In an early scene from The Da Vinci Code movie, the historian hero is giving a lecture about symbols. Playing word association with a lecture theatre full of undergraduates, he asks people to shout out the words they associate with each of the symbols on his PowerPoint slide. Of course, one by one, they fall into his trap. It’s not the devil’s pitchfork, it’s Poseidon’s trident. It’s not the klan, it’s Spanish priests. It’s not a nazi swastika, it’s Buddha. His point is that symbols create emotional reactions, whether those emotions are actually the appropriate ones.
I’ll give you my new word up front. It’s carpet-flagger. You see what I did there. I took the term carpet-bagger, which refers to people who turn up to exploit a specific situation and injected the word ‘flag’ which means flag. I assume you’re with me so far.
I’m increasingly concerned about an upcoming shift in professional culture that I’m convinced is happening under our noses, and I think you should be too.
Symbols have been a divisive issue in America over the last two weeks. Specifically – a very old flag and a very new one. Across social media, the atmosphere has been unusually political. It’s not that people aren’t happy to trumpet their internet assembled political philosophies all the time; it’s just that this last couple of weeks it all got a little more regular and a little more heated. At the end of the day, this is America. We bring our opinions with us to arguments, wait for our turn to wave them around and then leave without anything changing too much. Changing your mind about something – elsewhere in the world, a much prized indication of willingness to evolve and learn – is a crime here known as flip-flopping. You’re expected to have a side and you’re expected to stay on it. Side note – If you’re worried about how you’ll express yourself on an issue, find something it’s ‘like’ and express an opinion on that instead. We like to find equivalence in things, no matter how spurious the basis. Rachel Dolezal is somehow equivalent to Kaitlyn Jenner. The rainbow flag is somehow equivalent to the confederate flag. There’ll be another one along any minute.
Anyone who has a Facebook account will tell you that their timeline has spent the last two weeks looking like a fight between Skittles and the Dukes of Hazard. That’s one interpretation of both of those symbols. They are not the most emotive or important ones, but valid none the less. I grew up playing with a Dukes of Hazard car. I knew it was called the General Lee – although I didn’t have the faintest idea why. I thought of the flag as their flag (I had no idea as to its provenance.) Still to this day, it’s difficult for me not to feel nostalgic about what was, to me, a harmless symbol of my own childhood in the suburbs of north west London. Ten years after moving to the US it has come to mean something rather different. Facts are facts. It is the flag of the confederacy, which fought to maintain slavery. I won’t be passing down my toy car to the next generation.
Flags are brand marks, which is not to diminish their significance in any way. Because a mark, far from being a superficial flash of recognition, is a powerful and emotive device. They can excite us, unite us and divide us. Importantly, they can mean different things to each of us. As marketers, we can’t be afraid to be controversial, to court emotional responses in our audiences reactions. Anyone with two semesters at a community college business course will tell you that buying relies on emotional decisions that are backed up by rational justifications. I want that new mustang. I like the look of it. It will make me look cool and I just plain want to have it. It’s also got better gas mileage than in previous years, there’s been a recent reduction in price and if I trade in my car now I’ll get a better price for it. That’s how buying works: emotion first, rationality later.
And so to the carpet-flaggers. A lot of companies have ridden the rainbow wave. As soon as the supreme court decision landed, major corporations including At&T, United Airlines, VISA and many others switched out their regular logos for new versions. Twitter feeds were full of colorized rainbow logos. They are playing to a crucial fact: Increasingly, we live in a business environment less scared of politics.
This is something that doesn’t sit easily with me; like most people my age I like my business completely separate from all that stuff; it’s how I was raised in business. But that’s the point – it’s a generational thing. Generation Y seems to be far more comfortable wearing its political views on its sleeve, whatever the context. Values, I’ve been told this week, don’t stop and start dependent on whether you’re at the office or the movie theatre. If Jane is pro marriage equality when she’s at the dog park, why should she pretend she’s not when she’s at work? Isn’t that disingenuous? Wouldn’t that lack integrity?
After a lot of reading and talking to people this week, I’ve come to understand something I wasn’t really aware of before. Millennials are going to take down the theoretical wall of separation between the workplace and the social environment brick by brick. It’s true that corporate giants base their decisions on one thing and one thing only – how will it play to the market we sit in? We’d be naive not to point out that the carpet-flaggers will have tested the response to their rainbow logos in the weeks leading up to the decision and adopted the values that suited the statistics. But we would be equally naive not to realize that the time is coming when the business environment will not be as sterilized as it is today. The challenges for legal, for HR and even for marketing departments will be significant. Everyone will have to evolve as the younger generation comes to work prepared to ‘be who they are’ at all times.
The trouble with that is this the country is never more divided than it is on politics and never more polarized than when social issues are front and center. Whoever you are and wherever you are, 50% of your staff are right of center and the other half are left of center. The emergence of more relaxed attitudes to the separation of professional and social life could take your otherwise united environment and cut it in half. There was a reason that Gen X grew up on a rigorous separation of professional and personal life; it causes problems everywhere and not just the ones you can see.
It’s time to start thinking about an approach to this problem that’s built on shared values, not on rules and regulations. We don’t have to agree in order to respect each other. Business is so often a place where we have to accept and tolerate people we probably wouldn’t associate with outside work. Dave might be a bit grumpy, but he’s very reliable with desktop support. Jane might be too tough on people, but when there’s a sales pitch, it’s her we want up front. We don’t have to go on vacation with them, we just need to get through this quarter. When a company and team has the same professional values, they will be more likely to allow for differences in their personal values.
The carpet-flaggers will come and go, whatever their political denomination, but the issues they leave behind will be there for everyone to deal with. Let’s build teams that can handle a little bit of difference, but remain focused on the job they have to do.
Richard Spragg is the CEO of Hirebrand. He is based in Houston, Texas. His blogs on business, marketing and the staffing industry have been read by over 200,000 people. Follow him on Twitter at @richard_spragg.