NEW YORK - CIRCA APRIL 2016: workers at Starbucks Cafe. Starbucks Corporation is an American global coffee company and coffeehouse chain based in Seattle, Washington

Starbucks’ bias training and the costs to protect a brand | Think Piece

5 mins read

A lesson in making human decency company policy.

Starbucks is kind of known for making diversity homogenous. Normal. Normal-ish.

Of other importance, it is a company known for taking hard political stances and selling an atmosphere of cool and comfort. In almost any of its stores nationwide, you will find a cross-mixture of people types – stay-at-home moms, entrepreneurs, students and more – drinking something, eating something, and even doing nothing more than sitting.

Then you have the baristas who are cool people, right? I mean if you make and pour coffee with a fancy title like barista and call people by the names that you’ve written on their cups, you’re cool.

That is, until Thursday, April 10, 2018.

Few of us uttered the words “bias” and “Starbucks” in the same sentence, until police escorted two young Black men out in handcuffs from one of their Philadelphia stores.

But, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were arrested for disturbing the peace and vagrancy, even as other patrons, who were white, stood up for them, and attested to their innocence.

On a cell phone video recording, Nelson and Robinson could be seen offering little resistance to their arrests. The scene was reminiscent of film footage I’ve seen of 60s lunch counter protesters who did pretty much the same as they were being taunted and tormented during their non-violent attempts to desegregate public accommodations.

By the weekend, nearly 8 million views of the footage of Nelson and Robinson circulated via Twitter.

Starbucks needed to protect its brand

In less than 24 hours, Starbucks’ leadership stepped in front of the viral story. Before the end of the week, they announced the closing of 8,000 stores for a special “bias” training day in late May.

Nelson and Robinson received apologies from the coffeehouse corporation and the police department, as well as having accepted free tuition and an undisclosed financial settlement.

Starbucks righted a horrible wrong if for no other reason than to protect its brand. Once again, boycotts were called off and baristas found their way back to cool.

New York, NY. 3 May, 2018. Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson seen leaving Good Morning America after their interview regarding their Starbucks arrest in downtown Philadelphia after being accused of trespassing. They have since settled with Starbucks for $1 each and a $200k program for young entrepreneurs. Credit: Rw/Media Punch/Alamy Live News

The May 29 training rendered hope that baristas would become even cooler after learning how to treat customers.

Before the training, Starbucks changed its restroom policy stating that they would no longer lock restrooms or ask people to make purchases in order to sit in their establishments. After all, barring restrooms from homeless people and people sitting in the lobby without making a purchase would decrease the possibility of phone call to the police.

Their biggest problem was avoiding the brand name associated with racial profiling. Their second biggest problem would be turning human decency into company policy via the bias trainings.

Common, creating belonging and becoming “color brave”

Bouckaert Farms, Chattahoochee Hills, Fairburn, Ga. Oct 2, 2016:  Emcee, Common at Many Rivers to Cross concert

For four hours, stores closed for training, and reopened later that day, extended hours included. Instead of losing an entire day’s profit for 8,000 stores, the company opened four hours late, salvaging any loss of profits. Smart business, Starbucks.

Starbucks partners (employees) were equipped with iPads and training guides for the 4-hour event that included fifteen-minute breaks. Components of the training alternated between video and audio presentations, group activities, as well as time for questions and answers.

Manual for Starbucks’ bias training.

Rapper Common was featured in three transitional segments. Perhaps he was chosen for his easy-going manner and relaxing monotone voice.

Other videos featured Starbucks’ leadership, including Rosalind Brewer, their first woman and Black person to become their chief operating officer. If Schultz and CEO Kevin Johnson were the public faces of the company, addressing the racial profiling case in Philadelphia, then Brewer was the star of the training and rightfully so. She is the only African American holding a senior post with the company.

The theme running concurrently throughout the training was “creating belonging.”

The training, according to the guide, appears to have been instructional about a variety of bias topics from accents to homelessness to sexual orientation and more. The instruction on becoming “color brave” is the most compelling in that it explores moving from “color blindness” when dealing with people to a comfort in engaging with folk who are different in skin color.

To create belonging, partners were told that an immediate policy change was to view everyone crossing the threshold of their stores as a customer, whether they were making a purchase or not, and that included cafes, patios, and restrooms.

Other commitments:

  • The brand will provide every store with a list of local services “to reference and access” for customers that exhibit homelessness, mental health challenges, and substance abuse issues.
  • They will have ongoing operations education using the new iPads and training modules.
  • They will continue to revise and review policies.
  • In the next year, they will host a leadership conference for store managers.

Very clearly stated, however, is what the brand will not tolerate from those crossing their thresholds: napping, smoking, unhygienic acts, watching porn, drinking, panhandling and solicitation. And partners are encouraged to call the police if they “customers” are engaging in illegal drug activity or posing a threat of danger.

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s contribution to the training is a documentary titled, “You’re Welcome,” is the thing that makes the training imperative and personal.

Starbucks bias training video by documentarian Stanley Nelson. All rights reserved by Starbucks Coffee.

As much as I appreciate Nelson’s documentary, there is something missing. No, there is someone missing. Chikesia Clemons. It could be for lack of permission, but she is not in that documentary’s montage of events, and that is a shame.

The incident at an Alabama Waffle House involving Clemons took place not long after the Starbucks incident with Nelson and Robinson. I hate that a select handful of people, mostly black women, are still talking about justice for Chikesia, who has yet to receive so much as an apology for the humiliation she experienced.

Another missing element is a conversation with partners about money and economics. American restaurant chains have a past of putting a chokehold on their own profits with racist practices that have offended African Americans spending money with them. It has been these examples of virulent humiliation and flagrant disregard for Black consumerism that prompted the creation of spaces that remove capital from bolstering an economy still operating on segregationist practices.

Viewing people as valued and respected is one thing, but valuing and respecting their money is another thing, and the thing that prompted Starbucks to conduct this training in the first place. Starbucks is no different from Woolworth’s and other public accommodations that had to deal with the consequences of a loss of revenue for their discriminatory practices.

Bias and prejudice are heart conditions. Starbucks while commended for initiating this training should consider expanding the legal and economic aspects of refusing to serve people. They should also explore how to refuse service to avoid the potential of death. In this current climate, the situation with Nelson and Robinson could have ended with a fatality or two. The man or woman irritating you over a right to sit and wait or with a question about plastic cutlery should not have to die.

Starbucks could succeed in restoring their cool points with these new policies, but as mentioned above, it’s really hard to make decency a company policy. To be decent is a personal decision.

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Robin Caldwell is a food publicist who has a passion for black women chefs and the plate economy.

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