After an outraged firestorm when a Starbucks manager in Philadelphia refused to let a black customer use the bathroom, the company has tried to deal with the problem of racism and accompanying torrent of bad PR. Today Starbucks adopted an open bathroom policy, as the Associated Press reported. The move was only a step, but an emotionally intelligent one.

From here out, you don't have to order something before using a bathroom at a Starbucks, which effectively means you're allowed to use one even if you aren't white. That wasn't guaranteed even after the Philly incident, when another black man was refused the bathroom before buying something, although a white man was able to. What makes the decision emotionally intelligent is that it recognized a problem beyond the company's ability to directly control and then found an indirect solution.

Starbucks has some significant problems with race because the country has them. An action by management doesn't make them disappear. But imposing practical barriers to behavior you don't want is a smart move -- so long as you don't stop there.

Racism and other forms of bigotry are a collective moral and psychological impediment in society. They are wrong and illegal when put into many common types of action. Sadly, they're not disappearing because someone said they should.

There's an old idea in management that if you want different behavior from employees, you change the compensation structure. Companies frequently say they want one thing, but because of how people are paid, the employees would make less money if they did as they were told. So they follow the old path that maximizes their personal revenue.

The concept is easy to understand. Would you voluntarily cut your pay? Of course not. The issues in this case, while not the same, are related.

When you give employees freedom to do as they are consciously or unconsciously inclined, they will, unsurprisingly, do exactly that. If you have a policy, as Starbucks did, to only allow paying customers to use the bathroom and then give local managers the power to enforce as they saw fit, that's what they will do. As both the incidents (and who knows how many others that never got reported) show, some managers will apply the policy evenhandedly and others will allow prejudice to influence their decisions.

As AP noted in its story:

Chairman Howard Schultz says he doesn't want the company to become a public bathroom, but feels employees can make the "right decision a hundred percent of the time," if that choice is removed at the store level.

Schultz is correct. The problem wasn't universal, in the sense that every manager discriminated by color or some other factor. But it did clearly exist.

Trying to screen out such attitudes is extremely difficult. Many people don't recognize their own prejudices. Biases may only present themselves when someone is given the latitude to make decisions in which those attitudes can take a part.

By taking the decision away from the employees, Schultz and Starbucks likely ensured a more evenhanded treatment of consumers. Is it the best approach? No, in that it doesn't address racist and bigoted attitudes in employees. But it was a good step.

Opening the bathrooms doesn't mean Starbucks shouldn't try to do more, because such attitudes are ultimately corrosive toward customers and within a diverse employee base and will come out in other ways. The training planned for the end of May is another step. As important, although not announced or maybe even planned, would be training for management. Assuming you're personally beyond a problem is a great way to let it manifest.

In the meantime, opening the bathrooms is one of the best practical solutions the company could employ. Too bad it has taken weeks for someone to make that decision.

Published on: May 11, 2018
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