Organizational Culture

H&M Shows Us the Absolute Value of Diversity in the Workplace

Oversights can be incredibly costly. Just ask H&M, the Swedish clothing retailer who recently made headlines over controversial marketing that many have called racist. While it certainly appears that H&M didn’t intend to cause controversy with their ad, it’s undeniable their choice of models was an oversight that could have, and certainly should have, been avoided.

Among the critics of the fashion retailer were NBA superstar LeBron James, along with celebrities in the music industry like G-Eazy and The Weeknd. These celebrities, who are incredibly popular with teenagers and young adults turned to social media to blast H&M, a company that relies on teenagers and young adults for revenue.

The company’s stock took an immediate hit following the ad, which hit the web on January 9th:

That’s because although the image was deleted quickly, it sparked outrage, and naturally, discussion on social media. A twitter user named @alanajoy asked the question that is seemingly at the heart of the issue:

Consider the incredibly valid point this twitter user points out: this photograph did get approved by a handful of people, and yet no one raised the point that a lot of people could find this photograph offensive. One musician, Questlove, took to Instagram to express his feelings over the insensitive image, saying “I’m sure the apologies are a coming. And the ads will be pulled. I’m certain there will be media fixers and whatnot… all this tells me about @HM is that the seats in the boardroom lack something… wanna take a guess?”

Edward Adoo, a writer for The Independent wrote this powerful thought:

“But then perhaps they don’t want to explain, as that would involve questioning the diversity of their own organization and admitting that black decision-makers are clearly lacking in their advertising team and on their board. A glance at their all-white board of directors tells you everything you need to know.”

Think about the very real, measurable cost that ignoring diversity in the workplace had on H&M: they lost millions in share prices, along with two high-profile celebrity collaborations that would have certainly driven sales in this retail-friendly economy. While competitors of H&M, GAP, ASOS, and Urban Outfitters, are seeing revenue increases, H&M has lost significant ground in the friendliest market there’s been in years.

The truth is, often business is about putting out fires, and avoiding them altogether. Imagine just one employee with the right sensitivity training or insight who could have pointed out what so many found obvious.

It seems the effects of this poor ad choice aren’t lost on H&M altogether. In a humbling press release H&M did get a few things right, “We agree with all the criticism that this has generated – we have got this wrong and we agree that, even if unintentional, passive or casual racism needs to be eradicated wherever it exists… as a global brand, we have a responsibility to be aware of and attuned to all racial and cultural sensitivities – and we have not lived up to this responsibility this time… We will now be doing everything we possibly can to prevent this from happening again in future.”

H&M gives us a vivid, real example of the true value of not only impactful sensitivity training, but also of valuing diversity in the workplace. We hope, for their sake, that their plans include a true emphasis on diversity, coupled with more effective employee training.

Training & Development Industry Researcher | Derek researches, discusses, and writes about the impacts of employee learning on organizations and individuals. He regularly interviews L&D and HR professionals, sharing their insight on trends and best practices that help organizations create stronger training programs, and help to grow their employees and their business.