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No Frills supermarket tells customer with disability to shop elsewhere​

It’s an ‘HR thing,’ says store manager. True, and now it’s a human rights and PR disaster thing, too​
No Frills
A No Frills grocery store in Markham, Ont. Photo: Raysonho/Wikipedia

By Todd Humber

It’s a “human resources thing.”

That was the response of the owner of a No Frills supermarket in Whitecourt, Alta., when contacted by the CBC after a woman with disabilities was allegedly barred from shopping because it was taking her too long to bag her groceries. 

Um, yes.

It is an HR “thing.” It’s called accommodating people with disabilities. Which in Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia is a “legal thing.” And, really, for every other jurisdiction, it should be a “common sense business thing.” But what's that old saying about it not being so common anymore?

Linda Rolston had her voice box removed during surgery. As a result of that operation, she was left with limited mobility in her arms and shoulders, according to a CBC story

If you haven’t shopped at a No Frills supermarket, well, the name says it all. One of the frills not included is having someone help pack your bags at the checkout. For a lot of people, that’s not an issue. But for people with disabilities, or the elderly, it can pose a challenge. 

The solution cannot be, and should never be, to deny service to someone because of a disability. Loblaw knows this. I don’t know Mark Wilson, the EVP of HR and labour relations at Loblaw, but I guarantee he knows this and would be very unlikely condone this behaviour. (This is all part of what makes HR the hardest profession – with employees at locations across the country, franchise models and the countless microcultures that can exist within an organization? Herding cats is a cakewalk by comparison.)

But the store owners who are part of the Loblaw family clearly didn’t get that memo.

A Loblaw spokesperson pointed out to the CBC that its policy of equal access for people with disabilities applies to “corporate grocery stores” and not the No Frills franchises across Canada, which total more than 250 locations. 

Speaking of memos, here’s one to PR and communications professionals: Relying on a technicality in the fine print to condone or explain egregious behaviour is not a winning strategy.

Loblaw then decided to make a bad situation even worse. When Rolston first complained about being banned – she claimed she was told that if she can’t bring someone with her to help bag groceries, she should shop elsewhere – the powers that be came up with this solution: A $100 gift card, as long as Rolston kept her mouth shut. 

She declined.

“They can keep the $100,” she said. “I’m going to tell anybody and continue with my human rights action.”

So Loblaw joins the list of organizations that are shamed and embarrassed into eventually doing the right thing after an ugly story involving employees goes public. 

One of the first things I learned as a journalist covering the HR profession is that smart employers will often look at the toughest legislation in the country, and then tailor their policies and procedures to match it at every location. 

First, it’s a best practice. In Canada, typically when one jurisdiction jumps on a bandwagon, the dominoes start to fall and eventually every province and territory inevitably ends up with similar legislation. 

Alberta’s NDP government is already mulling similar accessibility legislation, so it’s likely only a matter of time before a situation like the one involving Rolston goes from a PR headache to contravening the law. 

Second, complying with legislation like this can be a competitive advantage. You’re seen as doing the right thing by your staff and the public. That’s really easy to spin from a PR angle.

The trolls may argue that No Frills is built on a business model that doesn’t accommodate special cases, and people with disabilities who can’t bag groceries or can’t find someone to help them should go elsewhere for groceries. Pull out the tiny violins, they say.

That’s a fool’s argument. Every business in every industry makes more off some customers than others. If the cashier can’t help bag, then another staff member or manager should pop over when needed as appropriate. 

Loblaw also needs to work with its franchise owners to educate them on good business practices and the high cost of not accommodating disabilities in the workplace – that applies to customers like Rolston and employees as well. 

Turning away customers with disabilities because it creates a modicum of work sends a bad signal to your customers, the community and, just as importantly, your employees and the talent pool – some of whom already have disabilities or may develop ones in the future.

So yes, Loblaw. It’s an HR thing. And now it’s a human rights thing and a public relations disaster thing too.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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