Diversity and Inclusion in Retail

Getting Comfortable Having Uncomfortable Conversations

diversity and inclusion in retail

Why has diversity and inclusion (D&I) become such an important conversation? Because it needs to. In the age of global communities, we simply can’t survive by living in a cocoon. Frankly, in a shrinking world with a growing reach, it’s foolish to try. Change defines the human condition.


Let’s face it—I’ve never spent one day living in your shoes, and you’ve never spent one day living in mine. This is true for every person across the globe, regardless of who we are, where we live, and what background we may have. Our experiences are unique and based on countless factors that make up who we are from our DNA, to the decisions we’ve made, and every single thing that has ever influenced our lives. These countless differences are something that we all have in common.

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While we may continue to find comfort in common ground, our world is growing smaller every day. We’re regularly introduced to new people and new cultures but also gaining greater exposure to the tremendously diverse cultures that have surrounded us. And no matter how hard we try, we simply can’t crawl back into the cocoon. It doesn’t work that way for any of us, and that’s a good thing.

As our communities continue to grow more diverse, we also see dramatic changes in retail as an increasing percentage of the workforce is populated with individuals of different identities, traits, cultures, and backgrounds. Awareness has heightened as the world continues to shrink and the demographics of the workforce change, and retail companies are taking on additional initiatives to further embrace diversity and inclusion.

But no matter who we are or what our background may be, we still must be willing to accept change. We must be willing to see the world in a new way. Often, the thing that sparks this kind of growth is a willingness to have uncomfortable conversations.

Understanding Diversity and Inclusion

Let’s begin with the basics. First, diversity is not about any one thing. While it may mean different things to different people, no one can claim the term exclusively. In general, diversity involves the full range of human differences and should not be limited by narrow definitions. This often includes attributes such as race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, physical abilities or features, religious or ethical values, national origin, and political beliefs, but can include other factors as well. By learning to better understand, accept, and value the perspectives, characteristics, experiences, and behaviors that make each of us who we are, we give further meaning to our unique identity. It can enhance innovation and creativity, opening our minds to fresh ideas and invigorating limitless possibilities.

Inclusion, on the other hand, builds upon involvement and empowerment, where the inherent worth and dignity of all people are recognized. An inclusive environment promotes and sustains a sense of belonging for everyone. It is collaborative and supportive, respecting the participation and contributions of all employees. It values the talents, beliefs, backgrounds, and ways of life for the entire team. It unites and integrates all people by providing equal access to opportunities, ideologies, activities, and resources. True inclusion removes barriers, discrimination, and intolerance. When applied properly, it’s natural for everyone to feel engaged and supported.

D&I not only encompass how we perceive others but how we perceive ourselves. We need to build a culture of respect where attitudes and actions will encourage mutual understanding, creating an environment where all people can be valued and successful in the workplace and throughout our communities.

“I was taught from a young age, and still believe, that you treat ALL people with kindness and respect.”

Making a Difference

The retail community has largely accepted that diversity and inclusion matters—that focusing on diverse teams, actively mitigating bias, and embracing inclusive habits benefit the business. We’ve recognized the value of an employee population that respects and embraces our differences, and by learning to better understand each other we recognize the unique contributions that people can make. This creates a positive and nurturing work environment that maximizes the potential of all employees.

  • Organizations employing a diverse workforce tend to be more adaptable, potentially offering a greater variety of solutions to business-related problems.
  • Employees from diverse backgrounds bring individual talents and experiences, suggesting ideas, showing flexibility, and adapting to the changes that are an ongoing element of the retail world.
  • A workforce with a spectrum of perspectives can provide a larger pool of ideas, insights, and experiences. When the team feels comfortable communicating diverse points of view, the organization can draw from that pool to meet strategic goals and the needs of our customers more effectively.
  • Companies that encourage diversity in the workplace inspire all of their employees to perform to their highest ability. Company-wide strategies are then executed more effectively, resulting in higher productivity, morale, profit, and return on investment.
  • A workplace that reflects the diversity of our communities will better understand our customers, which will lead to improved service. A diverse workplace will have good communication with customers based on a deep understanding of the needs of the community.
  • A diverse collection of skills and experiences allows a company to provide service on a broader level.
  • Diversity in the workplace can increase marketing opportunities, recruitment, and our business image.

