Conscious unbiasing – inclusion starts with you

by Kathryn Sakalis. Are you an inclusive leader? Own the fact that we all have unconscious biases. With awareness comes the ability to act differently.

by Kathryn Sakalis. Diversity and inclusivity (D&I) no longer suffers from a lack of attention in many (although not all) retailers. What it does suffer from is a lack of understanding and seemingly, a lack of results.

Why the lack of results?

Certain retailers approach D&I as a tick box exercise on their ‘to do’ list – once they have run a workshop on it, there is no follow-through or action plans that are then implemented to ensure that real change happens. Then there’s the finger pointing – who is actually responsible for creating an inclusive work environment? The answer to this question could vary from ‘the leaders’ to ‘HR’. Both these answers are correct, but also incorrect – yes, we need Inclusive leaders and yes, we need HR support, but ultimately inclusion starts with the individual, with every single employee in the company, with you and me.

This is even more relevant in retail due to the large number of customer-facing employees we have in our stores. They are often the customers’ first, and possibly only, personal interaction with your retail brand. So, if they are not reflective of your brand’s primary market, or tuned into them, this could cause friction in their interactions with your customers.

Why the lack of understanding?

D&I are usually said together as if they are one word, I’ve even been doing that in this article. Yet diversity and inclusivity are not the same thing. The best definition I could find on diversity in the workplace refers to a workforce comprised of individuals of different race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, physical ability, and other demographics. I would add to that definition, different cultures and experiences.  So, with respect to diversity, we are talking about characteristics that can be recorded, there is data which can be tracked to measure progress.

I see inclusivity as a verb (it’s not), as an intentional action, as building the type of culture where the diverse workforce feel they belong, feel respected, feel that they are part of the whole.

The definition I feel best encompasses these sentiments, is:  inclusivity is the company culture in which diverse employees can come to work, feel comfortable and confident to be themselves,  and to deliver on the business needs. Inclusion will ensure that everyone feels valued and importantly, adds value.

If retailers are clear as to what D&I really is, does that mean understanding will be better? Yes and no, because we need to peel away another layer and talk about what is really the underlying problem that is perpetuating a lack of D&I – addressing not only the symptoms of the issue but tackling the core issue, which is unconscious bias.

We all have unconscious biases – research shows 90% of people think they’re more objective than average (source World Economic Forum article on bias). I read about this orchestra which did all their auditions ‘blind’, i.e., those doing the selection couldn’t see the candidates, they could only hear them. This might seem extreme (and wouldn’t be practical in many situations), but it would remove the unconscious biases of the selectors, allowing them to only focus on the candidate’s music talent.

As a retailer constantly hiring new employees, look carefully at your interview process and try to see it through a different lens, the lens of a potential candidate who has no resemblance to you in any way. If your managers are presented with two equally competent candidates, one a reflection of them and one very different, who would they choose?

Unconscious bias

There are so many little opportunities in retail for our unconscious biases to rear their heads in a non-customer friendly way. Do your security staff keep an eye on certain demographics more than on others? There is the well-known example of Sephora shutting their USA stores for diversity training after R&B singer SZA was racially profiled at one of their stores. Sephora’s diversity training was done for all store, distribution centres and HO employees, ensuring that all had the same consistent message.

For clothing retailers, there is the potential pain point of the changing rooms. Although this area has become more relaxed, many clothing retailers still have separate changing rooms for males and for females. So where do those customers who are non-binary go?

The windows of retail stores paint the biggest pictures of what their brands stand for, they are the billboards that shout loudly for your brand purpose. What message is being conveyed in your windows? How inclusive is your use of models/images/mannequins? What processes do you as a retailer have in place in your stores for transgender customers who pay using a card with their ‘birth’ name on it, a name they no longer use or associate with?

Are you an inclusive leader? Own the fact that we all have unconscious biases. With awareness comes the ability to act differently. Uncover how our unconscious bias effects our employees, colleagues, customers and business communication. Question who you are including in your conversations; how diverse the team driving your brand image really is. How should you practice conscious unbiasing? The emphasis is on the word ‘practice’ – once you are aware of your bias and take accountability, it is easier to action a more inclusive approach.


Main image credit:


Kathryn Sakalis is a keynote speaker, business coach and consultant specialising in marketing and communication. She was a strategic brand marketer and has spent 25 years in retail. She is passionate about raising awareness of unconscious bias and the effect on our business interactions. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.



– Receive the Retailing Africa newsletter every Wednesday • Subscribe here.