Next Tuesday afternoon, 175,000 Starbucks employees will receive training aimed at rooting out racial biases in the wake of an embarrassing incident that has challenged fundamental parts of the company’s values and image.
The Seattle-based coffee giant on Wednesday revealed glimpses of the curriculum it has developed for its unprecedented and closely watched effort.
Many observers laud Starbucks for the undertaking, while some researchers say the company is missing an opportunity to rigorously study the uncertain effectiveness of anti-bias training programs, which more companies and organizations are adopting.
The four-hour training, for which Starbucks will close more than 8,000 company-owned stores across the U.S., is one of several steps the company is taking in the aftermath of the April arrests of two black men in a Philadelphia store.
While similar incidents of racism and discrimination have played out publicly at other companies, too, Starbucks stands out for the scope and attention around its response.
The training preview, provided to employees and the public at large, reveals a lengthy guidebook, videos and new technologies for ongoing anti-bias training at stores. Despite intense media interest — the company has fielded more than 600 requests for information about the training — the training sessions themselves will be kept private.
Starbucks’ response could be a reflection of how deeply shamed the company and its idealistic executive chairman Howard Schultz were by the incident, which went viral on social media, prompted protests that shut down a store and attracted coverage around the globe.
Schultz has made no secret of his long-held aspiration for Starbucks to be a “third place” where people can feel comfortable away from home and work — so comfortable that they might be willing to engage in discussions about race with their baristas, as in the company’s 2015 “Race Together” campaign.
In the weeks since the Philadelphia arrests, Schultz and other senior executives have kept the incident in the news with repeated apologies and new policy announcements. Additional incidents, of a black man being denied use of a bathroom in a Los Angeles store and a racial slur written on a Latino customer’s cup, have also received out-sized attention.
The five-minute video and statement it released Wednesday previewing the curriculum show employees paging through a large-format “Team Guidebook” with step-by-step instructions that start by breaking employees into groups of three to five people for guided discussions, reflection and problem-solving.
The curriculum will be heavy on videos, a necessary mechanism for providing so many people in so many locations with a consistent message.
“As far as I’m aware, it’s really an unprecedented step in terms of closing down stores and conducting a training at that scale all within one day,” said Steven Dinkin, president of the San Diego-based National Conflict Resolution Center, which provides similar trainings.
The closure for an afternoon will likely mean millions in foregone sales even though Starbucks’ afternoon business is substantially smaller than its morning sales. The company is also incurring costs related to development of the training — which it plans to share with other companies that may want to emulate it, including the independent owners of an additional 7,000 licensed U.S. Starbucks locations that aren’t expected to close on Tuesday — and an undisclosed financial settlement with the two men arrested.
There have been less tangible costs, too. Starbucks’ carefully crafted brand suffered in the wake of the arrests. YouGov BrandIndex, which asks people if they’ve heard anything positive or negative about a brand in the preceding two weeks, found Starbucks’ score fell into negative territory in the aftermath of the arrests, reaching its lowest point since late 2015 when Starbucks changed the design of its holiday cups.
The training videos include recorded messages from Starbucks chief executive Kevin Johnson, Schultz, and actor and musician Common, as well as an original short documentary film from Stanley Nelson, a chronicler of racism and black experience.
Johnson tells employees that “the issue of racial bias and discrimination isn’t just about us as a company, it is about us as a country. Prejudice in public accommodation is deeply rooted in America.”
“The reality is, being that third place in 2018 is far more challenging,” Johnson says, according to a transcript of his message in the training guidebook.
Earlier this month, after a policy review following the Philadelphia incident, Starbucks announced new policies allowing anyone to use its bathrooms or linger in its stores without making a purchase. It also clarified instances when employees should call 911.
The store manager in Philadelphia called police to report the two men for trespassing as they waited, without making a purchase, for an associate they were meeting. The arrests and widespread media attention prompted an outpouring of anecdotes about who is and is not allowed to linger or use the bathroom, and how often those decisions are made based on race.
Johnson and other unnamed Starbucks employees in the preview video recount the challenges of interactions with people experiencing homelessness or mental illness visiting stores and drug users in the bathrooms. Despite that, Johnson says, “my hope in gathering us is that Starbucks can become a place of welcoming, of warmth and of inclusion for all.”
(Starbucks is supporting a referendum campaign to reverse Seattle’s recently passed business tax of $275 per employee to raise money for affordable housing and homeless services. The company is also a leader in an effort aimed at housing families and children experiencing homelessness in the region.)
While the company’s new policies would appear to open its employees to more challenging interactions, they could also simplify things.
“It really removes the element of discretion,” Dinkin said, adding, “Anytime there’s a uniform set of security protocols, then the employees are not having to make those critical decisions that might reflect whatever bias that they do have.”
Those policy changes are essential, he added. While an afternoon of training might help employees become cognizant of their biases, it can’t be expected to eliminate them, Dinkin said.
Others are more skeptical.
Christopher Chabris, a cognitive psychologist at Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania and co-author of the 2010 bestseller “The Invisible Gorilla,” called on Starbucks to conduct its training as something akin to a randomized control trial of the type used in developing novel medical treatments. In a Wall Street Journal essay last month, Chabris and co-author Matthew Brown, echoing calls from other social science researchers, described the Starbucks training as “an enormous opportunity for the company–and the rest of us–to learn whether bias-reduction programs work, and if so, which ones, for whom and why.”
After reviewing Starbucks’ curriculum preview, he said there’s no indication that the company has a plan to “determine whether the training is really working.” Chabris added, “It would be fairly simple, even at this late date, to randomly assign some fraction of stores to do the training later this year rather than next Tuesday, so that those stores could temporarily serve as a control group to compare to the rest, that do get the training, and see if the training leads to less bias.”
A Starbucks spokeswoman said all company owned stores and employees will receive the same curriculum.
The company took pains in its curriculum preview and other statements to describe the Tuesday training as one step in an ongoing process.
“5/29 will just be a start,” a narrator says at the end of the preview video.
By Benjamin Romano, The Seattle Times
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