Accountability

Sunday Reflection – The Massive Failure of “The Customer is Always Right”

Like many people, I started working as soon as I was old enough to do so legally. Mostly summer jobs, mostly retail. Some were better than others, but overall I learned a lot and enjoyed the benefits of having a paycheck for the first time. But the job that really sticks with me, for all the wrong reasons, was from the summer I worked at the front desk for a hotel on the coast of Maine.

It was my very first experience with customers who felt utterly entitled to do anything they wanted. Sometimes this included yelling at a teenage girl for telling them their room wasn’t ready yet – even though they were trying to check in hours before the time rooms were guaranteed to be available. I had numerous customers, generally older white men, who had zero qualms over making me feel awful. I even remember one man’s look of satisfaction as I turned away, fighting back tears, to call our housekeeping staff and try to get his room ready. He thought he’d won. And he had.

Because it wasn’t just that these men would come in and scream at me. It was that our manager would always, always, always, take their side. We were expected to suck it up and take it, no matter what. She would never take my side, never even ask me if I was ok, or if I needed help. All she cared about was making sure that customer was happy. Nothing else mattered to her.

I’ve had a great deal of job experience since then, but that still stands out as the worst.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, because of some really disturbing things I’m seeing online, with so many essential employees being treated like rubbish. Customers are screaming at them, hitting them, spitting at them, or even just refusing to do the most basic actions to keep them safe.

I was at Target the other day, and chatting with my cashier. I asked her if people were behaving themselves. Her answer? “Well, my line has been pretty good.”

That made me so sad. Is that really the most essential workers can hope for? That the horrible things will only happen close to them, not at them?

There’s a lot of reasons why I think customers are being so horrible right now, including toxic individualism and a total lack of empathy. But I also think that the “customer is always right” attitude that has been cultivated for years, is coming to a critical point right now. It may have been originally intended as a proactive and positive thing, to encourage going above and beyond to make customers happy. But like many good ideas, it’s become corrupted into an excuse for lack of courage or leadership.

Sure, there are those occasional managers who support their staff and kick out a rude or abusive customers. But there are still far too many, often with pressure from corporate, who expect the employees to just take it. Smooth it over. Give the customer something free. Give them an apology when they are the one who is wrong.

This isn’t good business. It’s not good management. It has vast repercussions for employees, and for those customers who are respectful and want to complete their purchase without witnessing a meltdown.

Sure, having an unhappy customer is something to care about. But when that unhappiness crosses the line to abuse, there is zero benefit to supporting that behavior. 

That hotel that I worked at? Was in an incredibly popular location where hotels would be booked months in advance. If my manager had decided not to serve someone, to refund their money and send them on their way, they would have had nowhere to go. The only power they had in that situation was the power the manager handed over to them. Because they were “always right”.

I don’t know what my future career holds, but I do know this. I will always hold respect and compassion important. If I ever have employees again, they will come first. And I will never, ever, believe that the customer is always right.

Can we just bin them all?

Toxic Workplaces and the Role of the Complicit Consumer

Another day, another AAA gaming company revealing a viciously toxic workplace culture. At this point, I would be more surprised if a big game company was revealed to be healthy. 

As a gamer, the last few years of continuous allegations regarding the industry has made me extremely wary of supporting big gaming companies. When I was younger, it was so much easier to be dazzled by the glossy polish of the gaming experience. Amazing graphics, cool storylines, and inventive gameplay made it incredibly enticing to focus on the product over the process. Yet the repeating stories of toxic culture, workplace crunch, and phobia around stories that don’t center straight white cis men are increasingly difficult to overlook. And to be true to myself, and the causes I believe in, I can’t overlook them. Not if I want to maintain any sense of my own integrity.

Yet what truly breaks my heart, as I learn more about systems of oppression and toxic environments, is realizing that these issues have always been present. The marginalized have always been victimized in these corporations. In all industries. In all places. It’s been happening forever. And without the courage of the people speaking up, it would all still stay under the rug. And even with those speaking out, chances of change are slim – if we are to rely on these industries to improve themselves.

"Ugh, these stupid women keep going public. What do we do?"

