One evening in early 2020, retail staff at Glossier’s SoHo New York City store were preparing to close up for the night. But as the busy day at the flagship location of the buzzy makeup brand, now valued at $1.2 billion, wound down, a group of teenagers walked in.
The teen boys and girls, who appeared to be white, gravitated toward a table where the brand’s stretch concealer and Wowder face powder were displayed for customers to try out. The retail staff watched in astonishment as the group began laughing while they applied the brand’s darkest shades of makeup to their faces, painting on blackface.
Employees—and particularly the store’s Black employees—were upset and uncertain about how to handle the situation. The reaction of a manager on duty that night was to tell the Black associates, who were visibly distraught, to “take a break,” according to five Glossier employees, two of whom witnessed the incident and three of whom were told about it immediately after by colleagues who were there. The manager who responded to the situation did not address the behavior with the customers directly, allowing them to continue using the makeup—tones that barely a year earlier had been part of a hard-fought shade-range expansion to better serve customers of color—and waiting for the group to leave.
“The next morning managers referenced a ‘situation in the store the night before,’ and their advice was to find a manager if anything like that ever happens again,” one former back-of-house retail employee—or “editor” in the Glossier parlance—tells Fortune. “There was no statement about a no-tolerance policy for racism.”
“It felt unsafe as a person of color there that they weren’t asked to leave,” says a Black former editor who was working that night.
While this encounter was far from the norm, former Glossier retail employees say it wasn’t the first time they’ve been made to feel uncomfortable while doing their jobs, nor was it the first time they felt that management prioritized the needs of customers, including customers behaving inappropriately, over those of its workers. Fortune spoke with 18 former Glossier employees, all of whom worked at the company’s New York City flagship or Los Angeles retail store at various times over the past three years. The former workers asked to remain anonymous, citing nondisclosure agreements they signed upon hiring and future goals to work within the beauty and retail industries.
As with the blackface incident, several of these former editors describe being placed in situations where they had to tolerate anything from microaggressions to aggressively racist behavior. From a mixed-race employee who says customers would often put their fingers in her hair uninvited, to a group of editors who say managers did nothing to address a woman who came to the New York City flagship repeatedly to harass Latinx workers as “illegals,” ex-employees tell Fortune they were often left to fend for themselves, and even when they reported such problems, received little or no guidance from management. The incidents they describe would be disturbing in any context, but the former employees say they were particularly upsetting at a company that describes its mission as “democratizing beauty” and cites “inclusion” as one of its core values.
When protests against racism and police brutality erupted nationwide in June, some retail staffers—all of whom stopped working in March when Glossier’s stores were closed for in-store shopping at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic—began talking to one another about the problems they’d experienced working on the store floor and their frustrations with how the situations had been handled. Employees reached out to Glossier CEO and founder Emily Weiss, who connected with several of them via Zoom or email. Weiss agreed to make some changes, but for some, it was too little, too late. On Thursday, Aug. 13—less than a week after Glossier, with its stores still closed, officially laid off its entire retail staff—a group of more than 50 anonymous now-former employees published a letter airing their grievances and asking for more reforms.
Glossier declined to discuss with Fortune specific incidents in its two permanent retail stores or to provide an executive for an interview. The company did share a statement, and later published a version of that response on its website. “Starting in mid-June, we had conversations with over a dozen retail team members about where Glossier had fallen short when it comes to the retail employee experience,” says the statement. “We moved quickly to investigate their claims with guidance from outside counsel, and on July 10, shared an initial action plan based on their feedback and the findings from the investigation.” The company says it will implement the plan—which includes increasing HR support dedicated to retail employees and “developing policies that hold our customers accountable for conduct in our stores”—before it reopens its retail locations. But with the company’s retail operations at a standstill as it waits out the pandemic, those changes remain on hold.
In an additional statement to Fortune, the company added: “We are grateful to our former colleagues for coming forward to share their lived experiences, and want to apologize and publicly acknowledge the pain and discomfort they experienced.”
Glossier’s employees aren’t the only ones who’ve decided that this is the moment to bring their workplace concerns to the court of public opinion. Even before the police killing of George Floyd and the protests that ripped through the country in its wake, there’s been a bubbling of discontent at companies that claim to be built on values of equality, feminism, and anti-racism, but have, at least in the eyes of some employees, fallen well short of the mark. Over the past five months, the Wing, Everlane, Refinery29, and Pinterest have all been targets of public allegations of discrimination and hypocrisy from past and present employees. (Fortune asked all four companies for comment, but only received responses from Everlane, which, in a statement attributed to the company’s CEO, said, “We now have some urgent work to do to rewrite Everlane’s code of ethics and champion a more inclusive and equitable way forward,” and Pinterest, which said, “Our employees are incredibly important to us and we take all concerns brought to our attention seriously.” The Wing previously told Fortune that “the moment calls for a rethinking of how we meet [employee] needs moving forward and for new leadership that can guide the Wing into the future.” “What’s clear from these experiences is that R29 has to change,” former Refinery29 global editor-in-chief Christene Barberich said when announcing her resignation related to claims at that brand.)
