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If there is one "most unfortunate trend of 2018," other than some things we could point to in fashion, music and movies (I'm talking to you, Will Ferrell!), there is one serious trend that seriously needs to stop—now— before we head into 2019! And that is the "Blank (Simply insert the appropriate verb here) While Black!" trend—where people—typically white people - call 9-1-1 on individuals doing, well, absolutely nothing wrong!
Unless you've been living under a rock or a cabin in the woods with no Internet (which would admittedly no be a bad alternative these days...), you have surely seen the high-profile news stories where this has happened—unfortunately, repeatedly—and all too often—especially given that it is 2018, and not 1958!
This unfortunate trend really began to take-off with an instance of "Barbecuing While Black." This was when a woman named Jennifer Schulte called 911 to report a on a group of black people who were—legally, of course—barbecuing at an Oakland, California park. The video—as could have been predicted in the social media era in which we exist today—went viral. The story hit the mainstream news and prompted many a panel discussion on 24/7 cable news on the state of race relations in America. Ms. Schulte quickly became known on social media simply as "BBQ Becky"—and the Internet being what it is, well, she quickly became the subject of many, many a creative meme and of course, her own unfortunate hashtag, #BBQBecky!
Now, we can laugh at all of this, somewhat. However, as a very thoughtful Washington Post piece, written by Antonia Noori Farzan reminded all of us, this is no laughing matter for the black population. This is simply because it is their reality—and it happens all too frequently. In fact, it happens way too frequently! As Farzan pointed out, the funny memes and hashtags "had a common theme," and they really were the social media world's way of making these incidents go viral (and thus call more attention to the real problem), creating what were essentially "epithets" directed at the people behind them. The names followed "a simple formula: A noun that sums up the location or source of the dispute, followed by a stereotypical white name — often one that peaked in popularity during the 1950s and 1960s."
And so, we have an all-too-long list of white folks who have called the police on black people, well, as sad as it is to say, for simply being black. And the formula is producing seemingly more and more trending topics on social media to highlight such cases. These now include:
- "Golfcart Gail" (A Florida woman calling the police on a black man watching his son play soccer);
Add to these incidents the litany of other 2018 incidents, including multiple times the police were called on candidates "campaigning while black," and you have a truly embarrassing trend.
Now when such an incident happens inside a business and it is store employees—even managers—calling the police on black customers, well, then you have a full-blown, DEFCON 1-level brand crisis. This is exactly what faced Starbucks earlier this year, when a store manager at a location in a Philadelphia called police on two black men only two minutes after they entered her location to meet a client for a business meeting (which is, after all, a major "thing" that people do at any Starbucks). To their credit, Starbucks was largely perceived as addressing the crisis well, with its CEO Kevin Johnson personally reaching out to the two young black men involved and the chain closing its almost 8,000 stores nationwide for much of a day to conduct sensitivity training with approximately 180,000 of its employees in the wake of the crisis.
However, as Forbes writer Rodd Wagner put it bluntly in an article titled, "The Philadelphia Incident Was Terrible; Starbucks' Response Was Admirable," largely praising the coffee chain's response, he cautioned that the challenge to "get it right" in every instance is formidable for service-based businesses, and it is especially so for chains the size of Starbucks and other large organizations when you consider:
"...That army of employees and the exponentially larger numbers of customers and transactions, and the requirement quickly exceeds any Six Sigma manufacturing process in scale and complexity. This fact is the bane of every CEO, chief marketing officer, and brand manager who must depend on people to deliver on the airline’s, bank’s or restaurant’s promises. It keeps them awake at night, nervous that someone is about to do something dumb. It drives them to write policies, scripts and, in at least one case, a flow chart of robotic conditional logic of how to respond throughout a customer interaction. When I recommended to the brand EVP of one national chain that perhaps the company could rely less on scripts and more on people’s judgment to apply sound principles, she visibly shuddered. “Relying on the judgment of people in the stores," she said, "is the last thing we want to do." (emphasis added)
Why is this so? According to Wagner, it is because when you are talking about issues of race and ethnicity, companies are forced to deal with "flaws in human tribal reflexes and fear responses," (which are) some of the least trainable aspects of people."