In a similar vein, NPR recently reported a story on the world’s biggest meatpacking company, JBS, a Brazilian corporation. This company gives a whole new meaning to the word “corruption” from their complicity in the deforestation of the Amazon, to bribery of top officials, to their horrific treatment of workers leading directly to Covid-19 outbreaks in multiple countries. You probably haven’t heard of them. But if you’ve ever eaten meat, you’ve bought from them. We all have. Their brand logo will never appear on what you buy, but they get your money all the same.

I’ve been thinking a lot about both of these news stories this week. I believe deeply that it is possible to create a healthy and balanced workplace culture, yet when the roots of an industry are so deeply toxic, how do you even begin to foster change? Especially when those that have power are guaranteed to do the absolute minimum in “improvements” so they can maintain the status quo?

"I have an idea...ooh, what's that over there!?"
"Bob has resigned, and since everything was clearly his fault, we have no more problems here!"

As aptly noted in this piece by Kellen Browning for the New York Times (a publication that has been having their own issues with accountability at the top levels), the current accusations leveled at gaming giant Ubisoft are simply part of a new cycle of reports. Every year, and often every few months, we see this cycle repeat. Not just in gaming, but in many different industries.

And Ubisoft’s reaction has been utterly predictable. The statement released by their PR firm was a recycled and cliched response that we have seen a million times before. 

“We strive to create and foster a culture that Ubisoft’s employees and partners can be proud of” – ✅ 

“We do not and will not tolerate abuse, harassment or discrimination of any kind.” – ✅ 

“The recent claims and allegations are deeply troubling, and we take them, and the underlying questions they raise, very seriously.” – ✅ 

“We have policies and procedures in place that address misconduct and provide ways in which employees can report any inappropriate behavior.” – ✅ 

“The recent allegations and employee feedback have made it clear that we must do more as a company” – ✅ 

I could have told you what the statement would be without ever reading it. The formula is painfully obvious. It’s also straight up bullshit. The PR firm is working to smooth things over, Ubisoft is rushing out announcements of new games to change the focus of news coverage, a few people are resigning or will be fired, and nothing will actually change. 

As quoted in the Times piece, “‘They just purge the evildoers and think that they’re OK, not realizing that they’re all complicit and that there’s a culture that devalues women,’ said Professor Gray, who studies the gaming industry.”

Honestly, I think Professor Gray gives some of these companies too much credit. I think a lot of them do realize they’re complicit. They just don’t care.

In truth – we’re all complicit too. They don’t become billion dollar organizations alone.

Anyone wanna play?

This is not to say that companies are incapable of change, or that none ever have. There is some cautiously optimistic buzz around a few gaming companies that came under fire in previous years around their workplace culture. But again, so much of this buzz relies on leaders who are claiming to know all their mistakes and how to make lasting change. Will their efforts provide real change, or just a new veneer for the surface? That remains to be seen. 

In the meantime, we can’t afford to wait for every organization to have an internal reckoning. Or we’ll be waiting forever.

So what do we do? 

In truth, there are so many gaps in accountability. We live in a world where Boeing was allowed to do their own safety assessments, OSHA is missing in action in regards to protecting food and farm workers from Covid, and journalism is often impacted by the whims of advertisers and corporate sponsors. We can vote and hope that the political arena will move back towards a structure that holds corporations responsible, but even that usually only catches the most egregious abuses, and both major parties in America still virulently favor businesses over individuals. Supporting unions is important for workers’ rights, but there’s still a ton of pushback in many industries and many roadblocks to overcome.

Similar to the discussions of late about J.K. Rowling and our ability to separate the art from the artist, I think this is where individual accountability and choice comes into play. It is so easy to dismiss our role as individuals in changing culture, yet there is a great power in the choices of multiple people following a common cause.

The truth is, we often avoid these sorts of decisions, because it’s exhausting. It’s horrible to have to think about everything we do in these contexts. And in reality, none of us have time to examine every item that comes into our home for a background of corporate responsibility. 

But I think it’s important to try.

"Ok, so how do we say something along the lines of we're sorry and we screwed up, but without any chance of sounding genuine or like we really intend to change?"

Admittedly, when it comes to large groups of people committing to holding organizations accountable, it can be a long and slow process. Yet it has actually proven effective.

Let’s face it, the owner of the Washington NFL team clearly had no intention of changing the name of his franchise. If he had already been thinking of it, he wouldn’t have been forced to use the idiotic “Washington Football Team” placeholder until something more substantial gets run through focus groups. He didn’t learn, he didn’t become better, he didn’t make a change because he suddenly realized it was the right thing to do. This was a change that happened because the perspective of the public came to a point where it was no longer financially viable to keep the old, racist name.