Certainly, there are challenges associated with diversity in the workplace. There will always be those who resist change and refuse to accept that the social and cultural landscape of the retail environment is evolving. Poor attitudes and personal biases can quell ideas and innovation and slow progress. Perceptual, cultural, and communication barriers need to be overcome if diversity programs are going to be successful.

But despite these challenges, change is inevitable. As far as we’ve come, there is still much more to learn. We need to continue to modify our way of thinking to deal effectively with the issues of communication, tolerance, adaptability, variety, and change.

Embracing our differences and working together far outweigh the challenges we face, and the quicker we realize that the better off we will be. We must implement a strategy that best fits the needs of the business, creating an environment that assesses people for who they are, taking us out of our comfort zone, and establishing a plan that best brings ideas to actions. It’s time to get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations, learning more about our differences and ourselves.

“I think the more concerning issues fall on individuals rather than organizations, which makes it more difficult to overcome many of the challenges we face.”

The Survey Process

This survey was intended to do just that. The survey was crafted with the guidance, support, and direction of subject-matter experts and several retail D&I departments to develop questions that explored key diversity and inclusion topics. Some of the terminology was also suggested by these experts. For example, the term “diversity identity” was suggested to help best capture the characteristics that make up who we are.

The survey comprised fifty-one questions, primarily consisting of multiple-choice queries that included “comment” sections that allowed respondents to further clarify their answers. Some of the questions were considered difficult or uncomfortable to answer. Some explored areas that were likely unexpected. All participants were encouraged to be candid and share their thoughts.

A total of 401 participants completed the survey. While the primary audience was the loss prevention community, retailers from every area of the business were invited to take part, along with some of our key retail partners. We also invited retail professionals worldwide to participate. Anonymity was a critical aspect of the process, and all respondents were assured that their identities would be kept strictly confidential to ensure honest and candid responses.

Recognizing Our Own Opportunities

Good people are strong enough to change their minds. New information is then seen as a chance to grow, not as a barrier that stands in our way. Of course, information can help validate what we already know. But it can also lead us down a different path. This isn’t just a lesson that applies to all the faceless “theys” and “thems” that we use to generalize our anger, frustration, and resentment. It applies to you. It applies to me. And all those pointing fingers—those who don’t feel the need to change—may want to pay closer attention to the person their thumbs are pointing toward rather than focusing so much energy on everyone else.

We all have opportunities to learn and grow, and finding hidden prospects through self-discovery can help take our attitudes and perspective in new directions. However, breaking free from our own perspectives can be difficult, leading to some of the most uncomfortable conversations we can have—with ourselves.

The diversity and inclusion survey carried some strong opinions, shedding additional light on numerous topics while reaffirming others that we may have heard before. Every voice is important and offers a window into the way our colleagues feel about these important topics. Discussion may or may not lead to solutions, but opening the dialogue is always a step in the right direction.

Before exploring the particulars of the survey results, let’s start with a few key observations based on the comments made throughout the process.

The majority of those in the retail community embrace D&I. Too often it seems like we are driven by the exceptions rather than the opinions of the majority. Everyone’s opinion is important—and that often drives change. But the needs of everyone must be considered, and common sense must prevail. Most are sincerely open-minded, have the desire to learn and grow, and want positive change.

Language is often our biggest hurdle. The way thoughts are worded can often get in the way of the message. For example, do we believe that someone should be hired, promoted, or advance in their career simply based on race, gender, or some other characteristic? Or do we really mean that someone shouldn’t be denied the opportunity to be hired, promoted, or advance based on some characteristic that has nothing to do with their capabilities and performance? Wording can make a tremendous difference in the way our message is received.

