TORONTO — Many companies used their social media channels last week to post a black square during #BlackOutTuesday and make statements in support of the Black community in the wake of protests and the police killing of George Floyd.
When Karissa Lewis saw that her former employer Aritzia was donating $100,000 to Black Lives Matter and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the U.S., she thought, “That’s great.” Then she recalled the racism she faced while working for the Canadian retailer and changed her mind.
“They’re directly responsible for incubating these behaviours within the four walls of their stores and their offices,” she told HuffPost Canada.
The women’s fashion brand was founded in 1984, and now operates more than 80 stores in Canada and the U.S. It is publicly traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
Lewis, 27, worked at Aritzia’s Yorkdale Shopping Centre location in Toronto from last August to January as an associate manager. During her short time there, she said she experienced anti-Black racism from staff.
“The overall culture is very clique-y, very exclusionary,” said Lewis, who is Black.
Employees would use “code words to describe certain types of customers ... so you would know that you should spend your time with certain people and not others,” she said. For example, A would stand for Asian “as they were seen as being rich” and TW would stand for “time waster” which could include Black people, as someone who would use up an associate’s time and not buy anything, Lewis said.
Lewis believes she was treated differently from other managers at that store because she is a Black woman. She said she was made to work cash register shifts even though she was an associate manager, while a new employee, who was white and in a position below her, was given management shifts.
“I was the only member of ‘upper management’ that spent the bulk of their time as a cashier versus floor managing,” she said.
When the company vice-president visited the store, she would engage with white members of the management team, but Lewis said the exec would barely speak to her, the only Black manager.
Another former employee, who is Black and worked for Aritzia at two Toronto locations, said she quit after more than five years in a hostile work environment, where she felt unappreciated and “dismissed.”
“Upper management would make comments about how I wouldn’t smile enough, and that I always looked ‘angry’ while running through the store and trying to pick out clothes to style my clients — regardless of my countless customers’ compliments and high sales,” said the ex-staffer, who does not want to be identified due to fear of repercussions at her current job.
“Whenever I would defend myself during a discrepancy with another associate, I would be labelled as ‘blunt,’ ‘sassy,’ or ‘defensive,’ which is just a micro-aggression towards me as a Black woman.”
She said her store manager, who is white, once pulled her aside at the Upper Canada Mall location in Newmarket, Ont. to critique the only other Black woman who worked at the location, saying that she didn’t think the woman’s hairstyle was “up to Aritzia standard.”
The former staffer recalled, “This employee simply had on a long curly wig, like many Black women do. It was extremely nice and actually quite expensive. So I simply replied that I loved her hair and planned on doing a style similar to that, in order to show that I wasn’t with the games. They didn’t press any further with that topic.”
According to this ex-employee, another manager at Aritzia’s Vaughan Mills location treated Black sales associates differently than non-Black staff, such as when it came to tidying up sections of the store.
“Other (non-Black) employees would do quick touch-ups, and were able to proceed on to their breaks with minimal checks from this [store manager]. However, when these two Black women would ask for the same check of their section, they were given a much harder time. Every pile, table, and faceout was checked,” she said.
She said she saw the manager interrupt Black sales associates who were helping customers by giving them piles of clothes to put away — but would not do the same with non-Black staff.
Both Lewis and the former employee said they didn’t bring up the ongoing discrimination to HR or management because they didn’t trust that the process would be fair to them due to their race.
“There was nobody that I could possibly talk to about how I was feeling because there was no one that looked like me,” Lewis said.
“Whenever I would defend myself during a discrepancy with another associate, I would be labelled as ‘blunt,' 'sassy,' or 'defensive,’ which is just micro-aggression towards me as a Black woman.”
Employees are given a handbook that includes an anti-retaliation policy and details on how to report issues if they aren’t comfortable going to a manager, according to materials provided to HuffPost by Aritzia. Staff must also sign a code of conduct agreeing to Aritzia’s policies against discrimination and harassment.
Each store has two posters telling staff about a confidential, anonymous hotline for reporting workplace harassment and other policy violations. The poster states “The Risk Hotline is 100% confidential and you will never be penalized for reporting.”
“I didn’t have any faith or confidence in them trying to resolve my issues,” the former employee said. “Anytime I raised concerns about simple disagreements in the stores, I was told I was defensive, sassy, and lacked people-managing skills. I don’t think my complaints would [have] been taken seriously, and I felt like I would be isolating myself from my co-workers if I did speak up.”
On May 31, after Lewis saw Aritzia’s donation to the black rights organizations, she shared her experiences on Twitter. They went viral.
Lewis’ tweet prompted other former Artizia employees to share their own experiences on social media.
