Why Retailers Must Be The Drivers Of Social Change

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Published: April 17, 2018 | Updated: April 17, 2023

Starbucks was to close 8000 of their US locations for bias training after a manager called Philadelphia police to remove two black men waiting in the store for a third person to attend a business meeting.

Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz told CBS This Morning that when he saw the video of the two men being arrested, “I couldn’t believe it. I was sick to my stomach. I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. This is the antithesis of the values and culture and everything Starbucks stands for.”

On the Starbucks website, they say: “With our partners, our coffee, and our customers at our core, we live these values:

  • Creating a culture of warmth and belonging where everyone is welcome.
  • Acting with courage, challenging the status quo, and finding new ways to grow our company and each other.
  • Being present, connecting with transparency, dignity, and respect.
  • Delivering our best in everything we do, holding ourselves accountable for results.
  • We are performance driven, through the lens of humanity.”

According to the Daily Mail,  the 31-year-old white manager asked the pair of black men to leave after refusing to let them use the bathroom without buying anything, then called 911 when they stayed.

While some have used this incident to deride the brand, deride the bias training (of which the stores closing for a day is just one part), and deride the whole incident as some kind of a setup, what is lost in this is that one individual redefined Starbucks brand values to the world.

That makes it a training issue.

Police Commissioner Richard Ross wondered why the Starbucks manager would call the police if the company is known for letting people hang out in their stores. "If there is an issue where you have a company policy that allows people to stay without purchasing, and that's the reason for your call, it begs the question, 'Why did that happen in the first place?'" he said.

One can assume everyone understands Starbucks culture - especially their employees, but how does it look in the real world?

When your employees make up rules independently, you’re in trouble. Their casual words can have a huge impact.

Any owner who has overheard an employee talk trash about a customer knows the feeling...

Let’s not forget Starbucks is the brand that closed its stores for three hours in 2008 to re-teach its baristas how to make their drinks. They take their image seriously and recognize how they have to work constantly to avoid being just a coffee place; they’re working to create a Star Trek world based on welcoming everyone.

Retailers can actively monitor and train their associates to be respectful and welcoming. At a time when some retailers want to legislate to who businesses can deny service, big retailers are doing what the government cannot.  

The net effect of all that training has to be good for breaking down barriers and building community.

That’s why retailers need to be positive agents of social change.

You don’t grow sales, attract top talent, or get a favorable reputation by going with the flow - or going backward. You must actively work to ensure everyone who enters your store feels welcome. Smaller businesses should take their lead from industry leaders like Disney, Target, and Starbucks.

You can’t just assume employees will follow the golden rule.

Look at your current crew. Bias happens when employees can feel like it is us, the crew, versus them,  the shoppers.

How to avoid bias in your store?

  • Stop hiring people who only look like you.
  • Stop hiring only one sex.
  • Stop hiring friends who all grew up together.

There’s a reason having a multicultural staff works well...

It is hard to make judgments about other people when everyone you work with is different, and you all have to engage with each other while you’re working.

That keeps people who don’t look like you from becoming others.

As Rashon Nelson, one of the two men arrested last week, said on Good Morning America, "This is not just a black people thing. It's a people thing."

In Sum

Until an unfortunate event happens with your employees, you might poo-poo the need to train your employees on what is acceptable.

I don’t ascribe to that adage; Nothing can happen through you until it happens to you.

Responding to criticism arguing that the Philadelphia incident was just a few bad apples, Starbucks replied, "Because systemic racism and bias is bigger than one partner, one store or one company. We are shutting our stores for this training because we recognize that we have the responsibility to be part of the solution."

The way forward to a more inclusive world is to build a more giant tent that welcomes everyone to your store - shoppers are all purple, and their money is green.

It’s a people thing...