Skepticism is also a concern. It’s clear from many of the comments that there are those who mistrust the motives behind some of these issues. Simply stated, are we sincerely looking for true equality when we speak of D&I, or are there those looking for an advantage based on their diversity identity? Are we trying to suppress others to get ahead? Rather than seeing this as a criticism, we should recognize a legitimate concern repeatedly voiced in survey responses.

There are many in the retail community who need to expand their definition of D&I. We all need to do a better job of recognizing and understanding the depth of the discussion and how it applies to each of us. This is not a subject exclusive to one group, individual, or diversity identity. Inclusion is an aspect of the conversation that can get left behind if we are not careful.

Diversity and inclusion in retail is not exclusive to the US. Diverse participation in the survey and the comments shared by those outside the US indicate that this is a worldwide dilemma that deserves greater attention. Different aspects of D&I may be more prominent based on culture and geography, but they are just as important to consider.

There’s a great deal of emotion tied to many of the comments. Anger, frustration, animosity, anxiety, and sarcasm are expressed in many of the responses. Some claim that it’s a fabricated or overstated topic. But others share real interest, objectivity, and hope. Overall, it points to how important the subject is to the retail community.

There are too many mirrors. Of course, it’s only natural that we view D&I based on our own reflection. In some way, we all believe we’ve been misjudged or treated unfairly in some way. But do you really believe that you’re going to convince others that their experiences are trivial, unimportant, or less meaningful than yours? That only builds walls, especially when people feel they are being put on the defensive. We must be willing to hear and understand perspectives other than our own.

Unconscious bias is very, very real. It can be heard repeatedly in many of the comments shared throughout the survey. Generally speaking, we should all be more aware of our own biases and work to improve who we are. But unfairly grouping people based on their diversity identity to make a point about how that group mistreats or misrepresents others—for example, saying something is “made up or fabricated” when it doesn’t match your opinion, calling someone a “racist,” “cisgender,” or part of a “good ol’ boys’ club” based on the behavior—is inappropriate, counterproductive, and extremely hypocritical.

Everyone feels that their opinion is correct—otherwise, it wouldn’t be their opinion. We’re all capable of changing our opinions, but the most important influence in forming or changing our opinions is information. Listening with an open mind is just as important as speaking into an open mic. In any real conversation, you won’t be heard if you’re not willing to listen.

“Inclusion also needs to include accepting people as they are, meaning everyone may not articulate the same, have the same understanding of some things that people experience, and that doesn’t make them less.”

Demographics of the Respondents

Our first objective was to identify the demographical makeup of our survey respondents. When approaching the subject of diversity and inclusion, we want to invite participation and gather the responses of a diverse audience to encourage a broad range of opinions.

While 66 percent of the participants live in the US, 34 percent represent nations in other parts of the world. This participation and their responses underscore the global reach of the interest in addressing D&I and how it impacts retailers worldwide.

In addition to LP and AP professionals, we also invited our partners from across the retail community to participate in the survey. Approximately 83 percent of the respondents identify themselves as LP professionals. However, we did have business partners that took part in the survey, including sales, operations, human resources, finance, risk management, supply chain, legal, internal audit, safety, information technology, and the academic community. Approximately 4 percent of respondents included our non-retail partners that serve the retail community as solution providers or law enforcement partners.

Professionals at every level of leadership took part in the survey, from store-level leaders to department pyramid heads. Respondents were fairly evenly distributed across the leadership spectrum, providing a broad range of opinions and perspectives.

Respondents represented a broad educational background and a diverse racial/ethnic background. The age of respondents was also very diverse. Approximately 67 percent of respondents identify as heterosexual males, while 22 percent identify as heterosexual females. Respondents included gay and bisexual males and lesbian and bisexual females. Two individuals identify as transgender, two as pansexual, and sixteen chose not to answer.

We then asked respondents to comment on their perceived physical appearance. While some factors are generally defined, this is a subjective topic that would vary depending on any number of factors. What does it mean to be attractive? What is considered tall or short? What is considered thin or overweight? What’s most important is how individuals perceive themselves. Our respondents proudly come in all shapes and sizes.

