Last week, two black men found themselves arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks while waiting for a real estate developer to discuss business. The resulting uproar resulted in some terrible crisis management and then finally an apology from the CEO and plans to close 8,000 stores for racial-bias training.
Yesterday, news of yet another video that seemed to show racial bias toward customers surfaced. The supposed solution of training has just become infinitely harder. Starbucks faces the reality of every U.S. business that societal culture always comes before the corporate kind. The deep problems the country has with racism can and will upend the best of intentions.
Here's the video in which Brandon Ward waits for a white customer to leave the bathroom. He asks the man whether he was able to get the code for the bathroom door before purchasing anything. The man says he was and Ward then confronts Starbucks staff, because he apparently has just been refused a similar courtesy.
Initial corporate stumbles aside, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson won some praise in the area of emotional intelligence after the Philadelphia incident. He held a true face-to-face apology to the two men, followed by meeting with government and community leaders to help devise how to move forward.
The path out of the woods was supposed to be a training session on May 29, according to a company press release. The release quoted Johnson having said, "While this is not limited to Starbucks, we're committed to being a part of the solution. Closing our stores for racial bias training is just one step in a journey that requires dedication from every level of our company and partnerships in our local communities."
One step, indeed. Many people were willing to blame the one store manager and not the entire chain. With the appearance of this newer video, the forgiveness may fade.
And the remaining path after that one step will be rocky. In 2015, Starbucks wanted to "stimulate conversation, empathy and compassion toward one another" through its "Race Together" campaign.
The result was significant criticism over the attempt, largely focused on "how it would look for a white billionaire to front a national dialogue on race," as Fast Company reported.
To put it differently, the initial efforts came from a point of arrogance -- the assumption that Starbucks had the standing to lead a discussion and the wisdom and authority to instruct others.
That went badly and was an example itself of subtle systemic racism, as the rich white people assumed they were in a position to instruct others. The presumption manifested as a type of training of consumers, which turned the business-customer relationship upside down. You train other people when they are under your authority.
The failure was double in nature. Little wonder why that effort went so far wrong. This new one could as well. It depends on how Starbucks upper management proceeds. Right now, here's how the company presents its May 29 plans.
The curriculum will be developed with guidance from several national and local experts confronting racial bias, 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. Starbucks will involve these experts in monitoring and reviewing the effectiveness of the measures we undertake.
It does touch on some important aspects of training: get authorities who understand the subject, work with them to develop a curriculum, and monitor and review the results. No training is perfect, even if the intent is to teach people how to make a cup of coffee and follow-up will be necessary. When talking of cultural and social attitudes, the difficulty is multiplied many fold.
However, it sounds as though the focus is on the store staff. No problem like this exists only where low-level employees meet customers. It likely exists all the way up the hierarchy of Starbucks -- or any other organization. That is part of life's reality.
As the company statement noted, "Earlier this week, Starbucks began a review of its training and practices to make important reforms where necessary to ensure our stores always represent our Mission and Values, by providing a safe and inclusive environment for our customers and partners." Executives are apparently above the need for training.
Bad actions can come sometimes from the ignorance, poor attitudes, or character flaws of single employees. More frequently, subtle attitudes pervade an organization from the top down. It could be a CEO, a vice president, regional manager, or someone else in authority who sets an example. Who reacts to someone's color or religion or accent or body shape or dress or some other focus of unconscious prejudice. I remember once working at a company where the COO and VP of sales mocked the engineering and developer customers in a meeting. I said, "We should remember that they are the customers." It took them aback. (The irony was that the COO had come out a top school for engineering and science himself.)
Training must start at the top, including frank self-examinations to find prejudicial perspectives. The only way to overcome prejudice of any kind is to confront it and make it conscious. Only then is it possible to act without automatic support of the otherwise unconscious directive.
Until Starbucks recognizes the bigger issue of its own culture and stops assuming the little people cause the problem, new rounds of training are unlikely to do anything. That is, other than make management feel satisfied, until the next visible problem occurs.