It may not be perfect, but Starbucks’ response to racial incident is on the right track

Posted on April 30, 2018 4:49 pm by | Crisis Communication

Demonstrators outside Philadelphia Starbucks

While Starbucks has earned considerable praise for how it has handled a recent crisis, it has also been subjected to some criticism and even some outright hate. Most of the ire aimed at Starbucks’ action is misguided and some remains to be seen.

To recap, two black men were waiting for a friend inside a Philadelphia Starbucks. They hadn’t bought anything but asked for the key to the men’s room. The manager declined and called the police, six of whom showed up and promptly arrested the two men for trespassing. As the officers were leading them out of the store, their friend (who was white) arrived and asked what they had done. The incident was captured on cell phone video and went viral, prompting protests.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson has met with the two men (who were not charged) and apologized. The manager, whom other employees accused of being a racist, was fired. And (this is where the objections come in), the company announced it would close 8,000 stores on May 29 in order to conduct training with 175,000 employees.

Before I get into the training objection, let’s address the fact that the two men were not paying customers. A lot of people seem confounded by the whole incident, arguing that the fact that they hadn’t bought a triple shot espresso with a pump of hazelnut meant the manager had every right to toss their loitering asses onto the street.

If this had been a Peet’s or a Philz or some other coffee shop—or a department store, a car dealership, or any other kind of business—they may have a point. Not an enlightened one, but a point. With Starbucks, it’s not so simple. When the company was founded in Seattle in 197x, one of its core principles was that it was a “third place” between home and work. Starbucks stores would be places where people in the community could gather and talk. In fact, having a cup of coffee is literally the last thing co-founder Howard Schultz listed in his description of his vision of the company.

Vague policies didn’t help

Since the Philadelphia incident, I have seen dozens of stories shared by people who have used Starbucks without buying anything. They pop in to use the WiFi (which, because you have to register, Starbucks loves since they now know who you are and how to reach you). They stop in to wait to meet someone. They stop in just for a break between appointments. They even stop in to use the bathroom. And none of them encountered a barista who asked them to leave (no less call the cops).

On the other hand, some people have recounted times they were told they couldn’t stay without buying something. Why the disconnect? Because Starbucks’ policy on visitors who don’t buy something is vague. According to The Wall Street Journal:

Interviews with current and former Starbucks managers and baristas across the country suggest that the coffee company’s guidelines on how to treat lingering nonpaying customers in general are vague at best—if they exist at all. The people interviewed said they were unaware of a written policy on how long customers are allowed to stay in a Starbucks cafe without buying anything.

The people interviewed said training hasn’t taught employees—Starbucks calls them partners—to deal with lingering customers, instead focusing on what to do in the event of a theft or armed robbery. They said their understanding is decisions about whether and when to ask nonpaying customers to leave and whether to bar bathroom access are left to the discretion of individual store managers.

“It’s been a gray area at Starbucks for a long time,” said a Starbucks executive who used to manage stores.

Loitering and trespassing policies aside, most of the vitriol directed a Starbucks is over the closure of its stores for training. Multiple reports have appeared about customers complaining that they will miss their breakfast or morning coffee. (It’s a month away people. Make some alternate fucking plans.) It’s not the first time Starbucks has closed all its stores on the same day for companywide training: They did it in 2008—closing 2,700 stores for three hours—to retrain staff on how to make coffee.

I am not making that up. There were no protests then, but when it comes to training to address racial bias, some people are coming out of the woodwork making some truly reprehensible claims about why this is just wrong.

Why Starbucks’ plans are the right thing to do

Long after Starbucks announced its plans, comedian Michelle Wolf jabbed the company in a joke at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner: “I did have a lot of jokes about Cabinet members,” she said. “But I had to scrap all of those because everyone has been fired. You guys are going through Cabinet members quicker than Starbucks throws out black people.”

Given that 40% of Starbucks’ staff is black or Latino, this is not a reputation the company needs. In fact, according to Business Insider, “Nearly every black and Latino barista we spoke with shared stories of racism they’ve experienced behind the counter.” A lot of that abuse has come from customers, but not all. One barista “said she experienced racism off the job from white Starbucks employees at other locations in the city…‘I’ve been watched and denied the restroom even though I was a partner at the time,’ she said.”

Clearly, the problem is not confined to one partner in Philadelphia. Starbucks was undoubtedly aware of other complaints when it decided companywide action was necessary. It was the Philadelphia incident, however, that led to that received international coverage.

It wasn’t just the media coverage that presumably led Starbucks down the road of nationwide training. Articles have cited customers recounting times they have seen employees giving white customers preferential treatment. We have entered the era of the values-driven marketplace and people are making decisions about what businesses they’ll buy from, invest in, and work for based on those values. Starbucks needed to send a broad message about its values, which is exactly what the companywide shutdown accomplished.

