VANCOUVER -- Popular Vancouver-based clothing chain Aritzia has launched an investigation after a former store manager publicly called out the company for how she says she was treated as an employee.

Karissa Lewis, 27, who is Black, worked at Artizia’s Yorkdale location in the Toronto area for five months.

She told CTV News she joined the company as an associate manager, and had plenty of managerial experience, but wasn’t given an adequate opportunity to prove herself.

“I was…given only cashier shifts, which kind of didn’t make much sense,” Lewis recalled. “Managers should have management shifts.”

Lewis, who quit Aritzia in February, said she also remembered being asked to vacuum the store twice, a task she didn’t see other managers perform.

Lewis said she raised her concerns with the manager that had been training her: “She was kind of giving me the run around and saying, ‘Oh this is normal.' ” Lewis said.

While Lewis said she didn’t experience any overt discrimination by her colleagues, as the only Black manager on the team, she felt left out of some work meetings and social invitations by her co-workers.

She also said she wasn’t brought into a conversation that ended in a Black worker at her store being fired, until after the fact.

“Things don’t have to be overtly said in order for it to be considered racism,” Lewis explained, and added that she hesitated to bring up ongoing concerns because she was worried over what it might mean for her future with the company.

Lewis eventually left Aritzia, and moved on to a new job.

Then, on May 31, after the company posted on Instagram in response to the anti-racism rallies filling the streets of American cities, she decided to raise her concerns publicly.

Aritzia’s post read in part: “We’re using our platform as a call to action – to speak up, to listen, to live our neighbours, to learn from our neighbours, to think critically, to come together and do what’s right.”

The company also announced it was donating $100,000 to Black Lives Matter and the NAACP in honour of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man killed while in the custody of four police officers.

Lewis spoke out on Twitter, writing in part, “Aritzia, your statement is all for show. You have people on your team who are faced by racism daily and have no one to turn to.”

In a written statement Tuesday, Aritzia’s president and COO Jennifer Wong told CTV News:

“We were deeply disappointed when we learned of the comments Karissa made about working at Aritzia, which we became aware of when she posted public statements. We have spoken to her, launched a full investigation, and will take proper actions, if needed. While we disagree with many of her underlying facts, her experience touches on matters that are deeply important to who we are. We are focused on listening, learning, and taking action, recognizing we ourselves must lead and inspire change.”

Wong added that the company is investing $1 million to expand and strengthen its Diversity and Inclusion programs as part of “real and significant” action to create “positive change.”

In response to Lewis’ concerns over her cashier shifts, lack of manager shifts, and that she was asked to vacuum the store, an Aritzia spokesperson added:

“Regardless of title or the task, we are all expected to do whatever needs to get done. No employee is seen to be too senior, and no task too small or unimportant.”

And with respect to the Black employee that was fired, when Lewis wasn’t part of the decision-making process, the spokesperson said Lewis was not the worker’s supervisor or manager and it "would not have been appropriate for her to have been consulted.”

The company also provided copies of its employee handbook, which includes an anti-retaliation policy, and a code of conduct, which indicates any discrimination or harassment, including based on colour, ethnic origin, or race, is “strictly prohibited.”

June Francis, a professor at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business, told CTV News people who have a had similar experiences as Lewis have been individually raising these types of complaints to companies and organizations for years, often without adequate responses, and that the anti-racism movement has finally created an opportunity.

“People have recognized in a moment now that maybe there’s a space where we can move from talk to action,” Francis, who is also the Hogan’s Alley Society co-chair, added.

Francis called this a “serious moment of reckoning” during which companies need to move beyond statements, and make meaningful changes internally.

“Audit yourself,” Francis said. “Stop speaking. Listen. Step out of the centre. Stop capitalizing. Make real change.”

Lewis suggested companies have someone who is well-versed in race relations and someone “who understands what the black experience is like" on staff.

Beyond Lewis’s case, Aritzia told CTV News it’s taking a number of other immediate actions, which include:

  • Conducting a comprehensive review of our policies and practices across the entire company
  • Introducing mandatory Diversity & Inclusion training which includes instruction on micro-inequalities, unconscious biases and stereotypes
  • Extending Respectful Workplace training and Harassment training to all employees
  • Launching a Diversity and Inclusion Survey by the end of this month that will give our employees the opportunity to provide their thoughts and anonymous feedback to help us gain a deeper understanding of what’s happening and how our employees are feeling across the business
  • Establishing an advisory group of voices across all levels, workplaces and geographies to provide first hand perspectives and advice
  • Hiring dedicated Diversity and Inclusion experts

Lewis, who said she has had dozens of current and former Aritizia employees reach out to her with their own stories, said speaking out about her experience with the company “became way bigger than [she] could have imagined.”

She hopes that her story may bring changes so that Aritzia workers who follow in her footsteps won’t react the way some of her co-workers did, and will feel more comfortable raising their concerns.

“They’d be like, ‘oh you’re a manager?’ “ Lewis recalled. “They’d kind of look at me like I had three heads. ‘Oh why are you back behind the cash desk?' ”