The success of these campaigns—and the tactics employees are using to amplify their voices, including open letters and artfully branded Instagram and Twitter accounts—have been noticed by their peers, including those who worked at Glossier.
The conflict at Glossier also comes at a fraught moment for the retail industry, which has been one of the most buffeted by the pandemic. If there was ever any uncertainty about the difficulty of retail workers’ jobs, it’s been clarified by the COVID crisis: Most either lost their livelihood or worked in scary conditions through the outbreak. And it only takes one YouTube video of a shopper yelling about mask rules to see how these hourly employees are often the ones taking fire on a company’s front lines. In an industry built on the maxim that “the customer is always right,” what happens when a brand that bills itself as being democratic and inclusive attracts shoppers who aren’t?
The former Glossier retail workers who spoke with Fortune described a culture of deference to the customer at the cost of all else. They say that when problems arose in, especially, the New York City store, there was no functional system for addressing those concerns, and that a chasm between the experiences of the retail workforce—about half of which is composed of people of color—and the mostly white retail management and corporate staff caused their complaints to be dismissed. When Glossier joined the list of companies voicing support for Black Lives Matter and promising a $1 million commitment to support causes related to racial justice, including investing in Black-owned beauty brands, employees who felt the company had not done right by its own Black workers were stung—and prompted into action. “We’re not trying to cancel Glossier,” multiple workers repeated. But, added one former editor who asked to be identified by her initials K.O., “If you’re about to be in charge of helping other Black businesses, you need to fix your own house first.”
Weiss, a former blogger once famous for her appearances as the most competent Teen Vogue intern on the MTV series The Hills, built her website Into the Gloss into a powerhouse beauty brand valued at $1.2 billion and backed by some of the biggest names in consumer venture capital. Launched as a direct-to-consumer brand in 2014, the company became known for its dewy, no-makeup look, its mission to “democratize beauty,” and, eventually, its design-forward stores in Los Angeles and New York City.
Speaking at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit in 2018, Weiss told the audience about the brand’s intense customer focus. “We’re just obsessed with customers…We’re obsessed with including her. And we actually cocreated a lot of products with her,” she added, referring to the brand’s target shopper.
The New York flagship, opened in 2018, was envisioned to serve that customer—and to be like no other in beauty retail. Inspired, says Weiss, by the Apple Store, the retail experience is designed for maximum interaction. In-store selfies were encouraged and products displayed for testing—but not available for purchase without assistance from in-store associates or “editors.” All clothed in matching pink work suits, these employees were responsible for corralling the lengthy line of waiting customers that regularly wound down Lafayette Street, and were encouraged to chat with shoppers and help them navigate the unusual store setup in their quests for Boy Brow eyebrow gel or Birthday Balm Dotcom lip gloss. “We fulfill the role of playing your best friend you took to the makeup store with you,” says one former editor, who worked at the flagship between April 2019 and the recent layoffs.
Former employees say there was an expectation that they weren’t simply there to sell products but to provide customers with a “Glossier experience.” While no longer standard for modern retail, this kind of relationship between customer and sales associate is reminiscent of the high-end department stores of the early to mid–20th century, where customers had to interact with salespeople to make purchases, according to Daniel Opler, a labor historian at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, who has studied the 1930s unionization efforts at those stores. “That awkward relationship between salesperson and customer becomes very, very strange,” Opler says. “The customer is supposed to be shown deference even though they, generally speaking, don’t know what they’re doing.”
At Glossier, the dynamic, when it worked, worked well. “It’s a party, you’re the host, and these are your guests,” is how one former editor describes the Glossier retail vision. When the interaction between the customer and her “host” made clear that this wasn’t a party among friends, employees say the high expectations and intimate nature of these situations put them in a particularly exposed position. “If you’re going to do something that is a little experimental, a risk,” says another ex-editor, who asked to go by her initials C.G., “you have to support the people you ask to do that work.”
Two editors who worked at the New York store—one mixed-race and one Black—describe how customers would often grab their hair, touch their skin, and, for one editor, comment on her “tan,” always in some way related to the conversation at hand, about physical appearances and selling makeup. While customers often grabbed editors by the arm or shoulder as they sought their attention, the editors say they never saw white editors experience similar invasions related to their hair and skin.
