Hand it to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz: He doesn't shy away from a fight that he thinks is worth having. After asking people not to bring guns into the company's stores and supporting same-sex marriage, the next social issue he's addressing is race relations in the U.S.

To create more empathy and understanding, not just within the company but, possibly, within the broader community as well, Schultz is asking Starbucks employees "to facilitate a conversation," as he said in a company video. Working with USA Today, the company has developed materials that will go into every copy of that newspaper starting March 20 and be available in all stores.

"What if we were to write 'Race Together' on every Starbucks cup and that facilitated a conversation between you and our customers?" Schultz asked. "And what if our customers, as a result of that, had a renewed level of understanding and sensitivity about the issue and they themselves would spread that to their own sphere of influence?"

Critics turn out in force

Good idea or bad? "There will be cynics and some in the media who criticize Starbucks," Schultz said at the company's annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday. "This is not some marketing or PR exercise. This is to do one thing: Use our national footprint and scale for good."

On one hand, mockery has hit the ground at high speed. Twitter users have been creative, not just asking that the company learn to spell people's names correctly before writing "Race Together" on cups, but imagining new drinks, like the "Malcolm Xpresso" or "Some of My Best Friends Are Black Coffee." Media personalities and pundits are also taking shots, and not of espresso.

Corey duBrowa, senior vice president of global communications at Starbucks, actually took his Twitter account down for some hours on Tuesday.

"I felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity," duBrowa wrote. "I got overwhelmed by the volume and tenor of the discussion, and I reacted. Most of all, I was concerned about becoming a distraction from the respectful conversation around Race Together that we have been trying to create," says his post.

As one Twitter user put it: "#Starbucks's @coreydu wanted to talk about race so much he deleted his account after people started talking to him about it. #RaceTogether"

From one school of thought, the move has been a massive business mistake, even discounting the initial PR flap. "There were some people who said, 'Howard, this is not a subject we should touch,'" said Schultz in the video. "'This is not for you. This is not for our company. This is for someone else.' I reject that. I reject that completely, because we can't leave this for someone else."

Beam in your own eye

On principle, Schultz is right. There are times when business concerns cannot trump all others. If you sincerely believe that there is something you're morally compelled to do or say, then you must, or else live a diminished life as a human being. When you look in the mirror, it's always going to be your face, not the corporate brand, staring back.

From a more practical business point of view, taking a stand can also be part of brand identity. If your company and customers do have shared beliefs, you must support them. Otherwise, there's no authenticity, and the strength of the brand evaporates.

But it's important to make action count. Granted, employees have been explicitly told that if the exercise makes them uncomfortable (or, presumably, if it's rush hour and they've got a line snaking toward the door), that they need not take part. But what of the ones who will? Inviting a discussion about race can be difficult and potentially contentious, given that the customers are strangers. Have the baristas and counter people received any training on handling thorny situations, or even how to talk about race in a productive way?

It's also important to recognize the limitations of what you can do and represent. For the company to want to start conversations, it is essentially communicating that it has the moral high ground to do so. And yet Starbucks also has the image of being a place where people, often of color, who don't make a lot of money, make espresso for those who do.

More important than starting conversations is action and the question of what happens in the company itself. The Starbucks diversity page lists various employee networks: a black partner network, women's development partner network, pride alliance partner network, and others. And there's a supplier diversity program.

Talk without transparency

However, the diversity page showed no sign of statistics--similar to what some tech companies like Google, Yahoo, and Facebook have done--that show the racial and gender breakout among employees and management. There was a special advertising section in The New York Times--generally known as a company-sponsored advertorial--that claimed 31 percent of all executives at the vice presidential level or above were women and that 13 percent were people of color. The company claimed that the mix was "quite above the average for other Fortune 500 companies."

I contacted Starbucks and asked about a diversity report. The response pointed to a list of things to know about the company released in advance of the annual meeting. This pre-meeting list said that 40 percent of U.S. employees were ethnic minorities. Out of the top 50 leaders, 18 percent are ethnic minorities and 29 percent are women. Forty-two percent of company vice presidents are women and 16 percent are ethnic minorities.

But look at the Starbucks management team roster and you'll notice that out of 19 people, 15 are white. Three are women. That's about 21 percent non-white and 16 percent female in a society that is just over half female and about 63 percent non-Hispanic white, not 79 percent. When you look at the page, it still screams "white guys."

Taking a stand and addressing such an important issue can be valuable and praiseworthy. But before a CEO takes a company down such a path, he or she should make sure everything is ready. If you are potentially behind in an area, or could be perceived from the outside as such, then the first step is to bring it out, talk about what it means, and make public your plans for how you'll improve things. Conversation has to include not only what you think, but what you routinely do. Now that would be an interesting conversation about race--a difficult one that doesn't allow for self-congratulations, but that might be more useful in the long run.

Published on: Mar 19, 2015
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