Popular eyewear chain Warby Parker responds to backlash over racism
Former employees and customers of Warby Parker are accusing the popular prescription eyewear and sunglasses retailer of being racist.
The allegations came to light following Warby Parker's recent public pledge to do more to create an environment the embraces diversity, equity and inclusion.
On June 1, the company committed $1 million to organizations fighting racism and pledged to build “a meaningful approach that uses our resources, our voice, and our platform to drive action and change.”
And while the anti-racist actions were lauded by many, including the media, former employees felt the gesture was hollow.
"This is bullshit! This is literally just them doing it for profit. If they didn't they would lose their image of being a cool, hip, relatable, millennial brand but internally that's not what they stand for," one former Toronto employee who worked at the Yorkdale location told blogTO.
"From day one they've given zero shits about Black people or people of colour."
"It's performative," said another employee who worked at the Queen Street location.
Many people who worked at the stores in Toronto and across the U.S. have been speaking out. The comment section on the Instagram post is filled with personal accounts from past and present employees as well as customers.
The Queen Street employee who worked there for over a year told blogTO she experienced and witnessed microaggressions, gaslighting and terrible things happening to people of colour.
For example, on one occasion she says she approached her manager about a co-worker who was bullying her and making her feel uncomfortable. Rather than dealing with the situation, she alleges the manager told her that the co-worker was "an intellectual and a scholar" to excuse the behaviour.
The employees from the Yorkdale store and Queen Street store also spoke of how they felt they were frequently passed up or even excluded for applying for promotions or full-time positions despite their good sales performance.
"In a performance review [management] told me the key holder position was opening up and I should apply," explained the Queen Street employee.
But when she later asked for more details about what to include in her application, the employee alleges the manager pretended like the conversation never happened.
"She said we didn't talk about it and the job isn't for you," the Queen Street employee said.
In response to these allegations, Warby Parker said: "We’ve been following the comments on our post and have reached out to each and every former and current employee who has shared feedback about their experience working at Warby Parker."
"We are investigating and re-investigating these concerns. Most of these employees, specifically in the location from [where] these allegations stem, were with the company before we enhanced these [reporting] protocols."
"Warby Parker also shared with blogTO this statement: "We have a robust structured interview process and policy for internal candidates, especially within our Retail team. Across the organization, we have a merit-based performance management system that we follow, as well."
"We can always do better to improve these tools and processes and look forward to making continuous improvements over time. It’s incredibly important to us to promote and celebrate high-performing talent within the organization."
"In addition, we are outlining tangible ways that we can do better as a company to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion. We recognize that management roles across the organization do not reflect our larger team or our community. To change that, we will increase Black representation to ensure that all team members see reflections of themselves across all levels and areas of the business."
There were also more blatant acts of racism such as one manager allegedly calling a delivery person "little brown boy" or another instance where the manager at the Yorkdale store allegedly called security on a black woman who was just trying to replace an item.
That manager was fired after the incident.
Most recently at the Queen Street location, the manager hung up a "Make America Great Again" flag — a symbol of oppression for many people of colour.
For context, the staff had ordered a Cuban flag for a bridal shower but the wrong flag was delivered and the manager claims she hung it up as a joke.
But when employees told the manager how it made them feel uncomfortable the manager continued to keep it up and kept insisting it was "just a joke".
"As business leaders, we aim to foster an inclusive work environment where all of our employees feel comfortable and welcome. We are not an organization that promotes individual politicians," said Warby Parker in a statement to blogTO.
"Our People Team was not notified until about 8 months after the incident took place — and we investigated the matter immediately with all parties."
"Based on documentation from past and recent conversations, our understanding is this was done as an ill-conceived joke, and the flag was taken down immediately once concerns were raised."
Toronto isn't an exception for these types of incidents. Countless other employees from stores across America have called out Warby Parker for their racist actions and work environment.
In a blog post titled: "Things are not always what they seem" published on June 9, one employee by the user name Tasnim, who worked at a shop in New York detailed the many instances of internal racism they witnessed during their time at the store.
"A great number of injustices had been perpetrated by the company’s White leadership, and too many attempts were made to strip Black employees and employees of colour of their dignity, perhaps in the hopes of diminishing us to the extent that we would not be able to face ourselves," they wrote.
Darius Garvin, an artist, accused Warby Parker of stealing his work for a branding campaign and not crediting him in an open letter that was posted to Instagram.
The comments section of the post is filled with support and other stories of Warby Parker stealing creative's ideas and being discriminatory to Black, indigenous and people of colour.
In response to this Warby Parker told blogTO that they've reached out to Garvin several times but have not heard back.
"We do not condone plagiarism or IP theft of any kind," they said in a statement, explaining that they had the concept in the works several months before his interview.
"The family-focused concept for our Spring campaign is something we had been working on for several months before his interview, and understand why seeing a similar concept come to life could have been jarring for him, especially without the context of our team’s production timeline."
"As we explained to him when he reached out to us 18 months ago, we shot our campaign before he submitted the homework for his interview. When we reflect on his interview experience, we should have mentioned this to him during the interview process–and we apologize for not doing that."
"The fact that our stories are so similar and we don't even live in the same city and [...] have the exact same comments and situations we've been going through speaks volumes," said the former Yorkdale employee.
"We’re taking current and former employee and customer concerns incredibly seriously, and are fully investigating (and in some cases reinvestigating) every incident that’s brought to our attention," said Warby Parker in a statement to blogTO.
The company told blogTO they are looking both internally and externally to create a strategic plan to foster a more diverse and inclusive environment. They plan on releasing the plan later this month.
"[We] are committed to creating a workplace that better supports, recognizes, and celebrates all voices across all teams. [...] To anyone who hasn’t felt seen, included, or appreciated within the walls of Warby Parker, we’re deeply sorry. We will do better."
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