On Tuesday, after several days of HuffPost following up with the company about the two former employees’ experiences, Aritzia CEO Brian Hill announced an “internal investment of $1 million” into its diversity and inclusion program.
“We have spoken to a number of the Black members of our team and many former employees who wanted to share their experiences at Aritzia. We are grateful for those who have reached out so far, their voice matters,” he said. “That’s why, investing in ourselves, holding ourselves accountable, condemning intolerance and injustice, and making sure that Aritzia is a place where all people can come and have successful careers, develop and grow is our top priority.”
Jennifer Wong, Aritzia’s president and chief operating officer, said the company was “deeply disappointed” when they learned of Lewis’ experience.
“We reached out and had a conversation with Karissa. We have since launched a full investigation into her claims, and we will take proper action, if necessary, once the investigation has concluded,” said Wong.
“While we disagree with many of the underlying facts that Karissa has expressed, her experience touches on matters that are deeply important to who we are as a company.”
In 2015, an Aritzia customer publicly called out the company for a clerk’s racist comment. Samantha Grant said she asked an associate at a Toronto store for help finding a coat in her size.
“While she was looking, I overheard her speaking to another employee, that she didn’t know why she was helping me; I probably wouldn’t be able to afford the coat because I was Black,” Grant told CBC’s “Metro Morning.” “It really stung.”
Aritzia apologized to her and offered to send her a coat.
Workplace racism in Canada
A 2019 survey found that one-third to one-half of Canadians of colour reported experiencing discrimination. Of that, 40 per cent said it happened at work. This means that about eight per cent of all Canadians said they’ve experienced workplace discrimination due to their race.
Just over half of Black Canadians and Indigenous peoples surveyed in the study reported that they’ve “personally experienced discrimination due to their race or ethnicity from time to time if not regularly,” according to the Environics Institute for Survey Research.
Some of that discrimination, according to the survey, include subtle slights or insults, such as being treated as not as smart as white colleagues, or mistaken as someone who serves others.
Lewis can relate.
“I think I kind of blamed myself for the kind of treatment I was enduring, because a lot of Black people do do that,” she said. “They always look to themselves and say, ‘Maybe it’s me, maybe I’m doing something wrong, maybe I’m not smart enough, maybe I’m not good enough.’ But the fact is is that I was [discriminated against], and I have the qualifications and ... I was just treated very different than the rest of the management team.”
Both of the former employees who spoke to HuffPost said they also experienced racism from customers, ranging from being ignored until a white co-worker could help them to being belittled as “wasn’t s**t but a Black store employee with no power” for refusing to break store policy on returns.
WATCH: Canada’s structural racism is no accident. Story continues after video.
Lewis believes meaningful change at Aritzia has to happen at the top and work its way down.
“When you look at the management teams, none of them are Black,” she said, referring to what she saw during her job and at a manager’s event that included other stores. “Not having Black women in those positions of power is what perpetuates that we can’t ... have and occupy these spaces.
“A whole bunch of non-Black people cannot sit down and talk about Black issues, and talk about how they’re going to fix Black issues. So unless you have Black peers, there’s nothing you can do that’s going to fix this.”
Aritizia said it does not collect or track “the ethnic or racial makeup of its employees, in accordance with the Personal Information Protection Act, which is designed to protect employees from any possible discriminatory actions from having to disclose their race or ethnicity to their employer.”
Lewis said she was told by the talent acquisition manager who hired her, as well as other management staff, that Aritzia rarely hires people outside the company for management positions. A company representative told HuffPost that Aritzia is “proud” of the fact that they promote from within.
“Staff need to be comfortable with calling things out when they see it, and without being afraid that they’re going to lose their job,” Lewis said.
On Tuesday, Aritizia held an all-employee town hall with Hill and Wong. They committed to some “immediate actions” including:
- Conducting a comprehensive review of policies, practices across the entire company
- Introducing mandatory diversity & inclusion training, which includes instruction on micro-inequalities, unconscious biases and stereotypes
- Establishing an advisory group of voices across all levels, workplaces and geographies to provide first hand perspectives and advice
- Hiring dedicated Diversity and Inclusion experts.
“In light of the events of the past several weeks, Aritzia, like so many other companies across the globe, has come to realize that we must do more to make certain that our company is creating positive change and that we are a part of the solution,” said Wong.
Lewis said she is happy and thriving at her current job as a district manager at a Toronto retailer, in part because she’s in a position to make a difference, such as leading initiatives to bring equity to Black people and other marginalized groups in her company.
“It’s now my responsibility to ensure that a positive, inclusive and welcoming culture radiates through our employees and onto our clients,” she said.