Here’s the bottom line on this week’s anti-racial bias training at Starbucks, and it was captured perfectly in the headline on The New York Times story about the big event. It said:
Starbucks’s Tall Order: Tackle Systemic Racism in 4 Hours
Yup, the NYT is right; it’s unlikely that Starbucks, or any other company, is going to make much of a dent in their employees’ outlook on racism from a four-hour afternoon training session, no matter how well it’s done.
And that’s the big message here. Changing a workplace culture can’t be done overnight, or in an afternoon – especially when you’re talking about 175,000 employees spread over more than 8,000 locations.
That’s because changing a workplace culture takes a lot of work over many months (and maybe years) to eventually get the desired result.
This really wasn’t about anti-bias training
But that wasn’t the point of what Starbucks was doing this week, and if you thought this was all about re-training staff or better sensitizing baristas to their unconscious bias, you’re wrong.
What Starbucks was doing was damage control, pure and simple, and you gotta give them credit for working overtime to make sure they limited the damage to the brand brought about by the incident in Philadelphia.
How much damage?
According to a study by the Apex Marketing Group which measures the value of media exposure, Starbucks “suffered nearly $16 million in negative press reports related to the incident in Philadelphia, in which an employee called the police on two black men who were waiting to meet a friend at the cafe. Positive press was worth around $200,000.”
All those negative press reports did some serious damage to the Starbucks brand. That’s why Executive Chairman Howard Schultz and his management team decided to spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $16-$17 million (just in lost sales) in order to hold this week’s afternoon of anti-bias training.
Even if the training didn’t really accomplish all that much — and really, how could it “Tackle Systemic Racism in 4 Hours?” — just doing it sends a message to the coffee-buying public that that Starbucks management cares about fixing the problems that led to the Philadelphia incident in the first place.
“I’ve never seen a Starbucks employee treat anyone badly”
I’m not a big Starbucks fan, mainly because I like a regular cup of coffee, and Starbucks regular coffee is bitter and burnt. It tastes pretty terrible, and I believe it is part of their strategy to get people to buy more high-priced, and better tasting, mochas, lattes and other similar coffee drinks.
I’d choose Dunkin Donuts coffee over Starbucks any day.
However, I’ve been in quite a few Starbucks all over over the country, mainly for the free WiFi, and I’ve seen a lot of Starbucks employees. There’s one common thing I’ve noticed about almost all of them — they’re courteous, friendly, hard-working, and seem to care very much about doing a good job.
This is a workforce that’s needs anti-bias training?
I have never seen a Starbucks employee treat anyone badly, no matter what race they are. And in Southern California where I live, I see lots of people from all sorts of racial and ethnic backgrounds in the many Starbucks out here. I have a hard time believing that what happened to the two black gentlemen in Philadelphia isn’t just an exception to the usual way that nearly ALL Starbucks employees operate.
That’s why I believe that this afternoon training session is more about damage control and PR than it is about really re-training Starbucks employees. Management needs to send a message that they’re taking this incident seriously — and repair the damage that’s been done to the brand.
The beginning of a long-term journey
Interestingly enough, Starbucks head honcho Howard Schultz told the Seattle Times that this week’s company-wide training session was really not going to solve anything.
“There’s no expectation on anyone’s part that a four-hour block of training is going to comprehensively solve the issues of racial bias or inequities, discrimination, however it’s critically important to start this conversation,” he told the newspaper “This is the beginning of a long-term journey.”
That sounds like Schultz wants to change his workplace culture. That makes a lot more sense than an afternoon of anti-bias training does, because a culture-building effort is a lot more likely to drive real change that deals with the real issues that Starbucks employees have to cope with on the job.
I’m with Howard Schultz. THAT’S a long-term journey that will yield long-lasting results.
It may even force me to drink a little more Starbucks coffee to check in on how it goes.
John Hollon is an award-winning journalist and nationally recognized expert on leadership, talent management, and smart workforce practices. He currently is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media. He also was founding Editor of the popular talent management website TLNT.com, and before that, Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com.
John also held editing positions at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and the Orange County Register, and was top editor for Gannett at two statewide papers —Montana’s Great Falls Tribune and The Honolulu Advertiser. He also has deep experience in magazine and online publishing as editorial director at Fancy Publications, VP of Editorial at Pets.com, and Editor of the San Diego Business Journal.
In addition, John is an adjunct professor in the College of Communications at California State University, Fullerton, and a board member at the Kronos Workforce Institute. He holds an MBA from Pepperdine University’s Graziado School of Business & Management, and lives in Southern California.