Like many corporations, Amazon came out strongly in support of Black Lives Matter in early June. A giant banner took over the home page. They donated $10M to racial justice and equity organizations. CEO Jeff Bezos shared a profanity-laced email from a customer not happy about their support and said the sender was the kind of customer “he was happy to lose.”
Less than two months later, Amazon, via their subsidiary Whole Foods, is being sued by current and former employees who say they were disciplined, and in one case fired, for wearing face masks in support of Black Lives Matter. Whole Foods employee Suverino Frith from Cambridge, MA, stated: “This is a moment in history when companies need to walk their talk on racial equality.”
Of course there are two sides to the story. Whole Foods cites a dress code prohibiting clothing with “visible slogans, messages, logos, or advertising that are not company-related.” They also claim that no one has been fired over wearing masks. Instead they say Savannah Kinzer, the very visible leader of recent walkouts and protests at the Cambridge, MA store was terminated for violating the Time and Attendance Policy.
The employees claim that the mask policy was never consistently enforced and store associates wore LGBTQ pride and sports team masks without impunity. Kinzer claims the vast majority of her discipline points came in the past month for refusing to take off her BLM mask and being sent home as a result. An hour after informing them of the lawsuit, she was terminated and escorted out of the store.
It is not surprising that this confrontation is happening at Whole Foods, a company known as a leader in the purpose-driven business movement. Purpose-driven businesses attract purpose-driven employees, who see the brand aligned with their values. It is also not surprising that the dozen or so employees in the lawsuit come from stores in other progressive cities like Berkeley and Seattle. Based on our research on Generation Z, it also doesn’t surprise me that a 23-year-old recent college graduate is leading this activism. GenZ expects authenticity (and, yes, consistency) from their employers.
I understand and support a company wanting control over what associates wear at work. To me the key phrase in the Whole Foods policy is the clause “that are not company-related.” Once a company publicly supports a cause, it seems to me that cause is now very “company-related.” If they then ban an employee from sharing their own support of that same cause, that makes no sense. This inconsistency suggests that their support is not something ingrained in their values. They will put a banner on the website, but aren’t willing to take a stand on the front line.
Another well-known Seattle company, Starbucks, recently faced similar backlash when the company banned employees from wearing BLM pins and shirts. They quickly reversed course and went a step further, saying they would make T-shirts with the Black Lives Matter logo for any associate who wanted one. After an initial stumble, this is a brand that understands what it means to walk the talk on racial equity.
As the purpose-driven business movement gains steam in this era of full transparency, corporate inconsistencies will increasingly be called out. When they take a stand, leaders need to know it is not just their corporate communications and responsibility teams that need to think through the implications. They need to think about how that stand affects every component of their corporate universe, from employee policies to product to operations to their lobbying efforts to the behavior of their trade associations. Recent efforts to highlight this need for consistency have taken place in the climate movement. Amazon is also being called out for policing partnerships and technologies that harm communities of color.
No one says that achieving consistency is easy. Fear of imperfect consistency should not stand in the way of progress. When an inconsistency emerges, leaders simply need to work to fix it. If Amazon and Whole Foods really support Black Lives Matter and truly believe that racism has no place there, I should be able to see that stance emblazoned on any employee’s mask who is proud of that fact and wants to share it.