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Free Speech Isn’t Free of Responsibility

September 1, 1999
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I haven't met Charles L. Walker, a former mechanic for American Airlines, but I suspect that he has a few thoughts about free speech in the workplace.

Walker says that in 1996 he entered a restroom at American's maintenance facility at Los Angeles International Airport, and found the phrase "All Blacks Must Die" scrawled on a sign. In subsequent incidents, he found a cartoon of himself labeled "nigger" and his name next to a Nazi swastika. He also found a hangman's noose (on several occasions) in the main walkway leading to the center of the airline's servicing and repair facility.

He says that the graffiti and nooses were left untouched for months; several past and current employees have corroborated his story. Walker thinks that what happened is unacceptable, and that American didn't do enough to correct the situation. He's suing the company, and the trial was about to begin at our press time.

No one—including Walker—suggests that the airline did nothing in response to the problems. Among other things, the company conducted a formal investigation and created a graffiti patrol. Whether the company did enough will be the central question of the trial.

Technically, of course, whoever wrote the graffiti and displayed the nooses was exercising his or her free speech rights. I suspect that looking at the situation in that context offers scant comfort to Walker.

Neither, I'm sure, does American's assertion that with 100,000 employees on the payroll, "not everyone in the company is an angel." No doubt that's true. But does that mean that Walker—and others—have to live with repugnant behavior? It certainly shouldn't.

While we educate employees about the particulars of discrimination and acceptable conduct, we must also remind people that with privelege comes responsibility. For too long we've focused on our priveleges.

Organizations of all sizes are grappling with these issues, and we all know some of the steps taken to address such problems: antidiscrimination policies, diversity training, and so on.

At every turn, however, efforts to monitor employee expression in the interest of reducing workplace hostility are met with an equal pressure to solicit employee ideas, suggestions and participation. What's an employer to do?

Imperfect though the situation is, living with the seeming contradiction of both encouraging and discouraging open dialogue is necessary. Policies, training and so forth are part of the answer.

But in most corporations—and in most of our national dialogue about this issue—one key factor has been overlooked. While we educate employees, and the population, about the particulars of discrimination and acceptable conduct, we must also remind people that with privilege comes responsibility.

For too long, we've focused on our privileges—free speech among them. The nation's architects, however, never intended that democracy should be a free ride. To enjoy the privileges that life in the United States affords, we all have a responsibility to participate. Sadly, the ways in which we can do that—voting, serving jury duty, and so on—are widely ignored or disparaged.

I'm not suggesting that HR can fix our societal malaise. But HR can work to remind employees at all levels that any job offers both privileges and responsibilities, and that failing to meet those responsibilities is unacceptable. It's a radical concept whose time has come—again.


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