Remember when then Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz declared that his baristas were now going to spend their time serving coffee and lecturing--oh, oops--discussing race with their customers? Because who better to discuss race relations than a Starbucks employee?

I'm sure that's what the two black men who were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks thought. "Boy, I'm sure glad I'm in a place where the entry-level employees were supposed to talk about race! I'm benefiting from that discussion right now!"

Now, to be fair, Starbucks stopped that initiative almost as soon as they started it. Schultz said it was ended as planned, but people were cynical--it seems more likely that when the entire world didn't go, "Wow! I want a lecture with my coffee!" Starbucks reconsidered.

Look, racism is a huge problem. This is one of those situations where unconscious bias--the part where our brain lies to us--plays out. Technically, I'm sure, managers are allowed to kick out people who are using Starbucks space and not purchasing any food or drink. But, the fact is, the black men's behavior was not unusual. People meet friends at coffee shops all the time, and sometimes not everyone buys something and sometimes people wait for the others to arrive to order something.

And sometimes, people order one cheap drink and hog a table for hours and hours and hours. So, reasonable people come to expect that Starbucks allows that behavior. Because they (presumably) aren't calling the police when a white person does it, it demonstrates racism when a black person does. The person who called the police would probably not self-identify as a racist, but the actions show otherwise.

Now, let's get back to Starbucks. I'm also sure it's not company policy to kick out patrons because of their skin color. The problem isn't with policies. It's with training and hidden biases.

Which is precisely why companies shouldn't loudly signal virtue, as Starbucks likes to do. They should focus, instead, on training their employees, and providing a great environment for employee and customer alike. When you go out and indicate that your business is better at race relations than your customers, well, it puts your business up on a pedestal. And people on pedestals have a long way to fall when they get pushed off.

The behavior exhibited by this Starbucks manager would have been inappropriate even if Starbucks hadn't tried to declare itself the place to talk about race relations before. But, that makes it worse.

My advice? Stop signaling virtue and be virtuous. And maybe it's time for two other things as well. The first is some additional training for managers and employees, and the second is building a better relationship with the police, so that things can be handled without quite so much drama. 

Published on: Apr 16, 2018