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When Displaying an American Flag at Work Offends Some Employees

Employer's flag-hanging to recognize Sept. 11 anniversary prompts backlash

A young african american woman in a business suit walking down a city street with an american flag.

​To commemorate Sept. 11, an employer hung two American flags in the workplace. Some employees who were born in other countries complained.

What would you do?

That situation happened last week to an HR professional who posted about it on SHRM Connect, the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) online discussion platform. The HR professional, who works at a call center with hundreds of employees from diverse backgrounds, said the employer hung two American flags on the walls of the production floor on Sept. 11 to commemorate the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in the U.S.

The reaction from two employees was unexpected.

"They were upset and offended that the flags were hung," wrote Sharon Lakes, who initiated the SHRM Connect discussion and agreed to have her name published but not her company's name. "We do not have any other flags displayed. They felt that the flag doesn't represent their heritage and their ancestry and their struggle throughout history and still today. So, they don't want the flags to be permanent."

Lakes' question: "Anyone have this come up before? How was it handled?"

The question inspired a flood of responses from SHRM members.

"We have a very large U.S. flag hanging in our production facility and employ people from many cultures and countries," wrote one HR director for a company in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who agreed to have her comments published but not her name. "Never has anyone made a comment. Shame on them. ... They are living and working in the U.S."

Robin Cooley, SHRM-CP, an HR manager in Oregon who asked that her company name not be published, wrote, "I must agree. This is America. They are in America and not their country.

"You are not making a political statement [by] only displaying the flag of the country you operate [in] and live in," Cooley continued. "I would thank them for their time and explain the reason the flag is displayed, and I would probably leave the flags up for a while. 9/11 took a toll on our country and many family and friends. You are showing respect for those lost that day."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]

Others suggested approaching company leaders about displaying other nations' flags.

"I do think that the two employees who complained would understand the meaning and significance [of the flag display], so that they would know no slight was meant," wrote Stacey L. Rodriguez, director of employee benefits and resources at SynDaver Labs Inc. in Tampa, Fla. "Then perhaps afterward determine a place to hang flags representing other countries."

The company could ask employees to donate small flags representing their countries of origin and then find a wall to display them, suggested Kristen Riley, SHRM-SCP, who is employee experience manager at LMN Architects in Seattle and who said her opinion does not reflect her company's stance.

"I've seen several schools take this type of approach where families have come from dozens of other countries," she wrote. "I could only imagine that it might also have a very powerful impact to new and current staff that the organization values the diversity of its staff."

Legal Considerations

Grant P. Alexander is a partner with Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Mallory & Natsis LLP in Los Angeles. He specializes in laws on free speech in the workplace.

Could a company risk discrimination lawsuits by hanging the American flag in the workplace without showcasing the flags of other nations from which workers hail?

The answer, he said, would depend on a company's policy on displaying other items at work.

If, for instance, company policy prohibits the posting of flags, team banners or other materials for a nondiscriminatory reason—such as to maintain a tidy office atmosphere—that policy would probably withstand court scrutiny as long as it's uniformly applied.

"That's important because if the company has a policy which prohibits the posting of banners, flags or posters, then the company needs to apply that policy uniformly," he said. "It can't hang an American flag while telling others that hanging their own flags or banners is against company policy."

If a company doesn't have a policy about hanging flags or banners, he said, then hanging an American flag would probably be viewed as acceptable.

"The company does have some latitude on how it decorates its own space," he noted. "The gray area is if, in addition to the flag, people start making comments about 9/11 or hanging things of their own that make ethnic or religious groups uncomfortable. That's where a lot of the friction is. Usually the flag itself isn't the issue; it's the other behaviors or comments along with it that can tend to get messy."


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