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Is Starbucks making the right moves to deal with racial bias controversy?

Protesters speaking out last month outside a Starbucks in Philadelphia where two black men were arrested after employees called police to say the men were trespassing.

Protesters speaking out last month outside a Starbucks in Philadelphia where two black men were arrested after employees called police to say the men were trespassing. | The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

At a Starbucks in downtown Chicago last year, a customer shouted racial slurs after, he said, someone spilled coffee on his pants.

A few weeks ago, a teenage boy at a Starbucks in the west suburbs waved what looked like a handgun, aimed at another customer, then pulled the trigger.

“When we saw it was a squirt gun, I kind of realized I wasn’t going to get shot and yelled at him,” says a supervisor at the coffee shop, who agreed to speak on the condition of not being named.

In each of those cases, the Starbucks employees felt like they knew what to do: Get the troublemaker out of the store. Other times, it’s less clear when a customer should be asked to leave or left alone.

“It’s something that’s been pretty ambiguous for a while,” says the shift manager.

He says he’s looking forward to May 29. That’s the day the company plans to close 8,000 stores across the United States so it can offer training about unconscious bias.

That follows the arrest in April of two African-American men who were led from a Philadelphia Starbucks in handcuffs. By most accounts, the men appeared to be doing nothing more than sitting at a table without ordering anything. The store’s manager said he called the police after the men refused to buy something or leave.

Corporate observers and experts on crisis communications and public relations have hailed Starbucks’ move as bold and seemingly well-intentioned. It’s been estimated that the company could lose $7 million in sales by closing its stores for the day.

But will the move lead to real change?

“Actions speak louder than words,” says Nicholas Pearce, a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “Sustained cultural change is different than a daylong program.”

Still, Pearce, who is African-American, says the company should be “applauded” for the move.

But there’s no “proven body of work” on bias training, says Paul Argenti, a professor of corporate communication at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business.

“They’re starting from zero,” says Argenti, who has written academic articles about Starbucks. “They’re putting together maybe the best implicit-bias training that ever existed. But is it good enough? We don’t know. It could be like the best ski slope in Nebraska.”

Neal Goodman is president of Global Dynamics, a Miami consulting firm whose specialties include corporate diversity training. Goodman has been doing seminars on the subject since the early 1960s. They work, he says — if done right.

Role playing is an important element of that, according to Goodman, who says workers need to be placed in an environment that feels, at the same time, safe but also a little uncomfortable.

“Once you get a gut reaction to what that would feel like, you’re more aware of the impact of that bias on a person,” he says. “You’re much less likely to act in a biased manner.”

Goodman says he sometimes uses sports analogies to help get across the message about the impact of racial bias. He talks about two people competing in outdoor races at different times of day — with different wind speeds.

“Without realizing it, there’s a slight advantage you have because the wind is at your back, and it’s helping push you forward,” Goodman says. “You’ll think, ‘I won the race because I’m more competent.’ You’ll never think, ‘Gee, I had a privilege.’ ”

But if the goal is to keep people coming to Starbucks, does it matter whether the nationwide training later this month actually works?

“They’ve already got the benefit from announcing” the training, Argenti says. “Now, they’re getting another benefit because people like you are writing about it before it happens.”

Argenti says it’s “ironic” that Starbucks is taking heat for racial bias because, he says, “This is a legitimately good company that wants to get it right.”

He points to former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s apparently well-intentioned but widely ridiculed 2015 initiative — called “Race Together” — that encouraged baristas to engage customers in discussions on race relations.

“Black people tweeted, ‘How am I going to talk about 400 years of racism in the time it takes to whip up a tiramisu Frappuccino?’” Argenti says.

He says that, to some extent, Starbucks might have learned from other recent corporate PR disasters, including the case last year of a United Airlines passenger being dragged off an overbooked flight at O’Hare Airport.

Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Continental Holdings, initially blamed the passenger, Dr. David Dao, who ended up losing teeth and suffering a broken nose and a concussion when he refused to voluntarily get off the plane.

But, after a huge public backlash, Munoz reversed course, declaring, “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”

In contrast, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson quickly took responsibility for the incident in Philadelphia and went there to personally apologize to the two men.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson heads to a meeting with Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and other officials on April 16.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson heads to a meeting with Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and other officials on April 16. | AP

Earlier this month, Starbucks announced it had reached an undisclosed settlement with the men, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson. The company also said that the men, both in their early 20s, would be given the opportunity to complete their bachelor’s degrees, with Starbucks fully covering their tuition.

“Who would you rather invest in?” Argenti says. “Would you invest in United, with the way they handled [things]? Basically, United shot the messenger.”

He doesn’t expect the Philadelphia incident to haunt Starbucks.

“If your culture is one of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome, obviously telling two people to leave doesn’t fit with that,” Argenti says. “And that’s the way they reacted: ‘This is not us.’”