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How to best tackle bias

Should grocers consider Starbucks’ approach to confronting racial bias?

Starbucks generated a Venti-sized amount of publicity—both positive and negative—when it shuttered 8,000 U.S. stores for the afternoon on May 29 to conduct what it described as “unconscious bias” training with approximately 175,000 employees. In June, nearly 1,100 Canadian stores were closed for similar training.

The move was sparked by an April incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks in which an employee called the police on two black men who were waiting in the store for a business meeting to begin. The resulting furor led to a wave of negative publicity for the coffee chain, including calls for a boycott. The incident also shone a light (again) on the ugly phenomenon known as “shopping while black,” in which visible minorities, particularly black people, are subjected to racial discrimination in retail environments.

READ: Retailers offered free online course to prevent racial profiling

The grocery industry is not immune to such charges. In 2016, an African- Canadian woman alleged she was racially profiled at a Sobeys store in Halifax’s Clayton Park area, saying she was followed around the store by a security officer—not a Sobeys employee, but from an outside security company—who, she says, accused her of shoplifting.

But the incidents can also cut both ways. In 2017, a female customer was caught on video berating Chinese-speaking employees at Scarborough’s Foody Mart, telling them to “go back to China.” And late last year, a man was caught on video at a Real Canadian Superstore in Calgary unleashing a verbal tirade against a brown-skinned cashier.

READ: Sobeys likely to withdraw appeal of discrimination decision, facing boycott

Yet despite incidents such as this, Canada has an enduring reputation as a beacon for civility and tolerance. It ranked sixth out of 128 countries on the 2017 Social Progress Index for tolerance and inclusion—and second on tolerance for immigrants—even though experts say the statistics hide a discomforting truth. “Canadians like to believe we’re not racist, and free of such things, but that’s a misnomer,” says Michael Bach, CEO of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion in Toronto. “Canadians are subjected to bias and discrimination just like anybody else.”

In fact, a 2017 report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission entitled “Under Suspicion” found that visible minorities are frequently subjected to racial profiling in store environments in a variety of ways, from being watched or followed by store clerks to being talked to or asked questions in a “rude, hostile or suspicious way.”

Minorities interviewed for the study cited several specific examples of discrimination, including cashiers dropping change into their hand from a height while pressing change directly into the hands of white customers, and being inappropriately questioned about purchases and forced to produce receipts.

Bach says instituting anti-bias training can be helpful for retail businesses, particularly as the makeup of Canadian consumers—especially those who live and shop in urban centres— continues to change.

“A lot of organizations have woken up to the fact that their customer looks a lot different than they remember,” says Bach. “If you’re going through your day completely unaware you’ve got a bias against Muslims or Chinese people, you’re not going to know that exists until you start to do some self-examination.”

Approximately 7.7 million Canadians belong to a visible minority, according to the 2016 Census, including 1.9 million people of South Asian heritage and 1.6 million people of Chinese heritage. That is going to change further, with Canada set to welcome nearly one million immigrants—largely from countries like India, China and the Philippines— through 2020.

Grocers, including Metro and Sobeys, did not respond to interview requests for this article, but Bach singles out companies like Loblaw as being progressive in ensuring the company represents Canada’s multicultural makeup. “They’ve been an organization that really has started to see the change and are responding to it,” he says.

Jennifer Lynn, program director of the Broadening Opportunity through Leadership Diversity (BOLD) program at York University’s Schulich Executive Education Centre (SEEC), says diversity is a “business imperative” in the modern workplace. Established in 2013, the BOLD program provides “high-potential” and culturally diverse executives and senior managers with insights, tools and strategies to advance their careers. Lynn says anti-bias programs such as the one introduced by Starbucks cannot simply be a one-off if companies are committed to changing their culture. “It must be integrated into the values, the vision and everything the organization breathes,” she says.

SEEC executive director Alan Middleton says the continuing emphasis on diversity goes beyond social justice, right to the bottom line. The idea is backed up by a 2015 McKinsey report, Why Diversity Matters, which looked at 366 public companies across a range of industries in Canada, Latin America, the United Kingdom and the United States. The study found that those companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. “You draw on diversity to challenge out-of-date mindsets in doing business, as well as social issues,” says Middleton. “There is a return for the organization by utilizing this approach.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s August 2018 issue.

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