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Jan Lee headshot

Starbucks Racial Bias Training: When it Really Works

By Jan Lee

The Starbucks Coffee Company has often expressed support for diversity and promoting racial tolerance. In recent years its demonstrated that commitment through a variety of initiatives: its support of LGBT rights, pay equity and its efforts to increase gender and cultural diversity on its board.

But its most famous effort was in 2015, when the company launched its “Race Together" campaign. Baristas were encouraged to actively engage customers in a discussion about race relations in the aftermath of several troubling conflicts around the country. The objective, according to then-CEO Howard Schultz, was to encourage a national discussion that would engender more unity and respect.

The program didn’t last long. Customers complained about having to talk about a divisive issue over their morning coffee, employees expressed discomfort with the process and the media tore the idea apart. Some board members who had reluctantly hashed out the program with Schultz suggested that Starbucks would be better served focusing on “its own diversity shortcomings” rather than trying to engage the public in discussion that many might not be ready to have.

This week that insight came home to roost when Starbucks' current CEO, Kevin Johnson attempted to address why the manager of a Philadelphia Starbucks had two African American men arrested for trespassing. The two real estate brokers, dressed in casual clothes, had been waiting for a friend to arrive before ordering their drinks. They were later escorted out in handcuffs.

As would be expected, Johnson went into overdrive, issuing a public apology and scheduling a meeting with the two men who had by then been released and were now accompanied by their lawyer. The manager who had called the police was let go.

But Johnson didn’t stop there. Within hours he had reached out to civil rights experts around the country and began crafting the outline of a new training module, enlisting the help of experts like former US attorney general Eric Holder, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Sherrilyn Iffil, and others. Finally on Tuesday, he announced that all 8,000 Starbucks-owned stores would be closing for a half-day for racial bias training and invited the two men to join him in “finding a constructive way to solve this issue.”

The $20 million that Starbucks is estimated to lose for the half-day closure is small compared to the loss of credibility that the company is facing in the wake of the scandal. Over the decades, Starbucks has fought hard to demonstrate its commitment to corporate responsibility. Its sustainability initiatives include advocating for fair, livable wages, supporting inclusive hiring and being among the first companies to voluntarily start recycling in its stores.

The company will most likely rise above this scandal, just as it had weathered the disappointing Race Together campaign. But it will do so not just because it took quick, decisive action, but because it learned from its earlier mistakes and built upon their lessons. This time it framed its efforts around the credibility of individuals and organizations that could speak with authority on the destructive impact of racial profiling in a business venue. And in doing so, it’s also demonstrating that solving America’s diversity problems truly affects everyone, even corporate responsibility leaders.

Ironically perhaps, the events of the past week have already accomplished just what Schultz and Starbucks’ board of directors set out to do three years ago when it encouraged its baristas to dial-up discussion on race relations. When the first leg of this sensitivity training is over (and there will likely be repeats in the years to come), Starbucks may be able to offer an example of how a company can truly change its culture and transform the way race and social differences are addressed by company policies, between workers and with its many stakeholders. Because as experts point out, having a dialogue on racial bias isn’t what makes the difference. It’s being accountable to the changes the company says it’s making. And as far as Starbucks' endeavor to address other social and environmental issues goes, that's been Starbucks' strong point.


Flickr images: Todd Huffman; Rodrigo Sampaio Teixeira

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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