Glossier and the rise of workers using social media to hold employers accountable

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America has faced a racial reckoning following the police killing of George Floyd, and corporate America hasn't been immune.

In late spring, while protests popped up across the country and companies pledged their support of the Black Lives Matter movement, many workers took to social media to call out their employers for "performative allyship," irked that public statements of support didn't always match their internal norms or commitment to diversity and equality.

It's not an entirely new phenomenon. There's been a recent increase in this kind of employee activism following the visibility of the #MeToo movement, says Aaron Goldstein, a labor attorney at international law firm Dorsey & Whitney.

"Over the last five years, employees and former employees have increasingly turned to social media to publicize allegations of toxic, abusive, or discriminatory workplace environments, and to organize public campaigns to address them," Goldstein says. "Social media has created a feedback loop where allegations are easily published and shared, which leads to greater public concern, which makes more people willing to come forward with yet more allegations."

In June, at Adidas, employees posted about their alleged experiences of racism in the workplace and launched a protest demanding a formal apology from leadership for enabling toxic behavior. In response, Adidas said it's working to establish more equitable hiring, pay and promotion practices and has acknowledged there's more work to be done to improve the work experience of Black employees.

Around the same time, former Everlane workers formed an Ex-Wives Club to challenge company management and what they refer to as an illusion of ethical branding. The company told the New York Times that it's committed to hiring Black leaders and conducting anti-racism training, and CEO Michael Preysman said, "We now have some urgent work to do to rewrite Everlane's code of ethics and champion a more inclusive and equitable way forward."

And at Glossier, a millennial pink beauty brand that preached inclusivity and empowerment, many of the company's former retail workers banded together to call out the beauty brand's alleged treatment of Black, Brown and LGBTQIA+ staff in stores around the world. In an open letter on Medium, they detailed what they described as "hostile interactions" with customers and management, including managers doing nothing to stop a woman who repeatedly entered the New York City flagship store to harass Latinx workers as "illegals" and a manager who would regularly confuse the names of the BIPOC employees.

The group of roughly 50 former Glossier employees, the majority of whom were laid off due to the coronavirus pandemic, call themselves Outta The Gloss, a play on the Into The Gloss blog that launched founder and CEO Emily Weiss's $1.2 billion beauty empire. Four Outta The Gloss members, who spoke to CNBC Make It on the condition of anonymity because they fear Glossier may take legal action against them, share why they decided to speak up now.

These retail workers say they first raised their concerns with Weiss directly in mid-June. The CEO held one-on-one conversations with more than a dozen retail members over the course of two weeks. 

In July, Weiss responded with a mass email to the staff, which was later published on the Glossier blog. In the email, she promised to review the compensation structure, institute manager equity and inclusion training and create a customer code of conduct, among other steps.

While Weiss had addressed many of the employees' concerns, Outta The Gloss members were frustrated the email offered no clear timeline or opportunity to address management face to face. So they began to draft their own proposal. But before they could share it with Glossier management, on August 7, the company announced stores would remain closed until 2021 due to the pandemic, and furloughed workers would be laid off.

Outta The Gloss members still felt it was important to speak up. So on August 13, they made their first public post: an open letter to Glossier from former retail employees. They followed up with a blueprint for how Glossier could engage in a transparent feedback process with retail workers and execute specific actions to rebuild the retail employee experience. They proposed anti-racism training, equitable pay and promotions, a zero-tolerance customer code of conduct, and open communication between retail and corporate operations.

On August 17, Glossier and Weiss responded publicly on Instagram with an "apology and a public acknowledgement of the pain and discomfort these former colleagues experienced." The posts also included an action plan that built on the "early blueprint" from the email sent to employees in July. Glossier confirms it has since held over 80 Zoom calls between HR leaders and retail employees in New York, L.A. and London for feedback.

Perhaps ironically, it's the so-called "woke" companies that may be more likely to be called out. Employees who work for organizations that outwardly project valuing fairness and justice may be more likely to speak up when they believe leaders aren't supporting these values through action, says Manuela Priesemuth, a professor of management at Villanova University.

"People need efficacy or confidence to speak up," Priesemuth says. "We get this confidence to speak up when we think the things we're going to say are supported by the norms in an organization. If you feel like you work in a fair and ethical workplace, it significantly increases your confidence to say something if something is wrong."

The employees we spoke to said Glossier pitched itself as fostering a sense of community among the staff, which is partly why they felt compelled to speak up for those members who'd been let down by the company.

There was a feeling they'd been "betrayed by what we'd all come to understand as an inclusive and affirming brand," says one former Glossier retail worker.

Even though the company no longer employs them, these ex-employees say the decision to speak out was stressful. "I was a nervous wreck," says one who worked in the flagship New York City store. "I didn't know how Glossier would react, or if they would at all."

They say they fear Glossier may seek legal action against them for speaking up now. Former retail employees say they signed non-disclosure agreements when initially hired by the company, but they did not sign any paperwork as part of their severance agreements. Outta The Gloss members say they sought legal advice before publishing their open letter in August but are still wary of how Glossier and its more robust legal team may respond to public statements.

In response to CNBC Make It's request for comment, a Glossier spokesperson says, "We would never take legal action against a current or former employee for raising issues about their workplace experience in good faith. Since our initial conversations with former retail employees in June, we've continued the dialogue about the work environment in our stores, with nearly 80 additional conversations with former retail colleagues in September. We are grateful for this ongoing feedback, and will continue to make progress on building the foundation of an equitable and inclusive retail employee experience while our retail channel is closed for the duration of the pandemic."

"Employers may not retaliate against employees for raising concerns about working conditions, even if the working conditions at issue are not actually unlawful," says Goldstein. "As a practical matter, trying to use the legal system to silence former employees is almost certain to backfire from a public relations perspective. Suing a former employee feeds into the very narrative of toxic bullying behavior that the company is trying to suppress.

"Companies are better off addressing the allegations by investigating them fairly and publicly making changes where the investigation uncovers problems in the workplace," he says.

While the dual crises of racial unrest and a historic pandemic may have magnified this kind of employee organizing on social media, Goldstein expects it to continue. He advises that companies respond swiftly and transparently.

"Over the last several years, our society has become increasingly unwilling to tolerate cruel behavior and is increasingly more willing to hold those who act cruelly accountable," he says. "When responding to an employee's concerns about the workplace, does your response demonstrate that you are really listening and taking the employee's concerns seriously? Demonstrating concern and compassion for employees is really a company's best defense."

On September 30, roughly six weeks after their first post and still dissatisfied by the company's response, Outta The Gloss for the first time called for supporters to boycott Glossier. Members hope doing so will push the company to be more transparent in their accountability to staff, as well as consumers, in improving discrimination concerns.

Glossier declined to comment on the group's calls to boycott the company. 

Some of the opposition comments we get are from people who say, 'I worked in retail, and this is nothing new, so why are you complaining?' What we're trying to do is challenge that.
Former Glossier Retail Employee

While many former employees no longer wish to be rehired by Glossier in the future or continue working in the beauty space, largely due to previous experience with the company, members of Outta The Gloss see this as a moment to discuss the bigger issues facing retail workers.   

"Some of the opposition comments we get are from people who say, 'I worked in retail, and this is nothing new, so why are you complaining?'" says one former Glossier retail worker. "What we're trying to do is challenge that. No, you don't have to accept those standards; those are subpar standards. Don't settle for terrible conditions.

"Just because you hold a corporate position doesn't mean you're entitled to more dignity and respect at your job," she says.

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