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Is Patriotism in the Workplace Offensive?

By Dan Bobinski

Recently the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that Gary Burton, an employee at city hall in Richmond, Virginia, was told to take down an American flag he hung in his office because some were offended by it. Specifically, three other coworkers complained that Burton’s flag was a “de-facto support of the war” in Iraq, and they did not support the war.

I shook my head to make sure I was reading this right: A government employee was told to take down an American flag at a government office because it offended coworkers.

Consider other actions that have taken place in the past year: A UPS worker in Ohio was fired for wearing a flag pin on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11; a cocktail waitress in New Jersey was forced to remove a flag attached to her drinking cup; a company in Boca Raton, Florida confiscated flags from employees' cubicles, saying other workers may find them offensive.

The question to consider is this: Where do we draw the line for workers to give up their free speech rights because someone is offended? If the first amendment to our constitution carried an "offensiveness" clause, then speech itself would have been outlawed long ago.

These people wouldn’t have been hassled if they were wearing pins or had hung pennants promoting their favorite sports teams – but show that they love their country? Sinners!

Thankfully, some states, such as New York, Maryland, Michigan, Wisconsin, and California, have passed legislation preventing employers from prohibiting displays of patriotism. But in most states, people are at the mercy of their employers.

What employers and managers need to realize is that worker morale is suppressed when people are shut down from displaying their country’s pride. And when morale is lowered, productivity follows suit.

Granted, workers who are not from this country—and even some who are—may not like the American flag, but they have chosen to live in America and American flags are flown here.

To examine this principle in a different light, if we were to survey employees forced to wear uniforms with company insignia, I’m sure we could find workers that are offended by having to wear that insignia. Yet they have chosen to work for those companies and company insignias are worn there.

What’s the difference?

Would FED EX let an employee wear a plain shirt just because the FED EX employee is offended by certain FED EX policies? Would a Canadian firm take down its Canadian flag just because an American working at that Canadian firm is offended by Canadian policies?

Aristotle is quoted as having said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” The United States, a unique country comprised of workers from every other country on the globe, is going to be a place of mixed perspectives, just by nature of its composition. Those preaching tolerance are standing on thin, cracking ice when they are intolerant of views different than their own. We can educate ourselves to entertain thoughts without having to agree with them. Even in the workplace.

This really ought to be a common sense issue, but I’m finding that the supply lines of common sense seem to run pretty thin in some of these examples. If I could bottle common sense and sell it I’d make a fortune.

Instead, I strongly urge employers and managers to exercise caution when restricting patriotic expression in the workplace. This is, after all, the United States of America, and an American flag is an appropriate symbol to display here.

© 2003 Dan Bobinski / Leadership Development. Dan Bobinski is President of Leadership Development. He can be reached at (208) 375-7606 or by Email at dan@leadershipanswers.com.
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