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Free or Not Free Speech Your Opinions.

September 1, 1999
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Related Topics: Policies and Procedures, Featured Article
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Dilemma:

You are HR director for a large furniture store. One of your dockworkers, Tim, loads furniture into people's cars and trucks from the back of the shop. Tim has a small cubicle near the dock, and on his bulletin board has a sticker which reads "Abortion: The Ultimate Child Abuse."

Two employees have complained about the sticker at different times. You've told them that you felt that the sign could stay. Your reasoning was that employees should have the right to express most of their opinions in their own spaces, so long as they don't make personal attacks on someone else, or break other boundaries.

However, you're aware that Tim's sticker is offending customers on occasion, who respond with scowls and side comments as they notice the sticker. Do you insist the employee (a solid employee for several years) remove the sign?

Responses:

"Just as HR directors have to monitor and enforce laws regarding harassment, discrimination, and other widely-known legal issues, employees should keep issues unrelated to work to themselves. We shouldn't allow discussion of things that can lead to workplace violence and uncomfort in their environment. These things should be left to off-work discussions and opinions.

"Part of being an HR Director is to ensure that the employer is protected from legal violations, which includes ensuring that employees are being treated fairly, consistently, and working in satisfactory conditions. Customers, aside, I believe that the primary issue is that everyone who steps into your workplace (including customers) is content when they leave. Is that possible if you allow controversial subjects to take part in the workplace if they are non-work issues?"
Candace Stark
HR Director
The Armadillo Club (restaurant chain)
Denver

"I would have asked the employee to remove the sign. It could be taken as sexual harassment. And any time the public can see then it's a problem. You should not allow signs or personal items around that may upset others. You should have good taste when displaying things."
Sandra Smith
Office of the Secretary of State
State of California
Sacramento

"As much as I agree fully with Tim's sign and believe he has the right to post his opinions in his personal space, the fact that his space—and, therefore, his opinion—is open to customer view violates the usual business precept that personal opinions are kept just that.

I would have to explain to Tim why his sign must be moved: not because of its content, but because it offers a controversial opinion to public view. If there is a place in his cubicle which is not visible from the customer areas of the loading dock, I'd suggest he place the sign there. Otherwise, it should be removed.

If similar visual situations are currently present, I would request that any personal material be placed where it is viewed by insiders only."
David Millson
President
CopyRIGHT Word Merchants
New Haven, VT

"I think, as a manager, that it would be wise to pull Tim aside and explain to him the offensiveness of the sticker, what it is causing, and what may lead to a possible lawsuit. I would still support Tim and his comment but I think that Tim would understand if I, as a manager, could communicate the possible circumstances of leaving the sticker where it is visible to others who may take offense."
Jean Rorex
Allied Signal
Tuscon

"The sticker has to go. First, other employees are offended or angered by this inflammatory statement. Imagine the discomfort around a workplace where an employee had a sticker that read "Christianity is Stupid." Assuming your organization allows a certain degree of freedom of self-expression in the workplace, a good idea in my opinion, as it helps morale and makes people feel comfortable, you have to draw the line when even one employee is offended. Your right to self-expression in the workplace ends where people get offended. When it begins to become a customer service issue, then it becomes even more cut-and-dry.

A loyal employee of seven years surely must understand that while, yes, he/she does have the freedom to express themselves, the limit on that begins when coworkers feel uncomfortable working with someone who displays offensive material at work. The potential for lost business is there, because people may decide that the company tacitly supports a given view if employees are allowed to display material that can generate complaints. This employee is allowed to have their viewpoint. If they want to be public about it, they can get display anything they want on their property. The organization has an obligation to protect its employees and their business."
Tadish Durbin
Engineer
Concur Technologies
Oakland

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