5 Things Every Organization Can Learn from What Happened at Starbucks

By now, you’ve likely heard the story about two black men who were arrested for trespassing at a Starbucks in Philadelphia while merely waiting for a friend (who arrived at the same time as the police). The whole thing was captured on video and there were nationwide outrage and protests.

There are always lessons to learn from incidents like this, and I’m the person who looks for the silver lining. Let’s break down some of the teachable moments:

1.    The front line matters. John Timmerman, former VP of Operations for Ritz-Carlton, once said, “At the end of the day, our bottom line is in the hands of our front line.” He’s right; the front line is where the rubber meets the road. Starbucks was reminded of this the hard way. Their front line employees did not receive unconscious bias training; a manager made a critical mistake, and their bottom line will be affected to the tune of at least $8 million. How does your organization show your front line that they are valuable?

2.    Diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts often don’t trickle down. Starbucks is widely recognized as a great place for partners to work. The company has a comprehensive anti-discrimination policy, a highly diverse workforce, a 100% score on the Corporate Equality Index, and a bunch of Employee Resource Groups. The company should be applauded, however, there was a huge gap in that the corporate D&I initiatives (including D&I training for senior leaders) don’t trickle down to the local stores. What is your organization doing to ensure that your D&I initiatives reach all levels of the organization?

3.    Unconscious bias is alive and well. Most people don’t intend to offend; we do by accident. In fact, many scientists tell us our primal brains automatically label people, things, and situations as a way to organize and recall information quickly and instinctively. The same part of our brain that labels knives as sharp also labels people. That’s the heart of unconscious bias (aka implicit bias). We all do it – but who wants to be labeled (and therefore stereotyped)? Not me.

The problem is that sometimes our unconscious slips out because we haven’t taken the time to pause, think through a situation, and respond rationally. That’s what happened at Starbucks. That’s also what happened at IHOP and Old Navy and countless other organizations. What is your organization doing to ensure your team members understand the repercussions of unconscious bias?

4.    Training is typically reactive, not proactive. Just 5 days after the incident, Starbucks announced that all 8000 corporate stores in the U.S. will close the afternoon of May 29 for mandatory racial bias training. The training is in reaction to this incident. But the issue could have been prevented if Starbucks was proactive, if new hire orientation included comprehensive inclusion-nudge based anti-bias training (and not just racial bias). 

All industries can learn from this, and while the standards and requirements for anti-harassment training vary state by state, a proactive approach helps an organization become defensible from future liability. What is your organization doing to proactively train team members at all levels?

5.    Recovery matters. Although Starbucks’ initial apology was widely panned as weak, their CEO later made two subsequent apologies and personally traveled to Philadelphia and met with the gentlemen who were arrested. Then, of course, they announced the May 29 training, a significant investment in recovery. Not surprisingly, their quick recovery has caused their stock to remain relatively stable since the incident. All of the stores I’ve walked by in the days since are as busy as ever. Does your organization have a plan to manage public relations in the event of a bias-related incident?

The lessons here all come down to being proactive. While we can’t plan for every situation, organizations can use this incident as motivation to establish a comprehensive D&I strategy that reaches all levels of the organization, including the front line and the shop floor.