Sephora has been accused of racially profiling customers of color, trailing them with store police and suspecting them of stealing. This week, the company is trying to give itself a makeover.
Sephora conducted a yearlong study measuring systemic racism in U.S. retail environments. Based on its findings, it has announced a raft of measures to tackle discrimination experienced by both customers and staff. The action plan includes reducing third-party security in stores, doubling the number of Black-owned brands that it carries, and creating a zero-tolerance policy when employees discriminate.
Will these new policies actually work? That’s an open question, particularly since Sephora offered few specifics about how it intends to implement the changes. “The policies are pretty vague,” says Frank Dobbin, a professor of sociology at Harvard University who studies corporate diversity programs. “And studies have shown that zero-tolerance policies often backfire.”
In fall 2019, after R&B singer SZA said she’d been racially profiled in a Sephora store. Around the same time, the company commissioned a study to better understand how Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) experience American retail—both within its own stores and at other brands. This week, Sephora publicly shared its findings, which paint a picture of consistent discrimination toward Black and brown customers and employees.
Black shoppers are two and a half times more likely than white shoppers to experience unfair treatment based on the color of their skin. Employees of color also struggle—20% report having experienced unfair treatment based on their race from customers or coworkers, and 37% of Black employees have contemplated quitting as a result.
Sephora identified some overarching truths about shoppers’ experiences with racial bias. For instance, there’s a disconnect between how shoppers and employees interpret interactions in stores. BIPOC customers believe in-store interactions are driven by their skin color and ethnicity; employees believe these interactions are driven by behavior rather than appearance. This suggests there might be implicit bias at work, whereby employees unconsciously stereotype customers.
Holes in the action plan
Sephora’s action plan tries to tackle this with unconscious bias training. There’s only one problem, says Dobbin. “There have been over a thousand studies that show you can’t train away bias,” he says. “Bias is based on stereotypes that are built over a lifetime from things like watching television and experiencing poverty on a street.”
Dobbins is also concerned about the new zero-tolerance policy, which suggests that employees will be fired if they are shown to engage in discriminatory behavior. Dobbins says these policies can discourage employees from bringing complaints when they experience or witness harassment because they’re worried they may get backlash for getting someone fired. “Already, a vanishingly small percentage of people who experience harassment at work actually complain,” he says. “With a zero-tolerance policy, employees worry that the retaliation against them will be much harsher.”
When I reached out to Sephora about this policy, a spokesperson said this was just one part of the overall plan. “We recognize that no single action will drive the change we aim to accomplish on its own,” I was told via email. “The components of our action plan are designed to work together to drive positive change across our organization.”
Sephora intends to employ other, more explicit ways of helping Black and brown customers feel welcome in its stores, including rolling out a new greeting system that will be applied to each shopper consistently. The company also says there will be fewer third-party security guards in stores, replaced by “in-house specialists.” Dobbins isn’t sure this will have the intended effect. “What this means is that they’re going to have their own security people, and train them not to racially profile,” he says. “I’m not sure that’s going to work, given that you can’t train away bias.”
A spokesperson said this would give the company more control over how security personnel interact with customers. “Our in-house specialists will be embedded in Sephora’s culture and expectations,” the spokesperson said. “They will receive regular and ongoing education and training, and their performance will be assessed as we track progress.”
What could work
Dobbins believes there are some aspects of Sephora’s plan that could be effective. While he says bias training doesn’t work, there’s evidence that appointing minorities to leadership roles does improve the culture of an organization. Sephora announced a new recruiting, mentorship, and career development program to support the advancement of employees of color, although it did not provide many details or metrics around this goal. Still, Dobbins believes that having more BIPOC employees, particularly in high positions, is a positive step.
That said, Sephora could take things a step further by offering benefits that will retain these employees, Dobbins argues. Right now, Sephora’s policies adhere closely to what individual states require, but Dobbins suggests that offering benefits such as maternity leave and child care support that go beyond what’s required could go a long way toward retaining and advancing employees of color, who are most likely to benefit from such policies.
“The beauty industry is dominated by women, and one of the most effective ways of increasing race and ethnic diversity of the female workforce is including more work-life programs that improve flexibility,” he says. “This would be number one on my list.”
Over the summer, Sephora signed the 15% pledge, committing to stocking 15% of its shelves with Black-owned brands. The company says it is actively working toward this goal, and as part of it aims to double the number of Black-owned brands it carries by the end of the year.
In its announcement, Sephora makes clear that this is just a “preliminary” action plan, subject to change and improvement. And the company has promised to publicly report its progress twice a year. We’ll be watching to see how these new policies play out.