This is the same reason that more and more companies are using marketing that works to appeal to people from different races, genders, sexual orientations, and gender identities. Sure, some of these companies are probably understanding the benefit of inclusive advertising from a social and moral perspective, but in the end, marketing is always about money. It’s just bad business to ignore a segment of the population who can add to your bottom line.

"I will never change our team name, never!!
"Um, Sir, we're losing advertisers due to public pressure..."
"I am happy to announce our new team name!"

There’s no way to do this perfectly. There’s no way to be the perfect consumer. But there are a lot of ways to be a better consumer. To acknowledge that our wants should not be superior to the safety and well-being of others.

There will always be challenges, finding a balance between what we can afford, and where we can access what we need. There are a number of companies like JBS that hide behind other distributors to stay safely anonymous when it comes to accountability. There will be other companies who cover their tracks well while doing harm.

Yet each step we take in the right direction, each time we pull back from supporting a company that engages in toxic practices, each time we ask for accountability, each time we ask questions about where things are sourced or how workers are treated, each time we support a small local business or farmer, each time we decide not to buy the latest, coolest release that led to multiple breakdowns for employees, we drive a tiny crack into the toxic monolith that is American workplace culture. Add enough cracks, and something gives.

We may lose out on a bit of fun. But frankly, in the end, what could be more fun that crashing the system and beating the bad guys? There’s nothing more video game than that.

The Bad Excuse of Good Intentions

I want to talk about accountability today. Because I think most people agree that taking accountability is a good thing. But I also think a lot of people have some problematic ideas of what taking accountability actually means. I think a lot of people struggle with doing it. I think a lot of people don’t look past their own privilege when it comes to expressing their accountability. And I think a lot of people use a form of false accountability to protect their own feelings above the feelings of others. And when that happens, nothing is solved. The damage and trauma isn’t helped. And nothing truly changes.

I try to follow people on Twitter who speak out about social justice, but I’ve started to notice a trend. There are people who regularly make amazing points to defend a group that they belong to. They excel at calling out others who are engaging in toxic behaviors. But when they themselves misstep, and are called out for it, they immediately fall back to defensiveness. They frequently double down on their mistake, even while they claim to be apologizing. And they often attempt to flip the script, and portray themselves as the victim, rather than acknowledging that they’ve done something wrong.

All of this leads to a constant swirl of accusations and defensiveness, and it is ultimately futile. Disproportionate systems remain that way, and people who attempt to speak out about their own experiences with oppression are left feeling exhausted and hurt.

Like most topics, this is a huge one, and this is just my first crack at it. But let’s talk about some basic and important concepts when it comes to true accountability.

Well, I didn't mean to push you off the ledge!

1) Intent is not as important as you think.

Cards on the table. This one is mostly for us white folks.

White people, I need to let you know something important. Chances are that you think intent is significant when someone’s made a mistake. You give intent a lot of weight. And you speak about intent a lot when you are trying to take accountability.

As an example, just this week we saw a statement by Joe Biden after a Democratic assemblywoman complained about his behavior at a campaign event.

“In many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort. And not once — never — did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention.”

You’ll see this again and again in public apologies, especially from white people. But I have to tell you that when it comes to the various cultural perspectives on accountability, people of color do not care about your intent as much as you do. They care about impact.

They have to. When you are part of a culture that is routinely oppressed, harassed, and even killed for your skin color, why on earth should you give any weight to someone’s intent? You are trying to survive.

And this isn’t only a difference in racial perspectives. You’ll see the intent defense pulled out a lot by members of a dominant group when talking about hurt to a marginalized group. There’s a reason it’s used this way. Deliberate or not, it’s a strategy.

Yes, there are people who do intend to do harm. And yes, it’s better to be someone who has make a mistake rather than wanting to do deliberate damage.

But the key takeaway is that if you’re going to take accountability, stop and think before you use the word intent. Consider whether your feelings are really what need to be centered here. And make sure you talk plenty about impact.

It was a mistake! Why are you being so angry?! *sniffle*

2) No one is calling you a bad person.

Ok, truth be told, if you’re being called out online, there may be some people who call you a bad person, and probably worse. There’s a lot of really unpleasant people online. But this isn’t about them.

