Sephora, Starbucks, and the Quest for Meaningful Diversity

Lauren Rikleen
Jul 25 · 4 min read

Too often, conversations about workplace diversity feel like the movie “Ground Hog Day” where Bill Murray’s character wakes to his alarm clock playing “I Got You Babe,” and he is then off to relive the day before. Murray finally transforms his callous character and starts a new day, a life lesson we have not yet learned in the workplace.

Sephora storefront. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Instead, we wake to headlines revealing behaviors at work that are rooted in bias and have persisted for decades. Conversations about workplace discrimination and harassment vary little today from the conversations that have taken place over the past decades.

Stalled Progress and Misuse of Authority

Progress has stalled at the doors of power and equal pay, even as a more diverse junior workforce looks up and wonders why no one in the senior ranks looks like them. And in an environment where there are few boundaries and often no consequences for misbehavior, it is easy to see how individuals act on their conscious and unconscious biases, unchecked by institutional controls.

Consider Sephora, the beauty supply retail outlet, which recently closed all of its U.S. stores to hold inclusion workshops. The training was preceded by an incident in April where security personnel in a California Sephora outlet followed a black woman to see if she were shoplifting. That woman happened to have been singer-songwriter and Grammy nominee SZA, who shared the experience with her approximately 2.7 million Twitter followers.

Sephora insisted that this training had been planned as part of a marketing campaign highlighting its strategy to be a cosmetics retailer that is inclusive of all skin colors and backgrounds. Following the training, the company posted that it had taken an important step towards creating a more inclusive beauty space, even as it recognizes that its “journey has not been perfect and is by no means complete.” Not exactly a statement of CEO ownership of SZA’s experience and the challenges it represents.

About a year ago, an employee in a Philadelphia Starbucks called the police to report that two black men were sitting without purchasing coffee. The subsequent arrest of the men, captured on video, made international headlines and resulted in the closing of every U.S. Starbucks for an afternoon of diversity training. Following the arrest and outcry, the Starbucks CEO described the incident as “reprehensible” and met privately with the two men, demonstrating acknowledgment of a problem that may not be limited to one location.

Social Media Tells the Story

The primary difference between these incidents and similar experiences of discrimination that have occurred over the decades is that such stories may no longer languish in silence. They are captured on video and tweeted to the world.

Their frequency, however, demonstrates that the workplace has made little progress in eliminating the biases that continue to demean and humiliate people for simply being themselves. When customers are targeted by a company official or an employee is the victim of internal discriminatory behaviors, the result is the same — people are damaged, careers are harmed, and lives are changed.

Moving Beyond the Repetition of Ground Hog Day to Real Change

Can we emerge from Ground Hog Day conversations into a workplace where diversity and inclusion becomes the norm? Here are four ways to reset that alarm clock:

1. Ending workplace discrimination requires CEO engagement and senior-level commitment to ensuring that goals, metrics, and accountability are built into the fabric of an organization’s strategic plan. CEOs cannot simply issue statements of support and then leave it to others to implement. That only contributes to repeated failures.

2. Workplaces must implement systemic changes to the processes involved in recruitment, assignments, evaluations, promotions, and compensation to ensure that unconscious biases are removed from every step of the employment process that affects opportunities to succeed.

3. An hour or two of on-line diversity training is essentially a waste of time and resources. The science of bias is complex, and an institutional commitment to removing bias requires long-term training that goes far beyond the “one-and-done” approach often seen over the years. Training should also help individuals at all levels recognize and address their own unconscious biases and understand the myriad ways those implicit biases disadvantage others.

4. Workplaces must focus on creating cultures of respect and inclusion. Discrimination is most likely to emerge in organizations where power imbalances and unchecked negative behaviors lead to bullying, harassment, and other misconduct. By focusing on respect and inclusion, diversity is more likely to follow.

The incidents at Sephora and Starbucks serve as public examples of deep-rooted discriminatory behaviors that will not be easy to eliminate. Many workplaces will state that they have been working on these challenges for years, even if the desired results have not been achieved. The slow progress, however, demonstrates that all the easy steps have been taken and have been proven insufficient to bring about systemic change.

To actually achieve meaningful diversity and inclusion, more complex and resource-intensive measures are warranted. Leadership engagement, detailed metrics and accountability, long-term training, and a commitment to a respectful and inclusive work environment are the foundational tools required to stop the repeated patterns of discrimination.

When these steps are implemented, employees can finally wake up to a new song and a new day.


As president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, Lauren Stiller Rikleen speaks, trains, and cultures on a wide range of workplace culture issues. She is the author of the newly released book, The Shield of Silence: How Power Perpetuates a Culture of Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace.

Lauren Rikleen

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#Speaker, #consultant, #workplace #trainer. #Author of The Shield of Silence: How Power Perpetuates a Culture of Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace

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