Racial profiling in retail taking centre stage - Retail Council of Canada
Canadian Retailer Magazine | Loss Prevention

Racial profiling in retail taking centre stage

September 17, 2018
Racial profiling in retail taking centre stage

More focused training and greater awareness required to minimize impacts of bias in retail


WITH the pervasiveness of social media, racial profiling incidents in retail have moved to the front and centre of people’s minds. Videos of visible minorities being followed while shopping, ignored over other customers, being asked to leave stores, or refused service are surfacing more frequently than ever, placing the spotlight on an issue that has plagued society for an eternity.

Racial profiling can manifest in many ways, some of which are innocuous, or barely noticed by shoppers. The removal of a tip jar from a counter when a scruffy looking person enters a café; requesting a person of colour to prepay a bill or constantly asking them if they need help while they shop; or following an Indigenous customer as they buy weekly groceries (a practice memorialized by a teenager in Regina whose recording went viral).

Racial bias and profiling in retail is nothing new. Ask anyone of a minority group, and they will tell you that incidents like these happen every day in almost every retail establishment.

The pervasiveness of racial profiling was confirmed when the Ontario Human Rights Commission released a report entitled Under Suspicion in May 2017. But it was the racial profiling incident at Starbucks in Philadelphia—along with the company’s rapid response to engage in a company-wide training initiative—that made organizations sit up and take notice.

It prompted retailers around the world to become more serious about providing training to staff to make sure these types of incidents don’t happen, resulting in a tarnishing of their reputations. In fact, diversity and loss prevention consultants are reporting a dramatic increase in requests by retailers for staff training to avoid the issue of racial bias in their establishments.

From whence it came

“A lot of bias comes out of fear and unfamiliarity,” says Bruce Mayhew of Bruce Mayhew Consulting, a Toronto-based specialist in communications. “Some biases keep us safe; some protect our ego.”

We learn for example that stepping in front of cars can hurt us, or that certain foods are poisonous. The problem is when that bias becomes skewed and we lose trust in things around us, he explains. “When you eat something green that’s bitter, you may decide all green food is bad. That’s when you start building biases that aren’t justified or real.”

“Bias exists in all of us,” confirms Michael Bach, Founder and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI), who works extensively with employers in industries including retail. “The question is whether or not you are controlling it or it is controlling you. Are you making decisions based on something that isn’t a reliable source of information?”


Bruce Mayhew Consulting

It’s unrealistic to think that bias can be eliminated, Mayhew says. “Biases exist for everything, from the products you buy to where people come from. They are a part of an individual based on their nature, their experience, their values, their social circle and their history. Our world is informed by our biases. Even social media can be targeted to a person’s social preferences to support their point-of view.”

“There is no way to be bias free,” Bach agrees. “The only hope you can have is to be bias aware and how you need to function. It’s never been about elimination of bias, but whether or not you’re allowing that to affect your decisionmaking process. For example, if we have a bias against East Asians, are we treating that customer in a different way than a Caucasian person?”

The most stereotypical is the bias against Africans or Caribbean populations, Bach says. “Every black person I have come across will absolutely tell you they have been followed around a store because staff will think they will steal something.”

When you are aware, then you can actually manage your bias and act appropriately, Mayhew explains. “If you have a knee-jerk reaction to a person entering a store, that’s involuntary. If you respond appropriately, it means you have engaged your brain.”

Racial profiling in loss prevention

Stephen O’Keefe, President of Bottom Line Matters, an online loss prevention and risk management advisory service for small to mid-size retail chains, says racial profiling at the store level often rears its head in loss prevention. “If you’re a loss prevention professional and you go into a new store, the first thing the manager will advise you to do is to familiarize yourself with the store and its case files to identify trends.”


Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion

While there is nothing wrong with trend analysis, it’s the interpretation that can lead to problems, he notes. “Trend analysis is part of any risk management methodology. The problem is that they promote profiling. Say you see in previous cases that 67 per cent of shoplifting was perpetrated by bald white guys, you may assume that a bald white man coming into the store is 67 per cent more likely to steal, which is wrong. The first is cause and effect. The other is correlation.”

The training paradigm

So, what is the best training approach in an industry where staff turnover is high? “It’s a tough question because even if you put all of your people through training, within six months you may have a whole new crew,” Bach says. “You have to make training part of the onboarding process, where you talk as much about making sure people feel welcome as you do about security and loss prevention. And you need to reiterate that every six months.”

He also suggests having staff regularly engage in a “diversity moment” in which they can share something about their life. “Knowing a person on an individual level has a strong impact. You then stop thinking of them as a stereotype.”

Bach also advises that retailers ensure that middle management are engaged in the process. “Retailers should leverage the people in the stores because they’re the ones that know what’s going on every day. Offer training to executives, HR and store managers.”

There are also several options beyond half-day workshops like the ones Starbucks did, he adds. “That approach to training can be expensive. But you can figure out ways to push information and to train your people without taking them off the floor and closing your store for the afternoon. E-learning, for example, works well for larger groups.”

Training should also be conducted as fairly as possible, focusing on individual behaviours versus any type of class, O’Keefe notes. “What you can’t do is assume a person of colour coming in is likely to steal. Nor can you assume that a lawyer, a doctor or a celebrity won’t steal. You have to train staff to treat everyone using the exact same platform.”

Tomee E. Soujourner-Campbell is a specialist in racism awareness training and offers a number of courses for organizations to leverage including Consumer Profile Awareness Training for Security Guards, Loss Prevention & Front Line Employees™.

Many retailers provide training for loss prevention staff that looks for important tells and provides some guidance on consumer profiling. However, they should be investing in focused training that brings awareness to racial bias, she contends. “Many haven’t taken that step yet. They typically come after a complaint is made.”

Another important aspect is helping staff understand how their actions impact others and the legal consequences of their actions, she says. “It’s not just interpersonal relationships that are at stake. It can also put a person’s career or an employer’s reputation in jeopardy.”

A hands-on training component is essential, Soujourner-Campbell stresses. “Sitting people down and having discussions is not useful. Focus on the practical applied knowledge based on what happens when on the job in the moments that people are working. Address the need for immediate practical solutions versus reviewing a whole bundle of academic issues that may go nowhere over time.”

For retailers that have yet to consider racial profiling training, Bach has these words of advice. “While it may be expensive to train people, it’s far more expensive to react to a negative event that could cost a massive amount of money and damage to your brand. There are benefits to being proactive versus reactive.”