February 22, 2021
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Atercin Liffey Unlimited trading as Starbucks Tallaght (“Starbucks”) were found to have breached the Equal Status Act and ordered to pay €12,000 to an Irish customer with Thai heritage after image of ‘slanty’ eyes was drawn on her coffee cup.
The Workplace Relations Commission (the “WRC”) Adjudication Officer, Mr. Kevin Baneham ordered Starbucks to pay Ms. Suchavadee Foley €12,000 after finding that she was racially harassed under the Equal Status Act 2000-2018 (the “Act”) when attending the Starbucks premises in January 2020. The Act prohibits discrimination in the provision of goods and services and covers nine grounds: gender, marital status, family status, age, disability, sexual orientation, race, religion and membership of the Traveller community.
Ms Foley, while making her coffee order, began to spell out her name which was routine in this outlet and was interrupted by the employee, who instead improvised and drew a physical representation of Ms Foley. The physical representation was an image of a smile and “slanty” eyes as a way of marking it as Ms. Foley’s cup. Mr Baneham stated that Ms. Foley “has Thai-Irish heritage and it is clear that the visual depiction relates to her race” which had a “degrading and humiliating effect” on Ms. Foley.
Starbucks were held vicariously liable as they did not take reasonably practicable steps to prevent the act of harassment. At the hearing Starbucks denied that what occurred was a racist incident.
In Ms. Foley’s evidence, she said she was “shocked and nervous” after the Starbucks employee showed her the cup with the “slanty” eyes as a way of identifying her. She told the WRC hearing that she was too uncomfortable to collect the cup and asked her boyfriend to collect it from the counter. Her boyfriend spoke to the supervisor regarding the incident, who apologised to Ms. Foley and offered vouchers, but Ms. Foley refused to take them.
Ms Foley told the WRC hearing that she felt offended as this incident demeaned her. She stated that she had been racially abused and this was in no way a friendly event. Ms Foley said that she wanted her name to be marked on the cup like everyone else and not a depiction of eyes.
The Brazilian Starbucks employee, who was only a month in the job at that time, explained at the WRC hearing that she drew a smiley face image as she thought Ms Foley was “glamorous”. She initially did not understand what had caused offence. The employee told the hearing that she would usually only draw on cups if it was for a child or for saying “happy birthday”. The employee expressed that she was sorry at the hearing and she was not aware that Ms. Foley would not like the drawing.
Mr Baneham expressed that the employee “apologised to the complainant and did not intend to humiliate her or make her feel uncomfortable…I fully accept that this was a mistake on her part and one that she regrets. I accept, therefore, that it was not the employee’s intention to harass the complainant.”
Following the decision Starbucks released a statement “We are deeply sorry that this incident took place and we have no tolerance for discrimination of any kind at Starbucks.” “We accept the adjudicator’s conclusion that our partner did not intend to harass this customer and we have retrained the team at this store to ensure this does not take place again.”
Key learnings for employers based on this case
An equal status and diversity policy should clearly establish the commitment of the organisation to equality for employees and its customers from across the nine grounds. The policy should also set out the steps to be taken to achieve equality objectives in relation to customers and employees and should create a context for staff to effectively deploy new skills, knowledge and understanding in promoting equality, combating discrimination and taking account of diversity.
About the author: Emer Murphy, Solicitor on the Employment Team
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