Illustration: iStock
Illustration: iStock

There’s no place for prejudice in business

The backlash to a telecom company's handling of a hate tweet directed at its employee highlights why companies need to start taking communal biases seriously

What should you do when your customer is a bigot? Indian employers today find themselves grappling with implicit communal biases. Recently, Bharti Airtel India was at the centre of a social media firestorm after a customer tweeted that she didn’t want her service complaint handled by an agent named Shoaib because of his religion. The customer asked for a “Hindu representative", and received a response from another Airtel employee named Gaganjot. This sparked an uproar—over the customer’s tweet as well as Airtel’s handling of it, which was seen as “bowing down" to bigotry.

Although the firm issued a release claiming that the tweets had been misinterpreted and that it doesn’t discriminate on the basis of religion, caste or race, the damage had been done.

This isn’t an isolated incident. From the recent incident at Starbucks in the US, where two black men waiting for a business associate were arrested, to clothing and accessories store Primark in the UK being taken to task on social media after staff were accused of “rewarding" a racist customer, reports about discrimination—by customers or customer-facing executives—are beginning to dominate global corporate conversations today. India, ranked fourth highest in terms of social hostilities against religion by a 2017 Pew Research Centre report, still has a long way to go in training personnel to deal with such customers.

Experts say the only way to handle situations like these is organization-wide training and a standards protocol that reflects the company’s core values. “In a pluralistic society like India, it is indeed very important to ensure that customer care/front-line personnel are sensitized to issues of prejudice and bigotry. Training does play an important role in meeting two key objectives: to enhance awareness of a front-line executive’s own biases and prejudices so that these personnel display greater maturity in their interpersonal dealings; and to equip them with interpersonal skills to deal effectively with customers who are insensitive and prejudiced and display boorish behaviour," says S. Ramnarayan, clinical professor in organizational behaviour at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. Ramnarayan recommends role-playing the challenges customer executives face in the field, and sharing video feedback on responses.

While a well-designed racial-bias training protocol seems like a good way to go, companies also need to provide employees with specific protocols for managing these situations. Such efforts can institutionalize norms of behaviour for employees when they interact with customers. Starbucks recently closed 8,000 stores across the US for a day-long training session on racial bias. “In India, we continue to review our practices to create a welcoming Third Place for our customers and remain committed to delivering the authentic Starbucks Experience to every customer who enters our stores," said a spokesperson from Tata Starbucks.

The tricky part is how to balance your feelings towards a person who has shared a negative and detrimental comment while respecting the fact that s/he is a customer. Abhijit Gupta, management consultant, customer experience strategy, Abacus Yellow, says employees should take an ethical position when people express offensive opinions. “Today’s managers, while following the ‘customer is right’ philosophy, are also aware about negative personas (the kind of customers you don’t want for your business even if paying)," says Gupta. His advice on what to do if you’re faced with a communal remark from a customer: Point out to the customer that s/he is not keeping the conversation within business lines or decorum; remember that your religious identity has no bearing on the job you are performing; alert your immediate superior.

Businesses also need to build a culture that empowers employees to draw a line when required, and to create a company culture that values equality. Restaurant search and discovery service Zomato, for instance, has recently added two new features—a short bio of the delivery executive and an option to add a tip for the person—in an effort to change social behaviour towards its delivery personnel.

Deepinder Goyal, founder and CEO, Zomato, says, “There is a story behind every delivery executive that comes to deliver food to us—they aren’t just a dot on a map that you can track." The short bios have information on their education, home towns, the languages they speak, and a line about their lives, families and aspirations. Mohit Kumar founder and CEO, Runnr, and head of food delivery, Zomato, adds, “These short bios work as the medium of conversation and remind our users that a person, just like them, is going to deliver their food." Last year, cab aggregator Uber introduced a “driver’s profile" feature on its mobile app to enable riders and drivers to engage on a more personal level.

There are many ways to explain away “discriminatory" behaviour, including default explanations: bad service, even that the customer didn’t know it would sound racist. In a frustrating situation, it’s easy to lose control and attack a person on the basis of race, religion or gender.

But customers need to stay within the parameters of acceptable behaviour and offer constructive criticism; organizations, in turn, need to define “acceptable behaviour". This will not only create a sense of pride in organization values but send out a strong message that they look beyond profit—and that can only be good for business.

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