So many people have black and white definitions of what makes a person good or bad. Our culture tells us racism is bad, so if I’m called out for doing something racist, then I’m being called bad. It’s an immature and defeatist way of looking at it, and it sidelines us from the real issue.

I’ve mentioned before an amazing training I went to on Undoing Racism. And in that training, I realized that I’m racist.

I’m not racist because of any deliberate actions or choices I make. I don’t ever consciously do anything to target a person of color. I’m racist because I am of European descent and have pale skin within a system that affords me privileges because of it. I’m racist because I get to walk through the world without noticing the micro and macro aggressions that people of color have to face every time they leave their home. I’m racist because, regardless of intention (which doesn’t matter), I am sure I have still hurt people of color with something I have said or done, and I have faced no consequences for it.

Does this make me a bad person? Of course not. I’m still compassionate, kind, empathetic, and outspoken. I still care about social justice and making things better for all people. Admitting that you have done or said something racist, is not admitting you are a bad person. There is absolutely zero reason to get defensive about it.

So if a Black woman comes to me and tells me that I hurt her by something I’ve said and done, she’s not calling me a bad person. She’s not telling me she hates me. And I sure as heck should not respond by making myself the victim.

This is my opportunity to give a genuine apology and to promise to do better. I owe her that much.

Hey, pushes happen!

3) Passive voice is a copout.

Quick grammar lesson, for those of us who haven’t been through English in a while. Active voice is when a subject performs an action, i.e. “I made a mistake.” Passive voice is when a subject receives an action, i.e. “Mistakes were made”.

Now I’m not going to join the debate of the use of passive voice as a general writing technique. I think there are plenty of times it’s appropriate, and plenty of times it’s not.

When it comes to accountability, it’s not. Passive voice, and other grammatical cheats are a common way to pretend to take responsibility, while avoiding true accountability.

Oof, this one gets me mad.

Around the time I had decided to quit my job, payroll informed me that they had made a huge mistake with my pay. Now I like to joke that it was the Universe supporting my decision and telling me it was time to go, but at the time it was extremely stressful. It was due to human error, it had been ongoing, and and not only did they handle the whole thing terribly, the manager did a horrible job at taking accountability.

Honestly, all I wanted to hear was that they were truly sorry, and would do better in the future. I was luckily able to handle the impact to my finances, but I was also aware that there were a lot of employees with low pay and few resources who could have been deeply hurt by the same thing happening to them. I wanted an assurance that they would review their process so it couldn’t happen again. I wanted them to actually take accountability for it.

And in every response I got from the Payroll manager, there was a consistent grammatical tapdance to refuse to take any direct responsibility.

I got multiple examples of “we apologize for the error”. “The error”, as if it was some elusive little sprite that had just popped in of its own accord, rather than actually being due to a specific person’s actions. And when I asked for a review of the process that had caused “the error”, I literally got the response, “It was an error. Errors happen”, from her. Cue passive voice rage.

Errors don’t just “happen”. People make errors. And it’s normal. But people also need to take accountability

Hey. You're right. I'm sorry. What can I do to help?

4) The words are not enough.

So, you examined your part in what happened. You listened. You were able to put aside your intent and worries about being seen as a good person, and focus on impact. You took direct responsibility with a bunch of “I” statements, and expressed true understanding how your words or actions hurt others.

Congrats! You’ve done the bare minimum!

I don’t mean to come across as glib. And again, none of this is easy. But again, those of us who belong to dominant cultures have been relying on words far too much. We want to feel like we’re woke, and contributing to a better world. But like most things in life, we have to look at our actions too. We have to do the work.

This Sunday was the Trans Day of Visibility. And a number of trans people were pointing out that although they appreciated the love and support from others, that it didn’t erase the constant hate and harassment that they are experiencing from bigots, whether that be on the street or in government.

So taking accountability with your words is great. But taking accountability with your actions is better. What politicians and policies are you supporting? What kinds of nonprofit or charities are you contributing to or volunteering with? Whose voices are you elevating? What are you doing to educate yourself about the issues facing marginalized groups? Do you call out your friends and family when they say something racist, sexist, or homophobic?

Taking a hard look at ourselves and using a challenging moment to take true accountability is hard. But like most things in life, it’s worth doing well. And we can all do it better.

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