The beauty industry has made strides in recent years to be more inclusive in both marketing and product development, but a string of recent high profile incidents indicate that Sephora may be playing catch up.
In April, the R&B singer SZA accused a Sephora employee on Twitter of calling security on her for potentially stealing while she browsed one of its stores. While she didn’t specifically call it racial profiling, many Twitter users assumed it to be the case. “Lmao Sandy Sephora location 614 Calabasas called security to make sure I wasn’t stealing . We had a long talk. U have a blessed day Sandy,” she wrote on Twitter. Sephora responded to SZA on Twitter, writing “You are a part of the Sephora family, and we are committed to ensuring every member of our community feels welcome and included at our stores.” In June, the comedian Leslie Jones also took to Twitter to share that her makeup artist had also experienced mistreatment at a Sephora location in New York, writing : “...my makeup artist just called in tears of how bad they treated her and my friends wife!! The salesperson and manager. SO NO MORE SEPHORA.” In response, Sephora apologized to Leslie on Twitter, asking to connect with her and her makeup artist directly. They told NBC News that Jones’s tweet was “concerning” and said, “It is our priority to build an inclusive community and a place where all clients feel respected .. Our journey has not been perfect and is by no means complete. We will continue to learn and work toward this goal.” In a June article, HuffPost noted that the retailer faced similar accusations in 2017 when a video of black shoppers accusing a white store associate of racial profiling went viral.
Behind-the-scenes, the beauty retailer has been trying to address any possible issues. Last February, the company quietly kicked off a program called SephoraNoir, a special resource group for black employees focused on fostering community and belonging within the company, creating a safe space for employees to share concerns, and helping Sephora build out a more inclusive product offering. Members of the group also work with the company’s talent team to help recruit a more diverse workforce, which a few recent former employees said is necessary, especially at the highest levels of the company. Its overall employee makeup is 62% non-white.
“There’s a whole body of research showing the importance of diversity in the workplace, but this is about more than that,” says Corrie Conrad, the vice president of Sephora Stands, the brand’s social impact arm, and its diversity and inclusion department. “We’re creating a place that’s intentional where people can do more and do better [in terms of diversity], together.”
Members of the group say it’s been a welcome change, especially at Sephora’s corporate headquarters in San Francisco's Financial District, where some say they perceive a lack of diversity.
“You can go weeks and months without seeing someone who looks like you as a result,” says Stacey Straughter, who works as a merchant for Sephora’s in-house brand, Sephora Collection and has been with the company for five years.
SephoraNoir is open to everyone working in Sephora’s corporate offices, including any non-black allies, and does not involve an enrollment process. “Our motto is that you don’t have to be of the group to be in the group,” says Straughter, who is one of the leads behind SephoraNoir. As an example, she highlighted a white man who’s been active in the group since day one: “He told us directly that he doesn’t know how to best support us, so we sat down with him to give him advice and feedback.”
Although joining SephoraNoir isn’t mandatory, the bias training that the group holds is a company-wide requirement. By the end of 2019, Sephora’s entire U.S. staff (roughly 16,000 people across its corporate offices, stores, and distribution centers) will have participated in at least 10 different training sessions “focused on better understanding and relating to all,” according to chief people officer Karalyn Smith.
On June 5th, the company seemed to respond to the latest incidents when it closed all of its 400-plus US stores for a day of diversity training dubbed “We Belong to Something Beautiful,” which, earlier interviews confirmed, had actually been planned months prior with input from the SephoraNoir leaders.
“This day was dedicated to appreciating what inclusion means to us, connecting with each other, sharing stories with each other about our own inclusion journeys, and creating an open dialogue to discuss the importance of our diverse perspectives,” said Smith.
SephoraNoir also hosts separate panels and workshops focused on developing an inclusive mindset both for members and allies, like the man Straughter mentioned, who are looking to learn what they can do to better show up for their black colleagues. One recent SephoraNoir event was a panel during office hours with the brand strategist Lydia Kim on emotional labor, or managing how other people feel, which studies have shown is a more common reality for minorities.
“We looked at a survey that found that the majority of black women felt like they had had a challenging interaction with a white person in the workplace, whereas the white women had a very small experience of this happening,” says Conrad, who is white.
One former employee, who is Indian and worked for Sephora from 2016-2017, said that although she had a largely positive experience at the company, such micro-aggressions were still common during her time there. Speaking under the condition of anonymity, she recalled social content meetings where she called out imagery that she felt were questionable from a race perspective. “I didn’t feel like people were very receptive to my input in those situations,” she says. “It was usually a brief conversation and then they went ahead with their plan anyway.”
She also described feeling like a prop for social posts as one of the few dark-skinned and dark-haired women on her floor.
“I’d be walking down the hallway to a meeting and get pulled into a room because they needed my arm for a makeup swatching post,” she said, noting that she didn’t consider it direct racism but that it always gave her pause. “In these types of experiences, I always like to identify the person’s intent and it was never malicious, but those little moments add up eventually.” Teen Vogue reached out to Sephora for comment.
