Ugly, racist altercation caught on video at Sears

Worker suspended, fired – but there are lessons to be learned
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/24/2014

A shaky video that captured an altercation between an irate customer and a Sears Canada employee at a Winnipeg store raises questions about training for front-line staff.

Filmed after the customer was asked to remove his children from the lawn tractors on display, the 90-second video shows the salesperson saying to the man “Let me guess, you just came off the boat?” The customer then demands the employee be fired for the racial slur and starts swearing at him. Just before the video ends, a security person shows up.

The video quickly went viral — but Sears reacted quickly too. After making an initial announcement two days later that the employee had been suspended, it later said he had been fired.

“We have a code of conduct, a code of ethics and we also have a respect in the workplace policy, and those were broken, basically,” said Vincent Power, vice-president of corporate affairs and communications at Sears Canada in Toronto.

“When we say we have zero tolerance for something, we have to take action. There’s 20,000 other employees looking on to see what we’re going to do and there’s just some things that we can’t give a break on.”

The company’s loss-prevention team led an investigation of the incident, said Power, adding Sears had to be careful considering the man was a long-term employee.

“For us to have taken termination action on the spot would not have been fair to him, but we conducted it as quickly as we could.”

While Sears seemed to handle the situation well after the fact, the salesperson did not handle the situation properly in the first place, according to Lisa Hutcheson, senior advisor at retail experts J.C. Williams Group in Toronto.

“Obviously (the comment) was out of line and unprofessional and, regardless of those kinds of circumstances, the employee didn’t handle it appropriately,” she said. “The front-line staff are the image of the organization and how they interact with customers is very important.”

The situation could have been handled differently, said Paul Therrien, vice-president of labour relations and HR consulting at Legacy Bowes Group in Winnipeg.

Employees have to realize their comments, even if said jokingly or offhandedly, can be perceived differently by different customers. So a comment such as this one could be ignored by one customer but offensive to another, he said.

“It’s in the eyes of the beholder.”

On the other hand, an employer also has a duty to make sure employees are not subject to abuse and disrespectful behaviours from customers, said Therrien, “so it’s a double-edged sword.”

Training concerns

When it comes to training, Sears’ code of conduct deals with major areas such as the proper use of company assets, conflicts of interest and protection of physical and intellectual property, said Power.

There’s also a workshop about respect in the workplace dealing with mutual respect, harassment, workplace violence, inappropriate behaviour and bullying, along with tips on what managers can do to create respectful workplaces.

In-person training usually means an employee has to wait for a class and there are enough people to join, he said.

“(It) might not be able to take place until after they’ve been working for awhile,” said Power. “Online allows an individual employee to take the course before they even start their first shift, so it’s timely and efficient for us too. Employees can also forward questions to someone with experience who can answer for them.”

Every Sears associate has to complete both online courses annually, along with exams at the end, and employees must acknowledge they’ve read the code of conduct in their annual performance reviews.

While that’s adequate, he said, sometimes you’re in the situation and as much as you know the theory, you really have to practise it.

“(This incident is) probably an opportunity for us — certainly in that store, but even across Canada — to re-emphasize with our employees how important behaviour is, especially with customers and fellow associates,” said Power. “It gives us pause to make sure that we reinforce this with everybody.”

Retailers really need to train their teams on difficult situations and how to handle themselves, and role-play scenarios can help, said Hutcheson.

“That’s the type of stuff, you don’t know how you’re going to handle it until it gets there.”

But while role play can be effective, there is no assurance an employee will react the same way given a situation in real-life, said Power.

There are a million ways to play the Sears situation and it’s all about getting the unhappy customer off the floor, said Janice Martin, a business coach at Magnum Consulting in Vancouver.

“When you’re faced with a ticked-off customer, you’re not thinking of the role-playing you did months ago in training. You’re thinking, ‘Man, this guy’s making us look bad, how do we shut him up?’”

Managers often go through intense conflict-resolution courses, but that doesn’t necessarily reach lower-level workers, she said.

“Conflict resolution is typically trained and used internally but more and more companies will have to bring that to the level of customer service to capture sales.”

And there are limits to the types of training offered.

“There’s lot of sensitivity training going on, however, I believe it’s all about leading by example. It’s about showing sensitivity in a day-to-day environment with your employees, which will trickle down to how your employees now treat your customers,” said Martin. “The training is only as good as the followup and the authenticity.”

There are four types of training retail employees probably have to go through, according to Therrien: customer service, respectful behaviour, diversity in the workplace and sensitivity training.

“It does not provide a bulletproof vest against possible situations occurring but if employees are more aware of what they can see... and they are given training on how to de-escalate a particular situation, then any company is going to be ahead of the game,” he said.

Social media’s impact

While social media has an impact, an incident like this still would have spread by word-of-mouth before, said Therrien.

“In this day and age, your two friends are more like 2,000 and it just goes crazy within minutes of something happening,” he said. “I don’t think that there’s necessarily a greater concern for employers to want their employees to be more polite and courteous than before, but I guess the concern is related to the scrutiny that customers are giving, given that everybody’s got video capability in their pockets these days.”

Bad publicity has always been a concern for companies, but it’s a bit more obvious now because of the ability to capture an incident on video, said Hutcheson.

“A bad experience was viral before too, just not to the same extent that it is today,” she said. “Exemplary customer service should be the backbone of any retail organization and they shouldn’t be striving for it just because of the fear of social media.”

There shouldn’t be any difference in employees’ behaviour, regardless of who’s watching or filming, according to Martin.

“A good employee wouldn’t be fearful of being on social media because they would be honourable and not put their company or their job in peril, in jeopardy — whether they’re being recorded or not.”

In a way, the social media aspect of the altercation is irrelevant because inappropriate behaviour is inappropriate, whether it’s being filmed or not, said Power. And even before social media, employees and customers would have reported this kind of behaviour and appropriate action would have been taken by Sears.

But social media can make for a different timeline.

“With social media, we certainly know it can increase the likelihood of it making to the public faster than we used to and, you know what, we deal with that,” he said.

“Social media is part of today’s world and, yes, sometimes it leads us perhaps to do things faster than we would have in the past — but we would have still have dealt with them.”

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