Monday, January 9, 2012

Racial Slurs on Receipt Not New News

Sadly, racial slurs on receipts is not new news. It's happened before and made the news, and regrettably, it's probably going to happen again and make the news. One would think that by now, corporations doing business with retail customers in the 21st century would get it and do a better job of avoiding racial slurs in their stores.

Papa John's Receipt
Here is a follow-up to the Papa John's "Lady Chinky Eyes" receipt story. Read the story here. Papa John's corporate office has issued a formal apology and is still trying to reach the customer, Minhee Cho, to present a personal apology directly to her. The franchise owner of five Papa John locations in New York has fired the 16-year old cashier who issued the receipt with the "Lady Chinky Eyes" description in the place where a customer's first name normally would be typed. And the franchisee's operating partner and a manager named Jerome and an assistant manager at the location where this happened still don't get it.

I admit that I have mixed feelings about the punishment fitting the crime, and I'm not sure that being fired for using a racial slur on a receipt rises to the level of a firing offense, with a big caveat which I'll get to later in this commentary. In other words, I'm not out for blood on racial justice issues. I want to raise awareness and change behavior.

Ronald Johnson, the operating partner, expressed his reluctance at firing the cashier thus: "I bet I'll talk to her and she won't know why this is offensive. She needs to know, and she will know. If I fire her, two years from now, she won't even remember why she got fired. If I sit her down and talk to her, I can help her. You still need a certain decorum and level of professionalism [at minimum wage jobs], and that may help her more in the long run." Johnson's comments do reflect an admirable desire to treat minimum wage earners and teenage employees like workers worthy of an investment in their personal growth. Sitting the employee down and talking to her should happen even in the case of a termination of employment; the employee should be given the full reason for the firing.

If this weren't a minimum wage retail job in food service, and if there weren't pressure from a corporate franchise entity with the high profile of a Papa John's and a major outcry in the media [I counted 32 pages on Google of this Papa John's racial slur receipt story just now], perhaps a firing wouldn't have taken place so quickly without other intervening steps. For example, in a bank, car rental agency, or other large company with branch locations that aren't franchises, a written warning and some type of mandatory employee education would probably have taken place, putting the employee on notice that this type of racial slur is unacceptable. 

From that point of view, I agree with Jerome, the manager at the location, who said, "I truly don’t think it’s fair. It’s been taking up all our time. It’s been very disruptive.” that, indeed, it isn't fair. But, it also isn't fair that an Asian customer should be subjected to this type of racial slur when all she wanted was to buy some pizza. It may have been disruptive to the store's employees, but it was also disruptive and upsetting to Minhee Cho, the customer, enough so that she tweeted about it and got the viral ball rolling. And now, Cho says, I probably would not go there again, because they would probably spit in my food,” and sadly, that is a reasonable concern to have, because as I said, the people at the franchise don't get it, and there is precedent in prior similar receipt stories of retaliation against the customer who complained.

A quick Internet search indicates that these types of incidents are not new news. 

Journeys receipt
In October, 2008, an incident occurred at a Journeys shoe store in a Kansas City mall [click here to see video news report], where an African American man returned a pair of shoes and received a receipt that had "dumb N-word" typed where the customer's name would go. When the TV reporter showed the receipt to people outside the mall, one White man asked, "Has he [the store employee] been fired yet?" A racial slur, in writing, on a receipt for something a customer has paid for, a customer who has chosen to do business with the retailer, is insulting and outrageous, and the gut reaction of the people outside the mall reflected that sense of insult and outrage.

Domino's Pizza receipt
In October, 2010, near Raleigh, North Carolina, a Domino's Pizza customer says she received a receipt that said "N-words don't tip." The store fired the employee, apologized for it and said it was the act of an individual employee. Afterwards, the African American woman customer said that she received harrassing phone calls calling her the N-word and chiding her for getting the employee fired. [Click here to see video news report.]

And as recently as December, 2011, in Irvine, California, two Chick-Fil-A customers received receipts that labeled them "Ching" and "Chong" where their names would have been typed. [Click here to read a news report.]
Chick-Fil-A receipt
Those customers spoke to a manager at the restaurant immediately, who gave appropriate responses, apologizing on the spot. The offending employee was subsequently fired. Chick-Fil-A's corporate office issued an official apology, which showed an awareness of what the issue really is all about: "Please understand and accept our confirmation that the inappropriate, and unthinking behavior of a young team member at one of our restaurants does not support any claim or even suggestion of racism at our restaurant. The individual clearly violated our operating standards; the matter was addressed and discussed immediately with the guests on the spot; and a confirmation was provided that the employee was immediately dismissed for the individual behavior."

The point that Chick-Fil-A makes is important -- that there is and should be corporate operating standards that prohibit racist behavior and making or using racial slurs when working with customers and fellow employees. The disruption that the Papa John's manager talked about is costly to businesses, and it is avoidable with an upfront investment in training. Anti-Racism Training is an important component of both customer service and raising anti-racism awareness in organizations, and I'm deeply committed to providing such education in my professional practice. So, a shout-out to corporations looking for anti-racism training: write me at, and let's talk!

The caveat that I want to make about whether or not to fire an employee who makes racial slurs to customers is this. While being terminated from a job is harsh punishment, especially in today's tough economic and high unemployment environment, the fact is that racial justice progress is made when societal awareness is raised. High profile incidents require appropriate responses, because the responses will also receive a high profile. 

Retail establishments that depend on customers to survive and thrive ought to be held accountable for being places where racism is absent. Such businesses should be responsible for the hiring, training and management of employees who exhibit non-racist behavior. Employees, including teenage employees, should have a sense of responsibility about the nature of the employment relationship when they accept a job. 

Performing a job is serious business, and when employees don't exhibit a serious respect for their jobs, their employers' businesses, their fellow employees and their customers, then they should be held accountable. So, my conclusion is that the firings for the inappropriate use of racial slurs on receipts and the disrespect shown to their customers and employers are justified.


Anonymous said...

I don't understand why they don't just use order numbers anyway or go by phone numbers. It could really solve some issues. If ordering inside of the store/restaurant, all that needs to be given is an order number. There are several times when I order that I would rather not give my name.

Br. Thomas Squiers



You are so correct about using numbers. In fact, many fast food restaurants do that. The numbers are generated by the cash register so no typing is done by the employee. Using numbers not only avoids possible mal-intent by employees. It also avoids mangling of names. Many ethnic names are not easy to pronounce or spell for people not of that culture, and it is sometimes insulting to have one's name mangled badly. I dislike it intensely when people say "Leland" instead of "Lelanda," but it happens frequently, because I do have an unusual name. And, as you point out, for both females and males, sometimes the environment in the store is such that you don't want strangers to know your name. I suppose one could develop a policy of always using a generic name or something obviously fictional like "Mark Twain" or "Betsy Ross." Thanks for reading and for posting a comment.


Anonymous said...

I just describe people by how they look: "Lady Fat Ass" or "Man With Big Boobs" avoids all racial issues!
Celebrate your Diversity!