Lessons from a ‘Reprehensible’ Incident

Starbucks is trying to contain the fallout from a viral incident of discrimination.
By: | April 17, 2018 • 4 min read

As Starbucks looks to move forward after a video went viral showing two black men being arrested last Thursday for trespassing (the pair were later released without charges), the coffee retailer said Tuesday it would close more than 8,000 of its stores in the United States on May 29 to conduct racial-bias training for nearly 175,000 employees.

“I’ve spent the last few days in Philadelphia with my leadership team listening to the community, learning what we did wrong and the steps we need to take to fix it,” Kevin R. Johnson, the company’s chief executive, said in a statement announcing the training.

Before the announcement of the May 29 training was made, Johnson had publicly apologized for the incident, which he called “reprehensible,”and laid out the company’s next steps:

We have immediately begun a thorough investigation of our practices. In addition to our own review, we will work with outside experts and community leaders to understand and adopt best practices. The video shot by customers is very hard to watch and the actions in it are not representative of our Starbucks Mission and Values. Creating an environment that is both safe and welcoming for everyone is paramount for every store. Regretfully, our practices and training led to a bad outcome—the basis for the call to the Philadelphia police department was wrong. Our store manager never intended for these men to be arrested and this should never have escalated as it did.

Johnson said the company also will “further train our partners to better know when police assistance is warranted.”

Earlier Tuesday, Johnson reportedly met with the two men in person, according to news reports, where he “apologized for the way they were treated, according to a company spokesperson who declined to disclose details of the meeting,” reports CNNMoney.

So, in this era when “teachable moments” seem to be happening all the time, what can HR leaders do to ensure their company isn’t the next one to stumble into a situation like the one Starbucks is facing?

According to Rutgers employment law professor Stacy Hawkins, who spoke with Philadelphia magazine, the most important lesson for employers to be aware of is that by giving employees subjective discretion, they are providing opportunities for individuals to act on their implicit biases.

Employers, therefore, should provide employees with clear guidance, she said.

“Sometimes, however, discretion is necessary,” Hawkins said. “In these circumstances, it is important for employers to give their employees the training necessary to exercise this discretion in a manner that prevents discrimination.”

Meanwhile, Brian Yarbrough, an equity analyst with Edward Jones, told the New York Times the company might feel less of an impact on sales because Johnson is taking direct steps to address the episode, including expressing publicly that it was committed to investigating and conducting training.

But, he added, “they need to make swift decisions.”

Judging from the company’s actions so far, that’s apparently a lesson Starbucks has already learned.

Web Editor Michael J. O’Brien has been with HRE for more than a decade and holds a degree in economics from Boston College. He can be reached at [email protected]

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