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What the Sephora cookie tells us about the productivity-pay gap

After the beauty retailer reached $10 billion in revenue this month, employees were gifted a ‘stale’ biscuit as thanks. 

Sephora – one of the leading beauty retailers in the world – made headlines last week after it amassed a staggering $10 billion in revenue. But the attention wasn’t for reasons it might have hoped; focus turned to the company’s employee gift, a single ‘stale’ cookie celebrating its latest margins.

The treat and its thank-you note – which demanded confidentiality – didn’t go down well with Sephora employees, either.

According to Business Insider, a slew of Sephora workers came forward to share their less than favourable opinions on the gift.

‘They are always coaching us to meet our goals and expectations, and, of course, everyone goes above and beyond for the company and all they give us is a stale cookie and a letter thanking us,’ said one employee who has, incidentally, now left the company.

The original post calling out Sephora appeared on Reddit last week, when a worker shared a photo of a box of cookies beneath the title ‘What a Joke.’

‘20 cookies for an entire team. The audacity of this company’ the user wrote in the description.

The photo shows a note included by Sephora, listing the company’s big financial wins of 2023, and encouraging workers to enjoy the cookies as a thank-you ‘for making it our greatest year ever’.

Unsurprisingly, Sephora’s actions have sparked outrage across the internet, as conversation spilled out onto X.

‘Damn not even a pizza party? ONE cookie?’ said an X user.

While the incident has sparked memes, and even cookie taste-test reviews from some employees, others have said the ‘gift’ made them feel like ‘dirt on the bottom of their shoes’.

It’s no surprise that Sephora has enjoyed huge economic growth this year, as the brand has been trending across TikTok. Gen-Z have played a huge part in this success, with high-end skincare and makeup brands trending amongst younger audiences.

But the disparity between the company’s financial gain and their employee rewards highlights the seemingly unstoppable growth of the productivity-pay gap.

Despite increased hours, higher performance, and overall economic growth for major companies, workers’ wages and rewards are not growing by comparison.

Sephora’s cookie serves as a microcosm of this issue, highlighting the start difference between corporation prosperity and the struggles faced by their low-paid employees – especially during a cost-of-living crisis.

Given employee backlash against Sephora, it’s clear the gesture not only failed to convey genuine appreciation but also underscored the disconnect between the company’s leadership and its workforce.

It’s not merely the value of the ‘gift’ itself, but rather the symbolic representation of the company’s priorities.

It’s unclear whether employees were offered additional compensation for their work beyond the cookie, but regardless, a corporation that reaps such substantial profits – and acknowledges their employees’ central role in this achievement – should express a depth of gratitude to its workforce.

The productivity-pay gap has been a pervasive issue in the modern workplace. In fact, according to the Economic Policy Institute, it’s been on the rise since the 1970s. Nowadays, conversations around fair wages and workers’ rights are gaining more momentum, and Sephora’s cookie incident only highlights the disproportionate distribution of wealth within companies.

If anything, this is a cautionary tale. If equitable and substantial rewards are not provided for employees, there’s nothing stopping them from halting company success. Afterall, the workers who were served stale cookies were the backbone of Sephora’s $10 billion milestone.

Businesses need to be mindful of the potential repercussions of seemingly trivial decisions. Without recognising that success is impossible without collective effort, fair compensation and meaningful recognition aren’t possible.

The productivity-pay gap is not merely an isolated issue but a symptom of a larger problem within corporate structures. Employees are not just cogs in a profit-driven machine; they are individuals with needs, aspirations, and a right to fair treatment.