business or a corporation is a public entity, emphasis on the word “public.” If someone plunks down a Ulysses S. Grant on the counter of my bake shop, I owe that person $50 worth of baked goods. Period.

Of course, I should present the baked goods with a smile and a good attitude. I might even offer more in the way of sample cookies on the counter. But I must in any event give value for value, regardless of what I perceived the person to be.

Otherwise, we would spend our days in knots about each person we encounter. Chances are very few people are going to share the same values you hold.

Artists make this accommodation all the time and are often criticized for it. Yet they continue to meet their patrons on the bridge of the imagination.  Marc Chagall did stained-glass windows for Reims Cathedral. Robert Rauschenberg was commissioned to create a work for a cathedral honoring the mystic Padre Pio (which was rejected). Neither was a Roman Catholic.

But shouldn’t ethics and morality enter into the workplace? Of course.  Proprietors and corporate leaders have a right to discipline those who threaten the public good or harm others, which is why the NFL’s foot-dragging on its domestic abuse issues, many of which contain a public component (doctor’s or police report, hotel camera), has been so maddening. Apart from this, however, your ethics and morality lie in your service to others. Again, Joe Schmoe wants a $50 cake. I owe him a $50 cake.

I could refuse to serve him, because I don’t like his looks or I suspect he’s gay or using birth control, which I may find in violation of my pure religious beliefs. But none of these threatens the public good. And anyway, he’d be out of the cake and I’d be out 50 bucks.

The scenario reminds me of one of my favorite movies, “Pretty Woman,” celebrating its silver anniversary (hard to believe). Julia Robert’s  hooker goes into a Rodeo Drive shop to buy a dress for a dinner date with wealthy new client Richard Gere, only to be rebuffed by the snooty saleswomen who think they have her number.

The next day she returns all gussied up and reminds them of the only number that matters.

“You people work on commission, right?... Big mistake. Big. Huge,” she says.  “I have to go shopping now.” And she sallies forth, having rejected the rejecters.

Moral of the story? As her client (and soon-to-be suitor) observes: “Stores are never nice to people. They’re nice to credit cards.”

Something that Indiana and Arkansas are finally realizing.