I never thought I’d have to write this column.
I’ve written about workplace bias before — about racism (for example “The uselessness of race,” InfoWorld, 5/27/2002), and about male/female workplace issues (last week; “A tale of two genders,” Keep the Joint Running, 8/14/2017).
Always, when writing about bias, I assumed that its workplace expression would be limited to inappropriate word choices, tasteless jokes, and ignorant race, ethnicity, or gender-based assumptions about various colleagues’ abilities and contributions.
Speaking as someone whose ethnic heritage includes Kristallnacht, I don’t think we can look at images of a torch-bearing crowd of American Nazis and Klansmen and continue to consider the American workplace safe from bigotry-induced violence. And yes, I do include violence against women in my thinking; in groups like this misogyny is never far from the surface.
As a business manager you have a legal responsibility to your employees, to make sure they don’t in any way experience anything they might reasonably construe to be threatening or harassing based on their race, ethnicity, religion, sex, or, for that matter, anything else. Threats and harassment should have no place in your managerial domain.
What Charlottesville changed for all of us is what a reasonable person might find threatening or harassing. Take, for example, something you might discover in an employee’s cubicle: A small Confederate battle flag.
In the early 1980s, when the Duke brothers of Hazzard, Georgia put a decal of the Confederate battle flag on the roof of their car, it was largely considered cute and innocuous. There are those now who oppose its removal from public places, along with the removal of statues of prominent Confederacy leaders, as an attempt to sanitize history.
But we don’t erect statues, or display flags, or name streets and lakes because we think they teach history. If we did, Hawaii would have statues of Tojo and Hirohito near the Pearl Harbor museum.
Statues, flags and so on aren’t mere historical markers. They state who we admire and what we aspire to.
Before Charlottesville, an employee who displayed a Confederate battle flag might have thought it was Dukes-of-Hazzard cute.
No more. After Charlottesville, a Confederate battle flag or other such symbol of the antebellum South is no different from what displaying a Nazi swastika meant all along (Aztec and Buddhist swastikas are mirror images and are square, not diagonal). The person displaying it is communicating his affinity and affiliation with groups that have an explicit goal of suppressing, denying equality to, and inflicting violence on anyone who isn’t a heterosexual Aryan male.
Charlottesville has upped the ante for workplace management: What once might have been considered harmless looks, in Charlottesville’s aftermath, more like threats and incitement.
If you think that’s too strong, it’s certainly parallel to using one of the many ethnic, racial, sex-, or religion-based pejoratives that were at one time in broad use. Just as those who utter such repulsive phrases gripe about political correctness and excuse their behavior with some variation on the theme of “I didn’t mean anything by it,” so those who display symbols of hostility pretend, in public, that there’s no hostility implied to anyone. In private? There’s plenty of hostility to go around.
As a manager, your own attitudes and beliefs don’t much matter. You might be as certain as certain can be that Aryans are the pinnacle of evolution (although probably not; those who wave the Confederate battle flag are among those least likely to accept Darwin’s theory). Be as certain as you like. Your obligation to your employer is to make sure nobody is creating a hostile or threatening work environment.
So if you see any of these symbols in anyone’s cubicle, insist their owners remove them to more suitable environments, which is to say, places they’re only observable when the employee is acting as a private individual, and isn’t easily associated with the company that employs them.
Count me as a proponent of the idea that our Constitution’s First Amendment only matters if it protects speech we find objectionable. There are, however, boundaries even to this principle. Incitement to violence is one of them.
After Charlottesville, when symbols of Nazi-ism and the Klan are displayed, you must assume the displayer’s intention is to express hostility and encourage violence.