A year after deadly shooting, Molson Coors has set a course for more inclusive culture — but cultivating real change will take time
March 3, 2021 | By Sophie Carson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
After an electrician at Molson Coors shot and killed five of his coworkers and himself last February, several employees at Milwaukee’s iconic brewery spoke up.
They told news outlets about racism they’d experienced on the job, and supervisors who didn’t seem to take meaningful action against it.
The Milwaukee Police Department said its investigation found racism likely was not the main motive of the gunman Anthony Ferrill, who was Black. He had been exhibiting paranoia and erratic behavior for about three years before the shooting.
But as reports of a racist workplace climate surfaced — including that a noose was placed on or in Ferrill’s locker five years prior — Molson Coors leadership acknowledged they had “more work to do.”
“We aren’t going to shy away from our responsibility to take a deep look at our own culture following this event,” Adam Collins, chief communications and corporate affairs officer, said shortly after the Feb. 26 shooting.
That Wednesday afternoon, close to shift-change, Ferrill shot and killed Dale Hudson, 60, of Waukesha; Gennady “Gene” Levshetz, 61, of Mequon; Dana Walk, 57, of Delafield; Trevor Wetselaar, 33, of Milwaukee and Jesus “Jesse” Valle Jr., also 33 and from Milwaukee.
On Friday, the one-year anniversary, brewery workers planned to hold a moment of silence at the start of each shift to remember the victims of the tragedy that shook Milwaukee.
In the 12 months since the shooting, Molson Coors says it has hired a consulting firm to review its policies, pledged to hire more people of color and given employees more opportunities to share criticism and feedback — work executives say they know must continue.
But efforts to speak to current employees about their experience were unsuccessful.
An expert in workplace discrimination and diversity said lasting change requires a hard look at a company’s values and sustained effort from supervisors up and down the chain of command on every part of an employee’s experience: from hiring and promotions to the way their complaints are handled.
Repeated, daily acts of racism at work — like those some employees described last year — can wear people down, said Jerlando Jackson, director and chief research scientist at Wisconsin’s Equity & Inclusion Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In workplaces where employees of color see that harassment is not handled well by supervisors, they might not speak up about their experiences, Jackson said.
Workers who face discrimination need support, assurance change will occur
The issue is two-fold, he said: most workers face both organizational and internal barriers to success. So even if companies work to address some of the structural hurdles, employees might be struggling silently if they aren’t given a chance to be heard.
Each person carries their burden differently. Many people in hostile work environments eventually quit or are fired, he said. “Usually there’s no good end to it, for those people,” Jackson said. “Individuals leave opportunities they spent their whole lives trying to get.”
To create a workplace where people feel comfortable, company leaders must set the standard for behavior, Jackson said.
CEOs and other top executives might not be able to prevent discrimination from happening on, say, the brewery floor, Jackson said, but “you can surely make it known that it’s not welcome.”
Senior leadership needs to put up “strong guardrails” that define what is unacceptable, and, crucially, they must take action when they hear about it, he said.
Those who reported racism at Molson Coors last year said they didn’t feel like any meaningful change happened when they did raise concerns with higher-ups.
One former employee, a practicing Muslim, told the Washington Post after the shooting that he endured taunts for years about his name and his religion. Some coworkers joked that he would plant a bomb in the building.
He didn’t report the harassment because he said some of it had taken place in front of supervisors, and nothing was done. Overcome with stress and anxiety, the man quit after four years, he told the Washington Post.
Molson Coors confirmed last year that a noose had been placed on or in Ferrill’s locker, prompting a company investigation. But no camera footage was available to show who put the noose there, on a day when Ferrill was not working.
A coworker also told police that Ferrill had been called the n-word and a “dumb ape or monkey” by another electrician several years earlier, prompting him to file a complaint with human resources. Ferrill’s report could not be proven and the company closed the complaint, said the coworker, who was not identified in a police report.
The coworker, who considered Ferrill a friend, also said the racism Ferrill experienced on the job was “likely always in the forefront of (his) mind,” but he didn’t think it was Ferrill’s motivation for the shooting, according to the police report.
That coworker had himself reported a racial slur to human resources in the past, he told police. HR’s solution was to keep the two employees apart, and the complaint was closed, he said.
He also said that 18 months before the shooting, several employees of color banded together and went to human resources, citing racial remarks or harassment and “nothing really came of that,” he said.
For its part, the state’s Equal Rights Division said no complaints from Molson Coors employees were filed within the last year. It also said last year that Ferrill had never filed a complaint with the brewery.
Citing federal privacy laws, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year told the Journal Sentinel it could neither confirm nor deny the existence of employment discrimination charges. But Molson Coors last year said there were no active race-based discrimination or harassment complaints with the EEOC.
Molson Coors says it is working to reform its culture and address the discrimination issues.
Leaders must listen to workers, look at core values, expert says
“We’ve started doing, frankly, a lot of listening to our own employees,” Collins told the Journal Sentinel this month.
The company has held focus groups and employee town halls on diversity and inclusion, and staff are sent quarterly surveys about the efforts.
Jackson said listening is a key first step. It’s important for leaders to hear and understand the experiences of those who have faced discrimination at the company.
But an organization also must look at its core values, Jackson said. What a company values will drive its decision-making going forward.
If the organization doesn’t truly value creating an inclusive workplace, “the values will limit possibility, and that’s where we stall, mostly, in our society,” he said.
Collins, from Molson Coors, said the company is committed to diversity and inclusion for the long run.
“What counts at the end of the day is that people wake up and come into work feeling good that they can bring their whole self to work, that they’re not just welcomed but they’re included as part of our culture and part of our workplace,” he said.
Molson Coors’ value of putting people first “can’t just be words on a poster in a hallway,” Collins said. The company has instituted training programs and has created leadership development and internship programs for people of color, among other initiatives, a spokesman said.
After the shooting, Molson Coors hired a consulting firm, Korn Ferry, to conduct a review of its policies and practices. Collins said the company has already implemented some of the recommendations, such as giving all employees diversity and inclusion education and placing a greater emphasis on the skills needed to be inclusive leaders.
Molson Coors’ executives, Collins said, are working to make sure “people know that they can raise any questions or concerns, that they’ll be investigated, they’ll be acted upon.”
Within the last year, Molson Coors also pledged to increase the number of people of color in salaried roles by 25% by the end of 2023.
The company has also touted its goal to spend $1 billion with diverse suppliers over the next three years.
If the supplier goal is achieved, it could be “huge,” Jackson said.
Businesses owned by women and people of color often don’t get opportunities to be part of supply chains of major companies like Molson Coors, he said.
Collins said he is confident the work underway now will continue.
“It’s a commitment that we’ve made. I believe that people will hold us accountable for following through on that,” he said.