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Does the culture of your business tolerate racial discrimination?

Does the culture of your business tolerate racial discrimination?

Bias and discrimination can arise in different situations, many of which are surprising to those affected, both participants and onlookers. Racial slurs, intolerant comments, discriminatory actions often flare up without warning. The businesses where they occur must act swiftly and without hesitation to stamp them out and end the behavior. News of intolerant incidents spreads quickly through all corners of social media, often going viral soon after. Once the viral phenomenon hits, businesses risk much – in lost revenue, negative attention, damaged reputation, and lawsuits.

Guarding against the onset of such events, businesses must be much more proactive with zero tolerance policies, effective staff training, appropriate  ‘no intolerance permitted’ practices, and management empowerment for swift action to preclude these moments before they arise and take hold of social media. Such proactivity is especially urgent today as more and more intolerant acts and incidents spiral across the United States.

What do you do when someone says “I don’t want to be around these {insert race} people?”

One truism that often is lost in the wave of reaction to incidents of intolerance and discrimination in public places and businesses such as restaurants, hotels, hospitals, schools and more is this – such acts may very well be illegal. For example, the 1964 Civil Rights Act forbids denial of service and discrimination based on race, color, or national origin, for example, by places of public accommodation.

Case in point, the situation at a Buffalo Wild Wings Restaurant in Napierville, Illinois in late October 2019:

According to the Chicago Tribune/Napierville Sun:

“A group of children and adults celebrating a birthday at a restaurant last weekend were asked to move to different tables because of the color of their skin, two men who were part of the group said.

Justin Vahl and Marcus Riley said they visited the Buffalo Wild Wings on 75th Street east of Route 59 to celebrate a child’s birthday about 8:30 p.m. Oct. 26.

As employees set up the tables to seat the group, a host asked Vahl about his ethnicity, and later a manager asked the group to move to another location because a nearby customer didn’t want to sit near black people, the men said. Buffalo Wild Wings spokesperson, Claire Kudlata, said in an email that Buffalo Wild Wings has zero tolerance for discrimination.

“We take this alleged incident very seriously and are conducting a thorough, internal investigation. We’re in direct communication with the guest to understand their account of what happened and to offer our deepest apologies for any unacceptable behavior.”

Vahl, who lives in Montgomery and said he is multiracial, said he’s never experienced discrimination like that before in public, and it was made worse because his children — ages 5 and 9 — witnessed it.

… As the staff was setting up the tables, he said he realized he’d miscounted and went to the tables to discuss adding more chairs for three more kids.

Vahl returned to the waiting area, where the host — who Vahl described as a young black man — asked, “What race are you?”

Vahl asked why it mattered.

He said the host explained that one of the restaurant’s regular customers seated nearby “doesn’t want black people sitting near him.” “I’m not going to let a customer dictate where we sit,” Vahl said, and he told the host to seat the party at the table.

Vahl said a manager then approached the group shortly after speaking with the regular customer and his guest. The manager told Vahl’s group they needed to move because the tables had been reserved by another party of 18. A Naperville Sun reporter later called the restaurant and was told the Naperville location does not take reservations. After multiple managers tried to get the group to move, Vahl said the six adults decided to go to another restaurant.

Riley said the drive to the next restaurant was difficult because the children in his car thought someone had done something wrong. The father of two boys, ages 6 and 10, said he explained how the adults didn’t want to spend their money at the restaurant. “If they don’t value us as people, as human beings, would you want to pay them?” he said he asked the kids. Just as challenging, Riley said, were questions like, “Why does he not like us?” 

Vahl’s wife, Mary, who was at the restaurant as well, posted about her experience on social media, and as of Friday afternoon the post had been shared more than 3,600 times and generated more than 2,200 comments. Riley, from Joliet, said he reached out to the company to tell them about his experience because he wants to prevent a similar incident from happening again.”

In an update to this story, the November 6 edition of the Chicago Tribune/Napierville Sun reported the firings of several restaurant employees as a result of discriminating against the Vahl/Riley party:

“Multiple employees were fired from a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in Naperville after some customers said their group was asked to move to another table because of the color of their skin.

Buffalo Wild Wings spokesperson Clarie Kudlata in an email late Sunday said the company conducted a thorough, internal investigation and “terminated the employees involved.” She said a service manager and shift manager were fired.

… A reporter called the Naperville location Sunday and the manager, a male who would not identify himself, said “there were employees who were terminated and who quit.”

The apparent firings and resignations of multiple employees from this restaurant suggest systemic management, customer care, and staff awareness issues at the Napierville Buffalo Wild Wings. But in my experience, staff turnover, which is frequent in the restaurant industry, does not solve the problem, particularly here where management and line staff apparently enabled a customer’s racism by denying service to and discriminating against customers of color because of race, color, and national origin.

Instead of staff turnover, which always generates media attention, there are more salient questions and issues to confront:

  • How did such enabling occur?
  • Why did restaurant management actively participate in and abet a customer’s intolerance toward other customers?
  • How will the establishment’s policies change?
  • What training is given to staff?
  • How does management prevent such egregious conduct from reoccurring?
  • What outside experts are needed to assist this business ensuring that such illegal, intolerable events do not occur again? 

Proactivity must take hold now to stem the tide of lost business and negative press/social media attention. Other places of public business should take note, lest they too ride the viral wave of negative social media.

© Bruce L. Adelson 2019, special for Bromberg & Associates, All Rights Reserved The material herein is educational and informational only.  No legal advice is intended or conveyed.

Bruce L. Adelson, Esq, CEO of Federal Compliance Consulting LLC is nationally recognized for his compliance expertise concerning many federal laws.  Mr. Adelson is a former U.S Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Senior Trial Attorney.  

Mr. Adelson is a Department of Family Medicine faculty member at Georgetown University School of Medicine where he teaches implicit bias, cultural and civil rights awareness. 

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