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Freedom of Expression in the Workplace

In the case “Freedom of Expression in the Workplace” Barbara Hill is an employee at American Plastic Products Company. In order to do her job Barbara has to walk down a hallway to a meeting room at least once every day. On the walls of the hallway are pin-up photographs and calendars of, what one can assume scantily clad females. Barbara went to her supervisor and told him that these photographs offended her.

The supervisor immediately removed all the photographs. The next day Barbara overheard two male employees talking about women in an unkind way. Barbara again went to her supervisor and said that conversation between the two male employees offended her. The supervisor discussed the situation with the two male employees, who argued that they were merely expressing their opinions. The question that needs to be answered about this case is was the work environment a hostile work environment? In my opinion the pin-up photographs and calendars and the conversation between the two male employees do not make the work environment a hostile work environment. However, if the supervisor does not handle the situation with careful consideration it could very quickly turn into a hostile work environment.

As far as values

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go it appears that Barbara values equal rights and a high moral standard. It looks as if Barbara values the fact, that although she is working in an environment that appears to be dominated by men, she still has the right to be there and earn an equal pay. She is capable of doing the job as well as anyone else and she deserves to be paid the same as anyone else. Barbara also values a high moral standard in that she does not believe she has to view offensive pictures hanging in the hallway which she must walk down to do her job.

The male employees obviously value freedom of expression/speech. To them the offensive pictures are an expression of something they enjoy; they feel they should be able to express themselves in any way, shape, or form. Their discussion with the supervisor shows that they feel they value freedom of speech. It appears they feel they have the right to be able to say what they want, when they want, and where they want.

The supervisor needs to consider very carefully what he and the company value most. If profit is valued then the supervisor must proceed with caution. Punishing/suspending the two male employees could affect the bottom line. If they become disgruntled they may show their unhappiness by being less productive or leaving the company. They could even take it as far as to convince other employees that they are being treated unfairly, which in turn could cause the other employees to become disgruntled. If the two men decide to be less productive, leave the company, or convince other employees to be less productive then the company will become less productive as a whole and will most likely become less profitable. However, if the supervisor does nothing Barbara could sue the company for sexual harassment which, even if she doesn’t win, would cost the company a great deal of time and money.

The supervisor must also proceed with caution should he and the company value a positive work environment. The supervisor must handle the situation so that the appearance of “taking sides” is not given. He will need to take the values of Barbara and the values of the male employees and juggle them so that it appears that both sides are being treated fairly.

In order to say that this is not a hostile work environment a few assumptions need to be made. The first assumption is that the photographs and calendars were already hanging on the walls when Barbara was hired. The second assumption is that Barbara had no trouble with the male coworkers prior to her approaching the supervisor about the photographs being offensive. If these assumptions are not made it changes the situation in its entirety. If the photographs and calendars were placed on the walls after Barbara was hired and hostile comments and situations took place prior to the removal of the photographs then it is very possible, and highly likely, that a hostile work environment existed.

This situation is not a hostile work environment because according to our discussion in class five criteria must be met for a situation to be considered hostile. The five criteria according to Epstein are: (1) the harassment must be gender-based, (2) the employer or its agent must perpetuate or condone the harassment, (3) the harassment must be severe or pervasive, (4) the harassment must be unwelcome to its target, and (5) the harassment must create a subjectively and objectively hostile work environment. Although Barbara’s situation meets requirements 1, 4, and 5 it does not meet requirements 2 and 3. Therefore because her situation does not meet all five requirements it is not considered a hostile work environment.

According to the case when Barbara approached her supervisor and informed him that the photographs on the wall offended her, his reaction was to immediately remove all of the offensive materials. This action shows that criteria 2 – the employer or its agent must perpetuate or condone the harassment – is not met. The text also states that a “hostile work environment occurs when the overall workplace environment is so pervaded with sexual harassment and intimidation that it creates an unfair barrier for women in the workplace” (page 261). Because Barbara was able to fulfill her duties while the photographs remained on the walls shows that there was no unfair barrier created.

The offensive conversation between the two male employees only occurred once – the day after the provocative photographs and calendars were removed. Therefore it is hard to prove that criteria 3 – the harassment is severe or pervasive – has been met, or that it created a barrier and prevented her from fulfilling her duties. The conversation most likely took place because the men were angry that Barbara went to the supervisor and the photographs were removed.

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