Our final demographics questions asked if respondents were comfortable with their diversity identity. Approximately 99 percent of respondents indicate that they are comfortable with their own diversity identity.

“I am flawed and imperfect but very comfortable with who I am and what I believe I stand for.”

Are respondents comfortable with others? We asked if individuals of certain diversity identities make them feel uncomfortable. Approximately 83 percent of respondents disagree, while 17 percent of respondents indicate that individuals of certain diversity identities make them feel uncomfortable.

Retail Support of Diversity and Inclusion

Several questions focused on how participants believe that the retail community is responding to the topic. How engaged are retailers with respect to diversity and inclusion?

Most respondents gave their companies and their departments high marks with respect to support of D&I in the workplace; however, there were still those that provided very low marks. Overall, this indicates that we’ve made some positive progress and some organizations are doing very well, but there’s still a great deal of improvement that needs to be made. On average, respondents gave their companies a ranking of six out of ten.

Overall, 88 percent of respondents feel that their company leadership, and 90 percent believe that their department leadership, value D&I in the workplace. Eighty-eight percent feel that their company has a successful strategy for driving an inclusive environment.

While 90 percent of survey participants indicate that they agree that all employees would benefit from their organizations offering diversity and inclusion training, only 82 percent of respondents believe that they would personally benefit from D&I training.

Additional findings include:

  • 85 percent of participants feel that their company does a good job of handling incidents of harassment in the workplace.
  • 78 percent feel that their company is doing an effective job of recruiting, developing, and promoting talented candidates into leadership roles regardless of diversity identity.
  • 92 percent of participants feel that regardless of diversity identity, every member of the team has an equal voice with their counterparts.
  • 70 percent of participants disagree that there are times when they feel uncomfortable in their jobs based on their diversity identity, which further tells us that 30 percent agree that there are times when they feel uncomfortable in their jobs based on their diversity identity.

“It appears leadership wants to hold fast to what’s being done that they see as good and right without considering there is opportunity for growth, a need for education, and people within the department that may actually feel marginalized.”

More Attention Needed

Diversity and inclusion dialogue should not be limited to particular groups or diversity identities. Based upon the responses to several questions where participants held varying opinions on the subject and the strong opinions voiced within the comments, there were several areas that appear to need additional attention, clarity, and consideration.

  • Participants had a mixed response as to whether individuals in the workplace frequently benefit or are discriminated against based solely on how attractive they are considered and/or their physical body type, with 50 percent agreeing and 50 percent disagreeing.
  • Participants also had a mixed response about whether individuals in the workplace frequently benefit or are discriminated against based solely on their age, with 53 percent agreeing and 47 percent disagreeing.
  • Overall, 60 percent of survey participants disagree that individuals in the workplace are frequently discriminated against based solely on a physical or developmental disability, while 40 percent agree.
  • 60 percent of survey participants disagree that individuals in the workplace are frequently discriminated against based solely on their nationality, background, or country of origin, while 40 percent agree.
  • Participants had a mixed response about whether individuals in the workplace are frequently discriminated against based solely their ethnicity/culture, with 44 percent agreeing and 56 percent disagreeing.
  • 65 percent of survey participants disagree that individuals in the workplace are frequently discriminated against based solely on their creed/religion, while 35 percent agree.

The contrast reflected in these results coupled with the comments shared by survey participants points to areas of opportunity that might benefit from further research. At the very least, these results suggest both conscious and unconscious biases in several areas beyond typical diversity and inclusion talking points.

“Inclusion also needs to include accepting people as they are, meaning everyone may not articulate the same, have the same understanding of some things that people experience, and that doesn’t make them less.”

The Impact of Discrimination

Among survey participants, 76 percent state that they agree that anyone, regardless of their personal diversity identification, can and will be discriminated against in the workplace at some point. However, 98 percent of survey participants agree (76% strongly agree) that being discriminated against does not give anyone the right to discriminate against others.

