Earth to Starbucks: Racial bias is bigger than you

In response to the news that a Starbucks manager called 911 leading to the arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia location, Starbucks announced that they will be closing 8,000 US stores to conduct racial-bias training for their employees.

I watched, with fascination, their response as it has unfolded over the past week. We’ll dive into that shortly, but I think a bit of context up front is helpful.

At the time of this incident, Starbucks is engaged, in a serious way, on a number of big issues. They pledged to hire 240,000 new employees by 2021, including specific targets for veterans and refugee populations; they offer qualifying employees full tuition coverage for every year of college up to a bachelor’s degree through an innovative partnership with Arizona State University; and, they recently committed $10 million to back their pledge to make 100% of their cups fully compostable and recyclable by 2021, through their NextGen Cup Challenge.

Clearly, the company is a leader on many important topics in corporate responsibility. And yet, their response to-date, on the big, important issue of racial bias, doesn’t feel like the authentic attempt of a leader to address a serious issue. It feels like damage control.

To be fair, it was an unplanned event, rather than an intentional choice, that has forced Starbucks to focus on the topic of racial bias.  But the company has dabbled in the topic of racial inclusion in the past, most notably in its much derided and short-lived #racetogether campaign. And, it’s also worth mentioning that the first of the company’s four stated core values is “creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome.” It’s safe to say this is an issue they’ve thought about before.

So, what do Starbuck’s actions over the past week say about the progress they’ve made on that issue, the importance of their core values, and the way they view their responsibility as leaders?

To recap, Starbucks fired the offending employee, offered an apology, invited the affected individuals for an official sit down with the CEO, and decided to close 8,000 stores for a day’s worth of employee racial sensitivity training.

All of which is admirable, and (in my judgment) appropriately serious in tone. And the cost, in the form of sales forfeited in those 8,000 stores, is not insignificant.

In an official statement from the company, CEO Kevin Johnson wrote “regretfully, our practices and training led to a bad outcome,” indicating that Starbucks believes the event in question was not just the act of an outlier whose behavior was counter to their stated values, rather it was – at least in part – a failure of policy and process.

It would be reasonable to conclude then that the company’s core values are aspirational in nature. That is, they represent who Starbucks wants to be, not who they are today.

If that’s, in fact, the case, then credit to Starbucks, and to Mr. Johnson for, acknowledging their culpability, and for taking the opportunity for what sounds like some much-needed introspection. Who knows, maybe they can turn lemons into Lemonade Refreshers™?

But as admirable as closing stores for anti-bias training might be, the response as a whole feels overly navel-gazey, not to mention defensive.

Earth to Starbucks: the issue of racial bias is bigger than you. So, kudos on the scheduled sensitivity training, and bonus points for dousing the flames of a potential social media-fueled boycott, but let’s get serious. How much are you actually going to move the needle on such a difficult issue during one afternoon of workshops? The fact that they’re proposing to do so is at best laughable, and at worst, trivializes a very non-trivial issue.

So, some unsolicited advice for Starbucks: Take the blinders off and think bigger. You’re a leader, act like one! If racial bias, diversity and inclusion, and “creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome” are issues that you truly care about, leverage your influence to drive a larger (and frankly much needed) conversation forward. Think beyond your own walls about the influence you have in the broader community, of which you are a big, visible part!

If your anti-bias training materials are worth shutting down for a day – why not share them? Livecast the sessions to the public, and invite your industry peers and competitors to join in. Challenge others to take an equally critical look at their own employee training practices. A defensive posture is understandable in a lot of ways. But leadership demands more than an apology and a promise to do better.

If Starbucks fancies itself a leader they should think beyond damage control and recognize the opportunity afforded to them as leaders: to raise the bar. And, in the process, to challenge the community-at-large to a higher standard.

According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, a growing number of brands and corporate leaders are doing just that. By acting on their values, and embracing the opportunity to lead, CVS Health has enjoyed a steady drumbeat of positive attention, most recently around their commitment to create new standards for post-production alterations of beauty images.

Even more recently, Dick’s Sporting Goods made headlines, along with Walmart, when they announced they would be raising – voluntarily – the minimum age for gun buyers to 21. Dick’s CEO Edward Stack, summed it up perfectly for the New York Times: “We’re going to take a stand and step up and tell people our view and, hopefully, bring people along into the conversation.”

That’s the kind of response I would expect from a leader.