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Addressing hate symbols in the workplace

Hate symbols create a hostile work environment. Offensive imagery may include swastikas, confederate flags, 14/88 numerology, nooses, or other hostile slogans that target someone’s race or identity.

Employees who are subjected to hate symbols in the workplace may have grounds for a discrimination claim. Employers who wish to create a safe workplace, free of harassment, can address these challenges through a proactive policy and careful investigation.

Policy and education. As a first line of defense, employers should revisit their anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, and dress code policies. Ensure these policies are current and in line with applicable laws, and then review them with your staff during regular meetings.

Policies that prohibit “wearing or displaying” hate symbols and derogatory or unwelcoming messages could address clothing, tattoos, vehicle decals in the company parking lot, office decor and more. Appearance policies can require employees to cover offensive tattoos, as long as the policy does not discriminate against an employee’s religion or other protected status.

Responding to incidents. If a race-based or other offensive symbol appears in the workplace, employers are advised to conduct a thorough investigation. Leadership may want to coordinate with legal counsel, particularly when the imagery or symbols in question may be subjective.

It’s worth noting that First Amendment rights to express political views do not extend to employees in a private workplace. That said, some states and localities identify political affiliation and ideology as a protected class. Employers should understand the laws in their area and any potential limitations on their response.

The Anti-Defamation League maintains a hate symbol database at www.adl.org/hate-symbols.

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