Overall, 97 percent of survey participants agree (74% strongly agree) that individuals in the workplace should not be treated differently, in terms of advantage, disadvantage, or opportunity, based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or other differences.

  • 57 percent of participants believe that there have been times when they felt they missed out on a raise, promotion, key assignment, or chance to get ahead because of their diversity identity.
  • 57 percent also feel that there are those in the workplace who use their personal diversity identity to mask poor performance or behavior.
  • 69 percent of survey participants agree that those in the workplace who use their personal diversity identity as an excuse to mask poor performance or behavior can have an influence on the way other hardworking and deserving individuals who share the same diversity identity are perceived.

Participants noted various ways that they feel, at work and/or in everyday life, they have been discriminated against. Age was the most prominent, followed by gender and race. Participants also provided a variety of ways they have benefited by or otherwise used to their advantage certain aspects of their diversity identity. Intelligence was the most prominent, followed by gender and race.

There was an interesting disparity in response to the topic of profiling. Among survey participants, 80 percent stated that bias and profiling customers based on their personal diversity identity remains a legitimate concern across the retail industry (28% strongly agree). In contrast, 85 percent of participants indicated that they personally never show bias or profile customers based on their personal diversity identity (43% strongly agree). In other words, most believe that “Other people do it, but not me.”

Supporting an Inclusive Environment

Generally speaking, participants voiced the opinion that diversity and inclusion programs represent a positive step in the evolution of the retail culture. Some voiced that this is the latest “phase” or “fad” for retail organizations or influenced by “politically correct” motivations. But most believe that D&I is an important and progressive initiative that benefits everyone.

Among survey participants, 97 percent agree (64% strongly agree) that D&I training programs should include everyone and not focus on those who share a particular diversity identification. Ninety-seven percent also agree (73% strongly agree) that we must all learn to better understand and celebrate our differences.

Ninety-four percent of survey participants agree (69% strongly agree) that the use of offensive or derogatory names, terms, labels, or language referring to someone’s diversity identity is never appropriate, including language between those who share the same diversity identification.

“This has always been a huge pet peeve! Either it’s offensive and inappropriate for everyone, or it’s not. Claiming a word or phrase is yours and somehow acceptable based on your identity is hypocritical at the ultimate levels. It perpetuates division. It says it’s okay for you to set yourself apart based on how you identify yourself, but it’s not okay for others, which also angers and frustrates people. It’s wrong and needs to stop. You can’t have it both ways.”

Overall, 91 percent of survey participants agree (57% strongly agree) that there should be a greater investment in understanding unconscious bias as part of D&I training programs.

Uncomfortable Conversations

Overall, 79 percent of survey participants disagree (38% strongly disagree) that the questions asked as part of the survey made them feel uncomfortable. That’s a terrific sign that every conversation on diversity and inclusion can build upon. But several really important questions remain.

  • How comfortable are you listening to opinions contrary to your own?
  • How willing are you to share your thoughts with others who may disagree with you?
  • Is it possible that your comments or actions might hurt others without you realizing it?
  • Are you truly willing to take in new information and change your mind?
  • Do you believe that most individuals are good and decent people trying to do their best?
  • Are you willing to accept that good and decent people may disagree with your point of view?
  • Can you accept that all this includes you, and not everyone but you?

Those questions are the foundation of every meaningful conversation where we disagree, and especially important when it comes to conversations that make us feel uncomfortable. If we want to have meaningful dialogue and move forward in a positive and constructive fashion, the answer to each of these questions must be “yes.”

“Not enough attention is placed on the inclusion aspect of D&I. It’s about opening minds and sharing ideas as well as learning more about one another.”

Dealing with diversity and inclusion in the workplace is a conversation that needs to take place across the retail landscape. But it’s also a subject where more information and greater awareness can have a tremendous impact. It’s a shared responsibility but also a discussion that will benefit everyone.

A wealth of additional information was provided by our participants and is available as part of our Diversity & Inclusion in Retail research report available on the magazine website.

This story was originally published as a part of the July/August 2021 issue of LPM, and was updated in July 2022. 

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