Current employees who are part of SephoraNoir said they’re excited about being involved in this way, noting that they’re also contributing to product development meetings and helping vet influencers to feature on social channels like Instagram.
“We encourage members to reach out to us when they have concerns about our product categories,” says Straughter, who is directly involved in product buying as a member on the product development team. “Everyone on the team asks for open and honest feedback.”
Giving back to the community is also central to the group’s activities. This year, on Martin Luther King Day, for example, SephoraNoir members packaged food and supplies for 100 homeless kids in San Francisco.
The events are not always as serious or educational, however: the group also holds regular social events that members say are particularly rewarding and help to foster the sense of community that was lacking before.
For Christina Jefferson, a manager on Sephora’s diversity and inclusion team, a trip late last year to the black-owned winery Brown Estates was particularly memorable.
“Having the chance to hang out together like that really solidified the group and made us realize the potential it had,” she said, adding that it also made the corporate office environment suddenly feel less siloed. “Normally, you don’t really know what the other teams are doing, but now I know more people throughout the company and regularly spend time with them – it connected us in a way that we weren’t before.”
The group has also provided a stark contrast to the “very white world” in Indiana that Jefferson grew up in.
“I was always the only black person in the room, no matter where I was,” she explained. “I’ve never had a group of other black women around who I really consider friends and spend time with every day, all day. [Despite growing up apart,] we all have these shared experiences.”
For Straughter, SephoraNoir has also been a revelation after a 20-years-long career in corporate environments where she was also the only black woman in the room.
“When I have the opportunity to meet other black people and African-Americans within my work I like to take advantage of that,” she said.
Most diversity initiatives today are followed by ample press coverage and a lot of proverbial back-patting – making programs that are ostensibly for the greater good seem more like temporary band-aids rather than long term solutions. But there’s also research showing that diversity programs like these fail to work, and can sometimes have adverse effects. A study published in the Harvard Business Review found that companies that used mandatory diversity training ultimately employed less employees of color over a 5-year period. Not only some do employees resist the mandatory nature of these programs, it found, but they also find the negative, threatening language that is often used off-putting and tend to forget the information within days.
Experts in the space argue that making programs like these voluntary, as in the case of SephoraNoir, is more successful. Setting up mentorship programs between employees of color and C-suite executives within a company and emphasizing diversity in recruitment has also been shown to help.
When asked how the nature of SephoraNoir’s work might change in light of recent events, a spokesperson for the brand offered only that the group “is actively participating in larger discussions to determine the best ways to move forward and improve our clients’ experiences.”
Jefferson and Straughter declined to comment directly on the SZA and Leslie Jones scandals, but a group statement from SephoraNoir highlighted their collective frustration.
“There are heightened sensitivities all around, and as members of the black community, we take these issues more personally because this is an ongoing experience for people of color,” it read. “We want to be proud of the values that Sephora represents and are hopeful that the journey our company is on will foster shared goals for our colleagues and peers as we all work towards building a more inclusive community for everyone, and taking real action to mitigate bias in retail.”
One stark example of the work left to do is the fact that employees who work in Sephora’s retail stores, where many of the incidents in which employees were accused of racially-charged mistreatment, have taken place, are not yet welcome to take part in the larger SephoraNoir group, which the company attributes to logistical hurdles. This even though their retail employees are considered to be more diverse, according to former corporate employees.
The group is currently looking into ways to expand its offering to in-store employees, beyond the day of diversity training that took place in June.
“We have to figure it out from a logistical standpoint but we’re hoping to begin expanding it in a year or so,” says Straughter.
Although members say the group’s reception and popularity continue to grow, with frequent visits from the company’s vice presidents and other members of upper management, only 60 participate in SephoraNoir, out of the around 1,500 corporate employees. Whether this small percentage is a case of lack of interest, lack of black employees, or both, is unclear.
If it’s a matter of weak diversity, Straughter says they’re working on it, regularly meeting with one of the team’s recruiters on the most effective ways to recruit more black people to the company. Last year, Straughter and another member attended the National Black MBA Conference with a binder full of open positions they were hoping to fill and returned with some great candidates. Many black candidates have made sure to look into the company’s treatment of black employees, requesting and being granted to speak to someone from SephoraNoir when going through the interview process.
Of course, a truly successful diversity initiative must extend beyond one racial group. Around the launch of SephoraNoir there were other resource groups that started too, including a Latinx-geared group called Mi Gente and EllesVMH, a women’s empowerment group cheekily named after Sephora’s parent company, LVMH.
Many employees believe that being a company with many women in leadership roles has given Sephora a leg-up in the diversity space.
“Even though we’re a small program that’s new, we’ve done a lot so far that other places haven’t because we have so many women in our halls,” says Jefferson, who attended a recent Gap corporate event on new diversity initiatives and was surprised by what she saw. “A lot of other companies are starting from less than zero with these initiatives and we’re not.”
Jessica Schiffer is a freelancer reporter and contributing editor at Vogue Business.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue