A recent event at a coffee shop in Philadelphia has stirred controversy about subconscious bias, corporate policies, and how to repair a company’s fractured reputation.
In this article, I explain:
- the facts behind this event (including quotes from the young men, Starbucks leaders, Philadelphia police and Mayor, and other experts)
- What are Policies and Procedures?
- When the Enforcement of Policy Shows an Underlying Bias
- Starbucks’ Official Statement
- Taking Action: What You Can Do to Prevent a Starbucks-Like Incident
- The 7 Symptoms of Implicit Bias, and
- My Conclusion
Two young black men entered at a Starbucks Coffee shop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Thursday, April 12th. Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, both 23 years old, had arrived early for a meeting with their friend to discuss a real estate investment. Rashon asked an employee if he could use the locked restroom but was told it was for “paying customers only.”
In an interview with ABC News, the men said they sat down at a table without ordering. An associate came to their table and asked if they wanted to purchase food or drinks. They responded that they were still waiting for their friend, Andrew Yaffe, to arrive.
Minutes later, with no warning to the men, the store manager called police.
In a 10-minute exchange, police asked the men to leave the store three times. When they refused, Donte and Rashon were arrested and “perp walked” outside the store, driven to a police station, and held in custody for 8 hours.
Here’s a real-time video of their arrest:
Melissa DePino, who posted the video, wrote:
“The police were called because these men hadn’t ordered anything. They were waiting for a friend to show up, who did as they were taken out in handcuffs for doing nothing. All the other white ppl [people] are wondering why it’s never happened to us when we do the same thing.”
Two days after the arrest, Starbucks sent out this Tweet:
“We apologize to the two individuals and our customers for what took place at our Philadelphia store on Thursday.”
Along with the tweet was a screenshot of another statement:
“We apologize to the two individuals and our customers and are disappointed this led to an arrest. We take these matters seriously and clearly have more work to do when it comes to how we handle incidents in our stores. We are reviewing our policies and will continue to engage with the community and the police department to try to ensure these types of situations never happen in any of our stores.”
Dr. Stephen Greenspan shared a very insightful recap of this situation in Psychology Today:
“If the arresting officers had made any effort to talk the situation over calmly with Nelson and Robinson, there is little doubt the standoff could have been resolved peacefully (such as by asking them to leave, something apparently not tried by the store manager).”
In a statement, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said:
“Regretfully, our practices and training led to a bad outcome — the basis for the call to the Philadelphia Police Department was wrong. Our store manager never intended for these men to be arrested and this should never have escalated as it did.” He added that further training is planned so employees can “better know when police assistance is warranted.”
Starbucks’ former CEO and executive chairman Howard Schultz spoke with CBS This Morning:
“I’m embarrassed, ashamed. I think what occurred was reprehensible at every single level. I think I take it very personally as everyone in our company does and we’re committed to making it right.
He also said that this incident may not be an “isolated” one, and that they are reviewing all policies. He added, “There’s no doubt in my mind that the reason that they [police] were called was because they were African American. That’s not who Starbucks is.”
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has asked for a review of Starbucks’ policies and procedures, “including the extent of, or need for, implicit bias training for its employees.”
Mayor Kenney also promised that a review of police policies “is fully warranted given the unfortunate outcome of this event, particularly at a time when our criminal justice reform efforts are focused on avoiding needless incarcerations.”
Finally, Philadelphia’s Police Commissioner Richard Ross said to NBC News:
“As an African American male, I am very aware of implicit bias. We are committed to fair and unbiased policing.” However, he added that his officers “did absolutely nothing wrong.”
Each of these responses expressed a desire to review the company’s policies.
What are Policies and Procedures?
Let’s review what these words mean.
A Policy is:
A statement of intention that describes what needs to be done (responsibilities), by whom (roles), and the problems it will solve (objectives). It answers the question “Why?” by identifying goals, and “What?” by determining which programs and services should be used. Every Policy should flow directly from the company’s Strategic Objectives.
A Procedure, on the other hand, is:
A set of specific steps needed to accomplish a task. It answers “How?” by defining what must be done to achieve an objective. The best Procedures tie back to a corresponding Policy (statement of intention) and Strategic Objective (goal to achieve the vision and mission). Every Procedure should be clear, understandable, and logical.
The phrase “implicit bias” is being used to describe what happened. I define Strategic Bias as:
So when bias is implicit, that means it is unspoken. It is favoritism toward something or someone which is not stated aloud.
When the Enforcement of Policy Shows an Underlying Bias
My first Starbucks experience was as a college student in downtown Chicago. It became a place of refuge and a “home away from home.” The company even developed a tagline, The Third Place, to describe the comfortable, safe, and friendly environment they tried to promote.
As a loyal Starbucks patron for twenty years (and a Barista for 6 months while in college), I have seen first-hand the challenge of creating a supportive and welcoming environment, while also limiting access to those who want to enjoy that atmosphere for free.
In her defense, the Starbucks manager said she was enforcing store policy against excessive loitering.
But the fact is, sitting down or using a coffeeshop restroom prior to ordering is not uncommon. As Marvet Britto, public relations expert and President and CEO of The Britto Agency, stated, “Starbucks is a place that doesn’t just sell coffee; it sells a culture of community.”
In my opinion, the real question we should be asking is:
What happens when a company enforce a policy discriminately?
I think the deeper issue in this situation is an underlying bias. The store manager called police without warning the men. Rashon and Donte were assumed to be troublemakers without being given the benefit of the doubt. Their humiliating experience should never have happened that way.
What is most horrifying is the obvious disconnect between “store policy” and the actual events that took place.
Starbucks’ policy instructs staff to take reasonable action when a visitor is unwilling to purchase goods, “loiters,” or asks to use the restroom with no intent to make a purchase.
If that is the case, then EVERYONE—regardless of their race, gender, appearance, or any other characteristic (see a full list here)—should be treated exactly the same way.
Imagine if everyone who “loiters” before ordering a drink is hassled, humiliated, and dragged to a police station for questioning.
Imagine not having a chance to explain your side of the story.
While every company needs to have policies and procedures to establish control and create boundaries, problems arise when we apply underlying favoritism toward select individuals.
The rules should apply equally to all.
Starbucks’ Official Statement
- Close “over 8,000 company-owned stores in the United States on the afternoon of May 29” for nearly 175,000 employees to conduct “racial-bias education.”
- Continue to address “implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination and ensure everyone inside a Starbucks store feels safe and welcome.” (This aligns with their Values statement, which I will discuss later).
- Modify their onboarding process for new employees.
Experts who will contribute to the training and ongoing monitoring of effectiveness measures will include:
- 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
- Eric Holder, former U.S. Attorney General
- Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League
(You can read the entire statement here.)
Taking Action: What You Can Do to Prevent a Starbucks-Like Incident
I believe that several factors contributed to this incident: a lack of proper training, a culture that shows preference for certain ethnicities and social classes, and a culture of distrust and fear.
In my opinion, the Philadelphia store manager did several things wrong:
- She interpreted Starbucks’ official policy discriminately by interpreting it more strictly for a specific type of patron. An onlooker named Melissa DePino tweeted “All the other white people are wondering why it’s never happened to us when we do the same thing.”
- She failed to give fair warning of the consequences if Donte and Rashon continued in their refusal to purchase something.
- She did not extend them a “grace period” of waiting until their friend arrived (he came in time to see them get handcuffed).
- She rushed to call police for a peaceful incident, thus propelling the situation into a forceful and public confrontation.
The degree to which this manager went to enforce Starbucks’ store policy was, in my opinion, excessive.
However, let’s not forget that the two patrons also refused to buy anything, and they refused to leave the store even after police arrived and asked them to leave three times.
While this doesn’t justify the extreme action taken by the store manager, it does factor into the way in which we create “fair” policies. A store has the right to ask someone to leave if they don’t follow its policies.
What are the Symptoms of Bias?
There are several ways to tell if you or your staff are making decisions with an underlying favoritism.
Here are 7 signs of implicit bias:
- Disclosing only positive information; no mention of failures or negativity
- Solution: Consider the benefit of a Year In Review to learn from past failures.
- Being critical and judgmental toward any opposing viewpoints
- Solution: Welcome the input of Devil’s Advocates to help you consider views that are contrary to your own.
- Intolerance toward anyone who would question or doubt
- Solution: Take a step back and recognize ways in which you may have “blind spots.”
- Distorting the facts to appear in a more favorable light
- Solution: Review the signs of bullying (physical, verbal, non-verbal, emotional, social, cyber, and prejudicial).
- Forcing others to agree even if they don’t feel comfortable
- Solution: Ask for feedback (anonymous if necessary) on the degree to which your staff feel comfortable sharing “bad news” with you.
- Using extreme words like “always,” “never,” and “obviously”
- Solution: Review written statements and audio recordings by yourself, your leadership team, and staff to see if you use these “extreme” terms.
- Language that is overly aggressive and intimidating
- Solution: As above, review written, audio, and video recordings of yourself to identify any actions that could be perceived as intimidating.
- If you’re feeling brave: Ask current and former staff and customers for feedback on how you come across (which I call Reverse Interviews).
How to Actively Reduce Bias
So what can we do to avoid implicit bias from happening in a company?
I believe it starts with Awareness. As leaders, we see the world in a specific way. But our underlying beliefs and preferences can sometimes cause us to select, prefer, or otherwise favor certain things—behaviors, interests, personality types.
Awareness of Bias is one of the sections in the Top 10 Best Practices for Strategic Management. It includes 3 components: Participatory Strategic Planning, a Culture of Empathy, and Meaningful Vision, Mission, & Values.
1. Participatory Strategic Planning
Planning for the future is a critical part of every organization. In my discussions with executive leaders, I find that sometimes they consider strategic planning to be a “high-level concept” that only those at the top of an organization are qualified to do.
I disagree with this.
I think the strategic planning process works best when every single stakeholder (employees, managers, customers, community members) is invited to join.
Organization whose leaders restrict strategic planning to just the upper tier typically experience a similarly restrictive attitude toward open-minded thinking and innovation. Conversely, when a company is open to difficult discussions—about race, gender, sexual identity, appearance, and other hot-button issues—they tend to create a diverse and innovative culture.
The Starbucks Corporation is doing their best to provide extensive training to all United States-based personnel, which I think is a wonderful step. I hope they also encourage input from both employees and customers about how to better manage potentially explosive situations in the future.
2. Culture of Empathy
A business owner’s effectiveness is measured by her or his ability to achieve outcomes. This requires an ability to define and shape the company’s core philosophy and internal culture, both of which flow from the owner’s own personal beliefs, as well as their hidden biases.
Effective leaders seek to understand what is causing the problem, as well as WHY it is happening. She or he will spend time “sitting in the seat” of their staff and customers so they can feel the pain and frustration of dealing with a problem. This first-hand experience is a crucial step in recognizing deeper issues. An empathetic leader can then build trust that leads to risk intelligent decisions.
Based on what I’ve read, Starbucks’ leaders seem to have responded to this crisis rapidly and respectfully. Everyone involved has expressed their sorrow for the treatment of Rashon and Donte and accepted full responsibility for what occurred.
It would be great to see more empathetic action—top leaders spending more time in stores, connecting with patrons, and speaking with the community about how to change perceptions and bring more healing.
3. Meaningful Vision, Mission, & Values
These are the top 3 components of an organization’s Strategic Plan:
- Vision: “What does a perfect future look like?”
- Mission: “Why do we exist, and who do we serve?”
- Values: “What guides our behavior to others?”
These are combined with Objectives (“Where are we going, and How are we getting there?” and Measures (“How will we know when we’ve arrived?”). I use the acronym VMVOM.
Vision, Mission, and Values allow you to easily answer:
- Why your company exists
- Who you serve
- Why it’s important
- Where you’re going
The reason I say they should be “meaningful” is because I’ve seen a lot of Mission Statements and Values lists that are confusing—sometimes even bordering on unintelligible. The terms “Vision” and “Mission” are often used interchangeably, which adds to the confusion.
Designing a set of well-written Vision, Mission, and Values statements aren’t enough, though. In addition to expressing your goals, image of the future, and defining who you serve and which behaviors are (and aren’t) allowed, a truly powerful statement can also connect you with stakeholders. Every employee should be able to explain the company’s goals and their part in helping it to achieve them.
Your company’s strategic statements, properly written, have the power to make a real difference in the world.
On their website, Starbucks states their Mission and Values.
To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.
- Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome.
This one obviously needs a little work.
- Acting with courage, challenging the status quo and finding new ways to grow our company and each other.
Starbucks has undergone a rapid expansion to over 8,000 company-owned stores (plus 5,708 licensed stores). They continue to compete in new markets and demographics.
- Being present, connecting with transparency, dignity and respect.
This one definitely needs some work as well.
- Delivering our very best in all we do, holding ourselves accountable for results.
It’s clear that Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson & former CEO (and current executive chairman) Howard Schultz are very sensitive to the way the situation was handled. Both of them have released statements in which they take full responsibility and commit to correcting the culture through training and policy changes.
I see a lot of promise for Starbucks despite a very rocky road toward repairing their image. The fact that they are focusing on all-staff training and a review of their foundational policies is the beginning.
In my opinion, every business owner can learn from this by recognizing any hidden biases and responding with humility when confronted with the kind of pressure Starbucks’ leaders are facing right now.
What are your thoughts about the Starbucks incident? How do you think a company can respond to a viral event like this one? What would you do differently?
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Grace LaConte is a business consultant, writer, workplace equity strategist, and the founder of LaConte Consulting. Her risk management tools are used around the globe, and she has successfully reversed toxic work environments for clients in the healthcare and non-profit fields. Grace specializes in lactation law compliance & policy development, reducing staff turnover after maternity leave, and creating a participatory work culture.