Starbucks’ Philadelphia Story

By: | May 10, 2018 • 4 min read
David Shadovitz is editor of HRE. He can be reached at [email protected]

It isn’t a huge surprise that Starbucks occupied the No. 2 spot on HRE’s 2017 Most Admired Companies for HR ranking (published in December 2017), which recalibrates Fortune’s Most Admired list using four criteria that have a bearing on human resources. (Starbucks has made the list nine out of the 13 times that it’s been published.)

Starbucks, which now employs about 330,000 workers globally, has long been known as an HR innovator. Probably the best example of this is the company’s College Achievement Plan, which offers all eligible U.S. partners (i.e., employees) full tuition reimbursement for an undergraduate degree from Arizona State University online.

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During the past few weeks, however, “admired” probably wouldn’t be the first adjective to come to mind when describing the coffeehouse chain.

As most of you have already heard or read, an incident occurred on April 12 at one of Starbucks’ Philadelphia coffee shops, where a manager called the police and had two African-American men arrested and handcuffed when they refused to leave the store after requesting to use the restroom without purchasing anything. The two were waiting for a business colleague to arrive. After a cellphone video of the arrest went viral, protesters gathered at the store repeatedly to express their outrage.

There seems to be little question that the events that took place in the City of Brotherly Love were the result of unconscious bias, an issue that can reside in pretty much every aspect of talent management and can often take a huge toll on a business’ diversity efforts—and, in turn, its success. (Just last month, HRE published a story on the damage unconscious bias can do to the efficacy of hiring processes—especially in the technology sector—and some of the steps HR leaders can take to address it.)

There’s also no denying that the Philadelphia incident has left a huge stain on Starbucks’ reputation.

But I also would imagine that the company’s swift and comprehensive response to the crisis probably will go a long way to limiting any long-term damage.

Following the incident, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson quickly apologized for what happened, traveling to Philadelphia to visit the store and meet with the two men in person. Starbucks also announced that it would be closing its more than 8,000 company-owned stores in the U.S. on the afternoon of May 29 to conduct racial-bias education geared toward preventing discrimination in its stores. Roughly 175,000 employees across the nation will participate in the training, which will also become part of the company’s onboarding process.

Further, the company said it would make its training curriculum—which is being put together by an all-star team of experts, including 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—available to other employers.

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To be sure, Starbucks deserves credit for taking this incident as seriously as it did, and responding in such a quick and thorough fashion. It’s in stark contrast to the way Facebook handled its recent data breach. But that said, the key question here is: Will the unconscious-bias training ultimately make a difference? Well, like so many things, the answer depends on whom you ask. Some say the answer is “no,” even suggesting it can be counterproductive. Others, meanwhile, say when it’s done right, it can be quite effective.

There’s one point, however, most experts do seem to agree on: Unconscious-bias training, alone, isn’t enough. Policies matter, too. As Paradigm CEO Joelle Emerson argues in a recent New York Times story, limiting employees’ discretion can be an even more effective way of reducing bias than trying to alter their thinking.

So, at the end of the day, I personally hope Starbucks’ efforts do, indeed, make a difference. No one should go through what those two men experienced—or, for that matter, have to witness it. In the meantime, though, it wouldn’t hurt for us all to view this as a timely opportunity to ask ourselves the question: Is there more we, as an organization, can be doing to address this vexing problem?

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