The arrest last week of two black men who were waiting for a business associate at a Philadelphia Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) led to boycotts, social media upheaval, and protests in front of some of the chain's locations. The incident, in which a store manager called police, allegedly because the two men had not made a purchase and would not leave the store, led to charges of racial bias.
The coffee chain moved swiftly to not only point out that its corporate policies forbade such actions, but also to address the underlying issues. CEO Kevin Johnson went to Philadelphia to apologize to the two men in person, and Starbucks will close more than 8,000 company-owned stores in the U.S. on the afternoon of May 29 to conduct racial-bias education for employees geared toward preventing discrimination in its stores.
"I've spent the last few days in Philadelphia with my leadership team listening to the community, learning what we did wrong and the steps we need to take to fix it," said Johnson in a press release.
What is Starbucks doing?
Closing down a whole chain at once for a training session is a bold, but not unprecedented, step. Chipotle did the same thing when it was time teach its employees new food safety standards in the wake of the E. coli outbreaks that severely dented its image.
Starbucks, however, is being especially aggressive, considering that it would have been easy enough to apologize and address the issue with the employees involved. Instead, the company is actually extending the news cycle around the incident by closing for the training.
Nearly 175,000 store-based and corporate employees will be trained with a program "designed to address implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination and ensure everyone inside a Starbucks store feels safe and welcome," said the company in a press release. The curriculum used will become part of the onboarding process for new employees as well.
"While this is not limited to Starbucks, we're committed to being a part of the solution. Closing our stores for racial bias training is just one step in a journey that requires dedication from every level of our company and partnerships in our local communities," the press release said.
Starbucks will develop the curriculum with guidance from a panel of national and local experts on confronting racial bias, among them: Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative; Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; Heather McGhee, president of Demos; former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; and Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. The panel will also help the chain monitor and review the effectiveness of the measures it undertakes to combat biased behavior.
Why is Starbucks doing this?
Many companies would not have taken a step this bold after a single incident. Starbucks, however, has marketed itself as a progressive organization, and a perception of racism in its corporate culture could injure its brand in a similar way to how the E. coli outbreak hurt Chipotle.
Offering companywide training is the right thing for Starbucks as a business, but it's also the right thing to do. This isn't just a business apologizing and moving on. It's a brand that's admitting that one incident may be indicative of a bigger problem.
However, it is not, as Johnson pointed out, a problem specific to Starbucks; the curriculum it develops could provide a blueprint for other restaurants and retailers. Starbucks has taken a negative publicity event, and is attempting to fix it by admitting not only fault, but the potential for further fault. This is Starbucks reinforcing that its corporate values matter, even if living up to them may hurt the brand in the short term.