White employees at a Philadelphia Starbucks call the cops on two young black men waiting for a business associate and asking to use the restroom.
A KOA campground manager in Alabama pulls a gun on a black couple for using a lakeside picnic table without making a reservation.
And employees at a Calabasas, Calif. Sephora call security on R&B singer SZA as she shops for Fenty Beauty cosmetics, concerned she may be shoplifting.
Today, out of recognition that these incidents are happening far too often in bubble as well as flyover states, Sephora will close all 400 Sephora stores for an hour to provide “inclusivity training” to its 16,000 employees.
Sephora claims the training was planned before the SZA incident, although when a company closes all stores for diversity training, it’s usually because they recognize that some of their employees may not be disposed to providing the type of color-blind retail service that consumers of all racial backgrounds are entitled to.
And while retail employees may be expected to be alert for shoplifting, they also have a responsibility to ensure customers are not treated differently because of their race or the color of their skin.
Crossing that line could cost you your job.
Unfortunately, racial profiling in customer service is a common form of discrimination. In a 2017 report entitled “Shopping While Black,” a Case Western Reserve University sociology professor interviewed 55 middle-class African-American shoppers in the New York City area. Of those, 80 percent said they experienced racial stigma and stereotypes when shopping; 59 percent reported being perceived as a shoplifter; 52 percent said they received poor or no service; and 52 percent reported being perceived as poor.
The report found that store employees commonly intimidated and discouraged black customers by:
- Stalking them around the store;
- Directing them to the store’s sales section, without the customer asking;
- Ignoring them or making them wait;
- Skipping them to serve a non-minority customer; and,
- Telling them the price of something before asking if they’d like to try the item on.
To a large extent, the culture within a company is going to reflect on how employees treat customers. A former black employee of Moschino, in a lawsuit filed in December, says that a manager referred to black shoppers as “Serena” — a reference to Serena Williams — and required staff to follow them around. The employee’s lawsuit says she also was subjected to racial harassment and discrimination.
An hour-long session can only go so far in training away bias. There should be measurable follow-up, strategies for eliminating bias, and a review of company policies, hiring practices and its own diversity. The conversation needs to be continuous.
In today’s training, I fully anticipate that the Sephora employees will be taught to look for objective signs of theft and possible shoplifting, without predisposition to a person’s race, color, background, age and so on. Sephora should have clearly defined and articulated policies against racial profiling and demonstrate zero tolerance for violations. They should also have, and explain, written policies that lay out the criteria for monitoring a suspicious customer.
Today’s training should also cover Sephora’s policies for making sure its employment practices promote equality and punish harassment and discrimination. We have found many racially insensitive managers in all kinds of workplaces make inappropriate remarks, completely disregarding the impact of those words on their employees. Oftentimes, those managers think they can get away with it because they were joking, talking about a customer, or simply repeating something they had heard.
The best advice we can give an aggrieved employee who is forced to deal with any discriminatory acts, words or conduct, is that they should document the interaction. Write it down – word for word, and submit that written complaint to upper management or human resources (making sure to save a copy for themselves).
Be very clear that you are opposed to the discriminatory act — whether against a customer, a colleague or yourself, and that the acts make you feel very uncomfortable at the workplace. This will force your employer to thoroughly investigate the claim and make changes, or face significant consequences if they fail to do so.
As for SZA — who previously worked in Sephora skincare department — she Tweeted that she and the employee “had a long talk” after the incident.
Raymond Babaian is the founding partner of Valiant Law. During his 15-plus years in practice, he has gained expertise in litigation of employment, general liability, class action, construction, products, and general business litigation matters. He has written volumes of employment handbooks, construction and real estate disclosures and agreements, and general business contracts aimed to fully protect his clients.
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