Sephora and racial profiling: what can a single training day achieve?

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Beauty retailer Sephora closed its US stores this week to deliver diversity training after a high-profile incident of racial profiling. But while this makes a bold statement, can a day′s training really tackle entrenched bias, asks Helen Jamieson? 

This week we saw another retail giant brought to a standstill as beauty chain Sephora closed its US stores for one day to deliver diversity training, following an incident of racial profiling. This follows a similar incident in May, when Starbucks closed 8,000 stores to deliver training after the unjust arrest of two black customers.

It’s not a coincidence that the almost immediate action taken by Starbucks and Sephora followed a social media storm.

Sephora was called out publicly on Twitter by singer SZA after she visited a store and was approached by security as a suspected shoplifter. There was no evidence for the assertion. Similarly, a video of two black men being arrested after simply sitting in a Starbucks went viral – in that store it seems white customers were allowed to wait, black customers however were “trespassing”.

It only takes a slightly cynical mind to see both of these grand gestures as little more than a PR stunt. I am sure that these are not the only complaints the chains have had in relation to diversity issues – these ones just happen to have hit the headlines.

Deep-rooted problem

Take the recent UK case of an employee who won a case of discrimination after Starbucks, despite knowing that the employee had dyslexia, failed to make reasonable adjustments. She was tasked with taking temperature readings, although her dyslexia meant that she struggled with reading, writing and telling the time.

As a result, she made various mistakes and was accused of deliberately falsifying documents, which then resulted in her being given lesser responsibilities.

A tribunal found that Starbucks had discriminated against her because of the effects of her dyslexia. We haven’t seen Starbucks cease trading to ensure their staff are aware of disability issues – and rightly so. This would be similarly misguided.

One day of action to combat decades of conditioning… really, we must ask what can be achieved in a day? Raising understanding and awareness – yes. Changing behaviours? No. Impressing your customers? I doubt it.

No guarantees

We were once asked to deliver a one-hour diversity and inclusion training course by a large corporate client.

They wanted us to “guarantee” behavioural changes in one hour! Our response was quite frankly there are no such guarantees.

An hour’s training might introduce new ideas or create thought-provoking concepts, but to undo entrenched behaviour and attitudes is a step too far. Such change can only be achieved through long-term strategies that go to the very heart of a business, and they must be led from the top down.

That particular organisation decided to go with a training provider that claimed they could guarantee the sought-after behavioural changes in a day and we missed out on a sizeable contract. I don’t regret it as I am sure it won’t be long until those guarantees turn out to be threadbare.

One training course, one new policy, one snatched bite of e-learning is not going to change fundamental behaviours or attitudes overnight. They might make people a bit more cautious in what they say – which is a good thing.

On the other hand, it risks driving behaviours underground. We need to challenge prejudices and insensitivities and that means people need to be comfortable talking openly about diversity matters and the issues that arise.

All inclusive

Some modern practices pick off one aspect of diversity such as race or transgender and attempt to tackle the prevailing issues surrounding those characteristics, but it needs to be all-encompassing.

There’s no point in including one group if in doing so they then exclude another. We all harbour unconscious bias and left unchallenged and unexplored we will all continue to be in its grip.

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It’s a rarity that an HR function has the courage (or capabilities) to create the right environment for those crucial diversity discussions. More often than not it is HR’s job to resort to “chalk and talk” so a tick can go in a box and that’s seldom going to change behaviours.

If you look in your own mirror today and ask yourself what might change your own behaviour in respect of losing weight, giving up cigarettes, phoning your mother more often, doing that voluntary work you’ve been telling others for years you want to do – what does your gut instinct tell you?

I’m guessing first of all a barrel-load of excuses will rattle through your head then you’ll start to rationalise and reaffirm to yourself why now is not a great time to do things differently. If our brain tells us there’s no need for urgency and that our priorities are elsewhere our actions are unlikely to show differently. It’s always easier to revert to the norm.

If we can’t get real about changing such overt behaviours, how can we expect to properly challenge ingrained ways of thinking, without serious effort.

Get real

Business leaders also need to come to terms with how their workforces are affected by unconscious bias and unchallenged views. Just one non-believer in the boardroom can undermine every initiative. It requires everyone to change behaviour if valuing diversity is to be achieved and sustainable.

While HQ may be a bubble of diversity slogans, initiatives and corporate messaging, what’s the reality on the front line? Business leaders assume that because they and their immediate peers are sufficiently ‘woke’, this somehow magically trickles down throughout the organisation – they don’t want to acknowledge that their employees, or indeed senior colleagues may display less than inclusive attitudes.

In these days of instant gratification, it’s easy to see why Sephora and Starbucks both jumped on a day of action so promptly. It’s immediate, it’s seen to be responsive, it sends a strong message to their staff and let’s face it, can only be a good thing for their reputation. But what’s next?

Engagement is key

Let’s stop being so linear, tackling one problem at a time and let’s look at inclusion within the context of engagement that drives both recruitment and retention in businesses. Are you even aware of the diversity of your workforce; if not, consider whether this is data that you want to collect and how you would actively use it if you did? Do you have any goals or targets when it comes to diversity and inclusion?

Consider whether your investigation/disciplinary/grievance procedures are sufficiently objective, and look at how they can be improved. Do the individuals involved in conducting these procedures need training and refresher training?

Business leaders need to recognise what would work best for their organisation in terms of educating their workplace about diversity issues and listen to the front line as to what some of the issues have been which could include reviewing recent internal grievance complaints and/or customer complaints.

BMW has recently formed a number of new employee working groups to drive cultural change, which is a step in the right direction. Either way, a shake up in the approach to tackling diversity issues needs to be on the cards. A simple tick box training day is not fooling anyone.

Helen Jamieson

About Helen Jamieson

Helen Jamieson is founder and managing director of Jaluch HR and Training
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