The former editor who identifies as mixed-race, who worked at the New York store between fall 2018 and summer 2019, says that when she brought the situation to her managers’ attention, she was told that she should feel “empowered to tell people not to touch” her. But when she tried to set boundaries, she says customers sometimes complained that she was rude—and the manager, in those situations, would always apologize on Glossier’s behalf. Sometimes managers themselves, she says, engaged in similar behavior, like touching her hair, which made it more difficult for her to talk to them about customer interactions she found to be invasive. A customer once told this editor that she had the “perfect,” “not too dark” skin tone—and the editor says that when she reported that comment to her manager, the manager agreed that it was “true.”
The Black ex-editor who described her experience with customers, who worked at the flagship between summer 2019 and this month’s layoffs, says customers sometimes rejected the help of Black editors as they sought out white employees. Another Black editor, who describes herself as light-skinned, says New York customers sometimes asked her for assistance after rejecting help from her darker-skinned Black colleagues. She complained about the dynamic to management, but her coworker, she says, ended up admonished by management for failing to satisfy customers.
This sort of customer behavior made it harder for editors—paid, as is relatively standard for New York City and Los Angeles retail associates, starting at $17 an hour—to fulfill Glossier’s vision. Instead, the flagship to them seemed “designed for us to be props in the store, from the jumpsuits to how we’re supposed to look,” as the first editor who described customers touching her says. “The customers forgot I was a person and not a product.”
Glossier employees’ repeated complaint—that management rarely addressed their concerns—materialized in situations outside of customer interactions, too.
A number of the ex-employees who spoke to Fortune say they experienced repeated racial microaggressions from their white retail managers, from a New York manager telling an Asian employee during her first days on the job that she was just like the “girl from Spirited Away,” to a Los Angeles manager who, two employees say, put up a designer handbag for resale and told a Black employee who inquired that she “couldn’t afford it.” When employees complained about these comments—as nearly every Glossier employee Fortune spoke to says they did frequently via end-of-day check-ins and other informal avenues—the behavior, they said, did not change.
In interviews and in their open letter, the former retail employees also raise concerns related to their day-to-day working conditions in the stores. Among their claims: The company failed to provide them with correctly sized jumpsuits, refused to provide a designated changing room during construction at the New York site, and did nothing to address numerous complaints about a New York manager who they say repeatedly confused the names of nonwhite employees.
Glossier declined to respond to any of the specific complaints about managers raised by former employees who talked with Fortune.
The 18 former employees Fortune spoke with estimate that they raised concerns about this hodgepodge of issues with management from three to 30 times each—and as often as daily—throughout their tenure at Glossier; most of these interactions were through informal “shift wrap-up” conversations, rather than documented meetings. Their bosses’ repeated failure, as employees describe, to respond to concerns of nearly any kind set a precedent that became important when bigger problems—like racism in the stores—arose: “If you know your management is not going to be on your side,” says C.G., “how are you supposed to feel able to do your job?”
In her July email to Glossier retail staffers, which Fortune obtained, Weiss acknowledged lapses in addressing employee concerns. “We need to ensure that issues are appropriately escalated and addressed…We need to create better feedback loops between retail and corporate teams,” she wrote. “We need to do a better job holding our customers accountable for any behavior that is in violation of our values.”
In that email, Weiss committed to adding a dedicated on-site human resources staffer at any retail location with more than 100 employees. (Prior to laying off all retail workers in early August, Glossier employed a total of about 150 retail workers, most of whom were in New York.) She also outlined a plan to enable retail employees to share problems directly with headquarters—rather than with their managers, who are also retail employees—specifying that the system would be in place for issues including racist behavior. She said the company would hire new store management and committed to displaying a Customer Code of Conduct in the stores.
The company’s statement reiterated these points and added an acknowledgment of the tension between Glossier’s stated mission and these employees’ experiences: “Changing how the world sees beauty starts with change and accountability within our own organization,” Weiss wrote.
The group behind the open letter, which calls itself Outta the Gloss, a play on the blog Into the Gloss that grew into Glossier, has made it clear that its members do not feel Glossier’s response to their complaints has been sufficient. “If corporate or management doesn’t take these things seriously, it is equivalent to allowing it to happen,” one former Los Angeles editor says of the company’s responsibility.
Among the former employees’ recent demands: a public apology from Glossier and Weiss related to the retail worker experience (the company posted one on its Instagram account on Monday); a no-tolerance policy for customer misconduct in stores; and companywide updates as these changes are acted upon.
With the pandemic still disrupting the retail world—and particularly the kind of high-touch, in-store experience that Glossier and its editors attempted to create—the company and its former employees may remain in a stalemate for the foreseeable future. When and if Glossier reopens its retail locations, there may be an opportunity for the two sides to come closer together—an outcome that at least some of the ex-editors are hopeful about:
“This is the best time to rebuild. You already had to close everything down and rethink so many elements of the business and how retail works,” says the mixed-race editor who described her experience with customers in New York. “This is the perfect time to make sure you’re rebuilding in this way as well.”