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.


The Transgender Style Guide

The Radical Copyeditors produced an excellent "Transgender Style Guide" for writers. It truly does an outstanding job of illustrating appropriate use of terminology as well as excellent recommendations around the use of names and pronouns.

The Style Guide answers questions such as:

  • How do I describe someone who is transgender?
  • What does gender nonconforming mean?
  • What pronoun should I use when describing someone who is transgender?

and also digs into explanations of relationships to body, anatomy, birth sex and more. 

This is an outstanding resource for all of us, writers or not, to better understand how to communicate the diversity of our team members and guests.

A Person Walks into a Store...

A customer walks into your business and your customer service associate offers a warm, "Good afternoon! How can I help you, sir?"

The customer speaks, "I'm here to...." but, in that moment, the associate realizes that the guest is transgender and quickly responds, "I mean, ma'am. I'm sorry! I didn't mean any offense. I'm new here and not used to..." and perhaps goes on and on.

Awkward. For everyone.

The guest may feel like an alien, further embarrassed by the associate's over-apology. The associate may feel like a fool and fear for their job. No one wins and the guest may be reluctant to return to that establishment.

Face it, this is going to happen -- but it doesn't have to be so damn awkward. The associate should take a simple approach and apologize quickly and move on. Over-apologies drag out the drama when both parties would rather discuss something else. You are exposing your brand when your front line team isn't trained or aware of their own unconscious bias.

What is unconscious bias? Well, the associate certainly didn't intend to offend. Most people don't. But it happens because of the way our brains have been programmed by years of stimuli, in this case, placing others in boxes of either "male" or "female". An unconscious bias training will increase your employees awareness of these situations and give them tools to effectively communicate with their guests and team. 

Non-Binary Designations Coming to State IDs

You may have seen the news that non-binary residents of California can now select X as their gender on state identification (instead of simply male or female). California is one of several areas which now allow a third gender designation. Similar laws are in effect in D.C. and Oregon.

D.C.'s law also permits individuals seeking to change their gender marker to make the change without certification from a medical provider or any other individual.

Last year, for the first time in the U.S., a judge in Oregon ruled that the state must recognize a third gender and applications for state identification have been updated to allow for the selection of X. This is notable in that the policy changed via a the court system, rather than the legislature.

Australia and New Zealand have allowed for third gender designations on passport applications since 2011 - so while this is new to a few U.S. states, these policies are changing elsewhere, too. Currently, Denmark, Germany, Malta, Canada, Pakistan. India, Ireland and Nepal also allow third gender options on passport applications.

While Gender X is the most popular third gender option, there are some which use "other" as an alternative.

With more and more people identifying as transgender and non-binary, it makes good business sense to consider a third gender on the forms used within your company. It sends a clear signal of inclusivity to guests and employees and can improve customer service.

Hey Guys

"Hey Guys!"

We've all heard it and most of us probably use it. And while "guys" generally doesn't literally mean "men", it's still important to consider language when greeting groups of people.

The greetings that follow are much more "gendered" than "guys" - and can be risky if one or more of the people in the group is transgender or gender nonconforming. 

  • "Hey Girls!"
  • "What can I get for you ladies?"
  • "How are you doing tonight, gentlemen?"

Imagine a situation where a group approaches a host stand at a restaurant and the host opens with, "Good evening, ladies!" - yet one of the group is a trans man or non-binary. That guest will probably feel quite uncomfortable. In fact, one of our survey respondents shared, "As a trans man, I've been called "ma'am" or included in a greeting of 'ladies' when with my wife, and it makes me want to never return to that establishment. Using gender-neutral terms can be more comfortable for everybody."

What's a more successful approach?

The best approach is to keep language neutral. Here are some better greetings in that same scenario where a group approaches a host stand:

  • "Hi everybody!"
  • "What can I get for you folks?"
  • "How can I help you?"

Language matters, and offending guests - even accidentally - can be a costly mistake. Training employees to make a simple change to use non-gendered language can immediately create an atmosphere where everyone feels welcome - and minimize the risk to your brand.