And so you would think that with all the attention on racial sensitivity issues in the news media and on social media, and with the huge marketing and PR crisis that hit Starbucks, one of America's most omnipresent—if not iconic—brands, just a few months ago, that large service-sector companies would have taken all possible steps to try and prevent just this sort of incident from occurring in one of their many locations. And if such a "________ while black" happened on their watch, one would assume that the company would closely follow the Starbucks template on how to positively and proactively respond to the backlash that would inevitable follow such a story involving their company and their employees.
Well, Hilton is now on the hot seat, as we now have the unfortunate story of "Hotel Earl"—and the company's unfortunate response to what happened to Jermaine Massey at their Doubletree Hotel in Downtown Portland, Oregon one recent December Saturday night. This story from CBS News shines a light on what happened:
The situation was unfortunate—and unnecessary. Mr. Massey was not treated right in the moment, and no matter what "Hotel Earl" might have been thinking, his actions can not be defended. And to make matters worse, the response from Hilton has been underwhelming thus far - and in the week since the incident took place, the company's response has come from the individual Portland hotel, and notably not from the parent firm. While it is unclear if the Portland Doubletree is indeed a franchised location, clearly Hilton is trying to distance itself from the incident in fear that the backlash could envelop all of its 15 hotel brands.
And judging by the response the incident has triggered on social media over the past week, Hilton customers are—as could be predicted in the age of Twitter—associating the local Portland incident at one Doubletree hotel with the larger Hilton family of brands, raising the stakes for the company in the reputation game and making it all the more mystifying why the parent company has not effectively launched both a substantive—and a PR —response to the fact that #HotelEarl remains a trending topic!
Now, in the end, I appreciate the complex challenge that faces all service-based organizations. Life is indeed becoming more and more complex today, and yes, social norms and expectations are changing. And with the pace of change on many fronts—not simply the increasing appreciation for diversity is society—outracing the ability of humans to adapt and cope, it is almost a near mathematical certainty that interactions between employees and customers—and even between employees and customers themselves - will occasionally—and inevitably—lead to mistakes, misunderstandings, and more in the work setting.
And it is not only racial issues that have to be dealt with, of course. Witness the latest "bad customer" interaction that has just went viral, involving a GameStop employee being berated by a transgender customer who objected to being called "Sir" when identifying—arguably—as a woman (and do put the headphones on and/or hide the kids, as it is definitely NSFW).
However, I must say that incidents involving race make me especially mad. I am mad as a management consultant that it keeps happening. I am mad as a management professor that it keeps happening. I am mad as a now AARP-eligible white male that it keeps happening. But most of all, I am mad as an American that it keeps happening. As we near the end of a very bad year for race relations overall—encapsulated in many ways in these unfortunate interactions—we should make a vow that in our own lives and in the lives of our companies, these simply will not be tolerated in 2019—and beyond.
I do appreciate the difficulty of trying to ensure that your one employee in one location in one customer interaction can make a blunder that will inevitably be captured on cellphone video and go viral, making something that might be just a single employee's misunderstanding, miscalculation or mistake tarnish the entire organization and all of the other employees in it. Referencing Forbes' Rodd Wagner work, cited earlier in this article, there is an almost mathematical certainty that customer interactions will go wrong—just hopefully, we can create organizations—and more specifically organizational cultures—where it is less likely to happen. However, try as we might, because human beings are involved, we can not eliminate that possibility!
And so we must be prepared, as leaders of the largest chains down to the individual proprietor of a local store or restaurant, as to how we would respond if one of our employees and/or managers were to be involved in such an incident as the "Earl Thing." You may not have the resources that a Starbucks has, but doing the "right thing" is something that each of us as managers and leaders can—and must—all aspire to do every day. Setting the tone for doing things right for all around us and for all with whom we interact is the only way to drive positive change moving forward, and with the increasing diversity—and appreciation of it—in American life, there really, really is no other choice!
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