FLAG, TX, SMACK dab between Austin and San Antonio and just a few clicks west of I-35, was home to Flag Signs — previously known as Flags, Signs and Banners Inc. prior to a recent rebrand. A second-generation company in business 43 years, owner Charles “Chick” Bright, Jr., intended to expand more business into both nearby metro areas. Specifically, he targeted environmental graphic design (EGD) and wayfinding projects for their increasing academic, medical and business campuses.
Four months prior, simultaneous to the rebrand announcement, Chick hired designer Abby Nyswonger, a recent UT (Austin) graduate and Flag Signs’ first employee to handle EGD and “experiential design.” Abby, a native of Worcester, MA, had grown to love her college town and was thrilled when being hired by Flag Signs meant she could remain in the area, despite the commute. For that, Abby drove an electric-powered Honda Clarity, the back panel splashed with stickers advocating for social equality and environmental action.
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Ray Harris, an eight-year veteran of Flag Signs’ fabrication department, known around the company as the the guy most likely to vocalize on political issues of the day, quickly expressed concern with the new hire’s car. “We’ve got customers coming by all the time,” he told anyone who’d listen. “We can’t have them seeing that in our employee spaces.”
Abby caught wind of the complaint, but days later her car included a new, vinyl-perf sticker, reading “Human Change Not Climate Change” across the entire back window. That morning, Ray lingered in the break room, waiting until Abby passed through to loudly bring up this latest outrage to the nearest person. Eyes forward, Abby stowed her lunch in the refrigerator, then left while Ray got to “the good part.”
Meanwhile, Chick, moderately aware of the burgeoning feud, had larger problems. Flag Signs had not yet landed an EGD project, though only one proposal had been rejected. Three others were still in consideration, with sales pursuing two more possibilities. CFO Linda Stanton — who’d worked her way up under Charles Sr. — pointed out to Chick that the previous quarter’s sales had dipped, likely due to the redirected sales efforts. “I don’t know how long you want to keep this up, Chick,” she said. “Who knows how much of our core business might drift away … or why?”
“You can’t think it has anything to do with Abby Nyswonger,” Chick said, his brow furrowed. “I’m not saying anything,” Linda replied, on her way out of Chick’s office.
In fabrication, Ray gauged his coworkers’ interest in signing a petition to have Abby park elsewhere, claiming more spots were needed for customers and that she would lose out “only” because she was the most recent hire. While this drew a few laughs, no one made more of it.
Ten days later, Ray announced to the break room that he had seen — and had screen captures as “evidence” — pictures from Abby’s Facebook page showing her participating in a weekend anti-oil demonstration in Austin. Her stance on the issue was one the majority of Flag Signs’ employees openly disagreed with and the rest, likely tacitly so, as well.
Churning quickly, the rumor mill delivered news of Ray’s “investigation” to Chick, via Linda. “This girl is a representative of our company, Chick,” she said. “What are some of our clients going to think if we have someone like that on the payroll?”
“But she did that on her own time,” Chick said. “She wasn’t wearing a Flag Signs shirt.” This time, Linda didn’t turn to leave. “Chick,” she said, “would your father be taking this risk?”
Though he hated references and comparisons like that, Chick had no time to argue. He would be joining his lead salesperson and Abby later for a 2 p.m. meeting with potential clients to help decide one of the remaining EGD possibilities. Flag Signs was very close and Chick was determined to win this project.
However, just after noon, Abby rushed into Chick’s office holding a handwritten note she found on her windshield when going out for lunch. “I know what you did,” the note said.
The Big Questions
- What should Chick do about the immediate situation?
- What about the upcoming meeting?
- Is there any way to resolve this or does someone have to go — and if so, who?
A perfect example as to why I choose to keep my shop a one-man operation instead of trying to grow the quantity of jobs … In this case as most others you better look into the law, because making the wrong choice here may get the shop sued and in a short time shut its doors.
I think legally they can’t discipline her for either her car or going to a rally, but they can assign parking someplace else. As to the note, it might call for a company meeting to reinforce that there should be no harassment no matter what the opinion is.
Whether you are on your own time or not, you still owe it to your employer to not bring controversy to the business. The problem with today’s society: we have allowed this to go on. I would let her know that her views are not beneficial to the company if expressed publicly and she needs to decide if she wants to keep working for the company.
Nevada City, CA
Obviously, Ray needs to do his job and keep his politics to himself. He is harassing Abby at this point and his aggression needs to be taken down a notch. Sounds like some house cleaning needs to be done. This is an easy one.
This is a tough one. Politics in the workplace are always tricky and we have two main antagonists here. I would ask Abby to remove the stickers from her car or park somewhere else as it will reflect on the business. The stickers are unprofessional and you want to refrain from offending potential customers. However, Ray also needs to be addressed that these comments are inappropriate and are creating a hostile environment. Employees are going to disagree on topics like these and as long as it isn’t being brought into the workplace there is no need to make comments on it.
San Antonio, TX
I would let Ray know that it is inappropriate for him to criticize any employee for their point of view — be it political or otherwise. If I were to question all of my employees, I would find wide ranging viewpoints on everything from gun control to abortion. I would also ask Abby to be sensible in what she posts on the back of her car. I understand a bumper sticker here or there but to blast out your opinions with huge type is, to me, inappropriate. The best way to handle this is to sit down with Ray and Abby and see how that goes. Perhaps they will find some common ground.
The owner will remind his employees that the company’s position in a region renowned for its great patriotism, respect for democratic institutions, our country’s flag and the Constitution of the United States (and all its amendments) requires that full and public expression of personal beliefs and deeply held convictions be supported and encouraged in every one of its employees. “We are Americans,” he will state in the next morning’s staff meeting, “so we understand that by exercising our freedom to say what we want, when we feel like it, we honor not only the sacrifices made by the members of our military, but also the public school teachers who taught these cherished principles to us as children. From this day forward, Flag Signs’ new motto is “Free Speech Spoken Here,” so our neighbors in Texas and throughout the country understand we are persons of integrity and principle. We know that others will follow our example, and that our community will soon be known as a welcoming environment for all attitudes and diverse points of view.”
Leave your politics at home.
North Charleston, SC
It appears time is a problem so I would ask what the note is referring to. If she acts like she has no idea, I will have to at this point try to smooth it over by letting her know I would personally look into the matter and keep her informed. This needs to be resolved ASAP and sometimes it works by bringing both parties into a room and being stern about the problem and trying to come to a resolution that works for everyone.
No one should be fired over their opinions, but Abby might want to look for another place to work if she values being able to express herself without having to deal with some … jerk all day. She might also want to look elsewhere after she realizes the sign business is a huge waste-maker and not eco-friendly at all.
We have vendors here who announce their anti-vax statement on their invoices and we make signs for pharmaceutical companies that do animal testing … But at the end of the day, it’s up to the owner to decide who or who not to engage with or employ.
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