Target sued for cultural insensitivity: Your company could be at risk too!

Nita Korsten

This July, Target, the second-largest discount retailer in the United States, came into the news in a very unfortunate way. Three former employees sued Target claiming they suffered crude harassment, discrimination and retaliation at work, and that Target's management training is culturally offensive. One of Target’s distribution warehouses in Woodland, California had apparently provided its managers with a document titled, “Organization Effectiveness, Employee and Labor Relations Multi-Cultural Tips”. Publicly shared as a result of the lawsuit, the completely misdirected ‘tips’ were actually full of stereotypes regarding workers of Hispanic descent.  

The organization’s headquarters supposedly did not issue the training materials. As noted in the Huffington Post, Spokeswoman Molly Snyder issued Target’s apology:

“It is never Target’s intent to offend our team members or guests and we apologize. The content of the document referenced is not representative of who Target is. We strive at all times to be a place where our team and guests feel welcome, valued and respected. This document, which was used during conversations at one distribution center, was never part of any formal or company-wide training. We take accountability for its contents and are truly sorry.”

Clearly this situation creates a risk for the brand and reputation for Target. The dispute highlights an interracial and cultural conflict affecting a domestic market; however, similar problems occur in organizations working in an international arena. How do international businesses manage intercultural concerns at the local or team level? How does an organization really ensure that its diversity values are being practiced in an organization?

Here are three take-aways from Target’s misfortune:  

1.     Managers and employees who deal with cultural diversity on a daily basis feel the need to decipher and understand cultural differences. It’s important to create a value-free and respectful environment.

2.     Building cross-cultural competence is not a one-time-issue! Many organizations offer management courses, teambuilding courses, etc. on a continuing basis. Cross-cultural communication should be inseparably linked to courses offered company-wide in your organization.

3.     Managers need help in addressing the cross-cultural problems they encounter, or they might take it up in their own way. Probably with very good intentions, but maybe in a way that risks falling into the kind of problems Target faces today. The first step towards better collaboration is to understand one’s own perspective in relation to that of others.

Now, dear reader, pause for a moment. Ask yourself if a situation like this could possibly occur in your organization? And don’t be too fast with pointing out that your company is fostering inclusion in all its policies, because so is Target. Consider the organization’s statement on diversity as published on its website:

“At Target, we recognize that each of us is unique and that our differences are our greatest strength. These differences are reflected in how we see the world, think and learn, approach work and relate to others. They may also include race, ethnicity, gender, language, sexual orientation, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political convictions, socio-economic status and education.” (Source: website Target)

Now, ask yourself these questions:

·         Do I know if or where in my organization employees might be encountering difficulties when working in diverse teams, on international projects or interfacing with international customers?

·         Could my organization be losing money on international deals that don’t come through, unnecessary high turnover of employees, the delay of products or services into new markets, marketing mistakes (wrong introductions in different markets) or on failing mergers and acquisitions?

·         Could my organization be running the risk of possible lawsuits from employees or customers?

In short, does your organization practice what it preaches? A lack of cross-cultural competence at all levels and locations could be costly for your company!