Middle fingers, complaints: Workers caught in culture wars face harassment

Workers have been thrust into a battle over corporate America, experts said.

July 7, 2023, 6:28 AM
Pride Month apparel is seen on display at a Target store on June 6, 2023 in Austin, Texas.
Pride Month apparel is seen on display at a Target store on June 6, 2023 in Austin, Texas.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

A Target employee in Nebraska found a business card promoting Christianity placed prominently on the store’s Pride display.

A Florida-based Anheuser-Busch salesperson withstood car horns and middle fingers on his delivery route.

A Starbucks employee in Wisconsin was allegedly ordered by a manager to remove LGBTQ-friendly decorations.

Such incidents -- recounted to ABC News by workers -- have arisen in recent weeks alongside boycotts against corporations over their gestures of support for the LGBTQ community. They underscore what some experts and labor leaders described as the latest rise in workplace tension fueled by a divide that pits consumers against companies.

Employees, the workers and experts said, have been thrust into the middle of an increasingly hostile political battle over corporate America.

"It’s easy to forget the workers in the culture wars," Elizabeth Tippett, a professor at the University of Oregon School of Law who focuses on workplace harassment, told ABC News. "They don’t choose what goes on the shelves and they’re just trying to do their jobs."

Target and Anheuser-Busch InBev did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment on these incidents.

In a statement to ABC News, Starbucks said it has not altered its policies on store decorations or related issues.

"Despite public commentary, there has been no change to any of our policies as it relates to our inclusive store environments, our company culture and the benefits we offer our partners," the company said. "We continue to encourage our store leaders to celebrate with their communities including for U.S. Pride month in June, as we always have."

Kaitlin Sonday, who has worked at a Target store in Lincoln, Nebraska, for five years, said she reacted with a mix of anxiety and disbelief when anti-LGBTQ backlash nationwide boiled over last month.

Anger among some conservatives over the company’s Pride collection grew into a boycott. Some people took it further, reportedly harassing employees and calling in bomb threats at stores in Utah, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

"I was surprised people would care that much," said Sonday, noting a rise of politically charged customer-employee encounters in recent years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the outcry over the murder of George Floyd. "Workers are having that experience of being in the front row."

Sonday said she heard about customers at her store on both sides of the backlash against the Pride collection. “They were complaining about it or mentioning how it’s crazy that other people were complaining about it,” she said.

While she generally supports the company’s LGBTQ-friendly products, Sonday said she backed the company’s decision to remove some of them in response to the backlash.

"Employee safety is more important than having products out," she said.

In a statement last month, Target said it removed some products from this year's Pride collection because the company "experienced threats impacting our team members' sense of safety and well-being while at work."

"Our focus now is on moving forward with our continuing commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community and standing with them as we celebrate Pride Month and throughout the year," the company said in a statement.

The share of employees worldwide who face incivility from customers at least once a month jumped sharply from 62% in 2016 to more than 75% last year, Christine Porath, a professor of management at Georgetown University, found in a study published in the Harvard Business Review in November.

The top reason for the negative pushback faced by employees is stress, which stems in part from "divisive politics," Porath wrote.

PHOTO: A Starbucks sign is displayed above a store in the Financial District of Lower Manhattan, June 13, 2023, in New York.
A Starbucks sign is displayed above a store in the Financial District of Lower Manhattan, June 13, 2023, in New York.
John Minchillo/AP

In some cases, workers have objected to corporations taking what some have perceived as a conciliatory approach amid the backlash. Starbucks employees in recent weeks reported dozens of instances of the company refusing to let workers put up LGBTQ-friendly decorations or ordering them to take Pride flags down, according to the Starbucks Workers United union.

At a Starbucks store in Madison, Wisconsin, employee Matt Cartwright said he was ordered by a manager earlier this month to take down a Pride flag as well as paper-link streamers and rainbow-colored lights.

Cartwright and his coworkers "felt betrayed," he said, accusing the company of "completely abandoning any social views it has for pure greed."

Starbucks workers went on strike at more than 150 stores over a three-day period last month to protest what they called the unfair treatment of LGBTQ workers, saying the work environment doesn't feel safe for some workers.

Soon after, the company said in an open letter that it intends to issue centralized guidelines for "in-store visual displays and decorations that will continue to represent inclusivity and our brand."

Companies should simultaneously stand up for their values and protect workers, Stuart Appelbaum, president of the 100,000-member Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union, told ABC News. He called on corporations to rigorously enforce their harassment policies and add security guards if necessary.

"Workers shouldn’t be in the middle of this," Appelbaum said. "That’s not what they signed up for."

It's not just store workers that have been caught in the crossfires of the culture wars but employees in various fields.

Greg Patton, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, said he received backlash while simply doing his job as well.

In 2020, Patton was served a one-month suspension while the university investigated student complaints following his utterance in a Zoom classroom session of a Chinese word that sounded similar to an English-language racial slur, he said.

Ultimately, the school concluded its investigation after finding no ill-intent on the part of Patton and reinstated him.

"If I could be attacked for using an example that was misunderstood, it could definitely have a chilling effect," he told ABC News.

In an email to students in September 2020, Geoffrey Garrett, the dean of the Marshall School of Business, said the use of the Chinese word "did not violate the university’s policy," USC's Annenberg Media reported. Garrett also contested Patton’s characterization of his time away from the classroom, saying Patton was placed on leave but "never suspended nor did his status at Marshall change."

The University of Southern California did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.

Scrutiny of classroom material has also come from prominent conservatives, like Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has sought to remove what he calls "woke ideology" from school curricula.

"There’s definitely a political tug of war on the way to frame what and how people learn," Patton said.

Lindsay Schubiner, an expert with the anti-extremism watchdog Western States Center, said backlash against university faculty has come predominantly come from conservatives but educational institutions should defend teachers' free speech across the board.

"Regardless of where pressure is coming from, it’s important for universities to analyze what’s going on based on their values and provide staff with the appropriate support -- especially if there’s direct personal targeting and threats -- to exercise the academic freedom within their classrooms that they need," Schubiner said.

Referring in general to high-profile political backlash against workers, Schubiner called it "the tip of the iceberg."

"Harassment and intimidation are becoming so common, having increased during the pandemic," she added. "Companies need to support frontline staff who are the most vulnerable."

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