The speed with which the decision was made mattered, as well. As it turned out, Starbucks didn’t lose money after the incident and Johnson told investors on an earnings call that “Our approach to this will pay long-term dividends to Starbucks.”

While not every activist is happy with the company’s response, the protests died down an unlikely outcome had Starbucks simply apologized and moved on. A demonstration that Starbucks was taking this seriously was a requirement to avoid a full-blown crisis. Even with this, at a demonstration just this past Sunday, a Philadelphia city councilman labeled the Starbucks plan “totally unacceptable” because it doesn’t go far enough. Starbucks should communicate its plans beyond the training (or at least announce that they have a team developing a plan and that they will communicate it as soon as it has been finalized).

What few doubt, however, is that Starbucks acted in good faith and takes the situation seriously. Again, that would not likely have been the perception without the drastic shutdown, which is expected to cost Starbucks $16 million.

Ultimately, what Starbucks did was change the story, from the incident to the response. If the story had stayed the same, protests and boycotts would very likely still be the focus of press coverage leading to lost customers and lost revenue.

Starbucks is not planning bullshit diversity training

Among the reasons some critics oppose Starbucks’ plan is a refrain that diversity training is bullshit used by companies only when they need to legally cover their asses and that it doesn’t work.

While there is little doubt that diversity training is frequently used for legal cover, the assertion that it doesn’t work is dicey. Certainly, the rote training companies buy as part of a legal CYA initiative are likely to be ineffective. The Harvard Business Review, however, suggests there are approaches to diversity training that do work. The HBR’s research-based analysis points to “perspective-taking” (the process of mentally walking in someone else’s shoes) and “goal-setting” ( more broadly used to motivate improved aspects of someone’s job performance) as two forms of diversity training that pay off.

However, Starbucks is not planning diversity training for its May 29 closures. The company has been clear that it will conduct “implicit bias training,” otherwise known as “unconscious bias training.” It’s not the same as diversity training. Most diversity training doesn’t work (as the Harvard Business Review Slate. It has only been part of the corporate training mix for about five years. As you might expect, it has delivered mixed results, often based on how it’s conducted. The fact that this kind of training hasn’t been around long means there isn’t much data about its effectiveness. It can backfire if those taking it feel they’ve been singled out for punishment (which could explain Starbucks’ decision to put everybody through the training). And, as one analysis noted, “Employees may be more open to unconscious bias training because it focuses on how bias is universal, rather than singling out a few ‘bad apples.’”

In any case, it’s clear that Starbucks isn’t settling for a canned program from a bored consultant or some off-the-shelf online program. The bespoke training Starbucks has ordered is being crafted with input from (according to a press release) Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative; Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund;  Heather McGhee, president of Demos; former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; and Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. “Starbucks will involve these experts in monitoring and reviewing the effectiveness of the measures we undertake,” the press releases says, also noting that when the training is complete, the company will make it available to other organizations.

Most of the criticism of implicit bias training focuses on its limited efficacy as a one-hit solution. Starbucks has already announced it will become part of the company’s new-hire onboarding process. It remains to be seen, though, what else the company will do to bake the concept into its culture.

What about those unengaged white baristas?

One last thing: Someone I know offered a scenario about a white barista on the other side of the country upset that he has to take this training even though he’s not a racist and won’t be earning tips to pay his college tuition during the shutdown.

Yes, really. Somebody said that, implying that Starbucks could take an engagement hit among some employees. In fact, white employees skeptical of the training told Business Insider they expected to be bored but were otherwise fine with it as long as they were getting paid. (Anyone depending on tips for tuition is in a whole different kind of trouble.) One employee gave this thoughtful response:

“I don’t necessarily believe that the responsibility (of addressing race) should fall on the shoulders of the hourly partners like myself or my fellow baristas,” Josh, who did not wish to share his last name, said. “Several customers have tried to engage with us on the topic which, on top of making for an uncomfortable conversation, usually comes while we are in the middle of trying to do our jobs.”

Yet Josh said he believed guidance could be beneficial for setting guidelines and encouraging Starbucks workers to “assume positive intent” in all customers. A number of baristas also said they were optimistic about the training.

As for those who don’t share Starbucks’ values, they should probably get off the bus anyway (as Jim Collins pointed out in his classic business book, “Built to Last”). At the very least, though, when balancing ongoing demonstrations, likely boycotts, and news coverage still focusing on the incident (and looking for more) against some employees who don’t want to sit through three hours of training for which they’re getting paid, Starbucks’ choice seems pretty clear. If you think the lost engagement from the workforce will outweigh the repercussions of an inadequately-addressed values-based crisis, I’d love to hear your reasoning.

Whether the training itself is worthwhile or the effort prevents (or minimizes) another incident remains to be seen. So far, though, Starbucks is definitely on the right path.

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