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Starbucks Deploys Racial-Bias Training on Massive Scale

Starbucks wasted little time trying to minimize damage stemming from alleged racism at one of its locations by ordering all its U.S. shops to undergo racial-bias training.

The coffee mega chain is shutting down more than 8,000 U.S. stores on the afternoon of May 29 for a racial-bias education session for its 175,000 employees, Yahoo Finance reports. Globally, the 8,000 locations represents 29% of its stores.

The push to educate its U.S. workforce came after two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks. An employee asked the men, who had come to Starbucks for a meeting, to leave after they did not order anything and when they asked to use the restroom. A manager cited the store's policy that prohibited non-paying customers from using the restroom.

A video of the men being arrested went viral and forced Starbuck to deal with the fallout, including nationwide protests. The employee who called police was fired and CEO Kevin Johnson came out with a strong video apology where he called the store's actions "reprehensible."

Johnson also personally met with both men to apologize, the Chicago Tribune reports. But Johnson deemed it wasn't enough.

"Going into this, no matter what Starbucks did, it would be deemed to have been a misfire, not only because of the emotions involved, but also because of the utter impossibility of controlling social media and because you have legitimately aggrieved parties," says Eric Dezenhall, a crisis management expert and CEO of Dezenhall Resources, according to Yahoo Finance. Dezenhall adds that Starbucks "has done the best they could do under terrible circumstances."

Johnson accepted full responsibility and promised, in his video apology, that "we're going to learn from this."

"This is a management issue, and I am accountable to ensure we address the policy and practices and the training that led to this outcome," Johnson says in the video.
Dezenhall notes that Johnson took the right approach in "understanding that the game is damage control--not that damage never happened."

Starbucks will pay a steep price for the hours it shuts down later this month, with losses estimated at $12 million, notes Jeff Sonnenfeld, dean of Yale's School of Management. "This move goes far beyond the playbook of what a normal crisis response would be," says Andrew Gilman, president of CommCore Consulting Group. Gilman made his remarks to The New York Times.

The challenge for Starbucks is to act fast to deal with a major societal problem, while understanding that the underlying issues that led up to the arrest have a long history. "Think of it like a trauma surgeon--if someone is wheeled in with chest pains, you can't begin giving them a lecture on history of health," Dezenhall says. "You have to solve the problem at hand."

For Starbucks, which has long promoted itself as a friendly meeting destination, "they need to focus not just on customer service, but on people care," says Daniel DelCastillo, a managing partner for San Diego-based Best Human Resources Consultants. DelCastillo made his remarks to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

"How do we care for people the moment they walk in the door, whether they buy anything or not?" says DelCastillo, also an adjunct professor at San Diego State University's Fowler College of Business Administration. "They need to measure the diversity of their clientele and get feedback from customers about how they have been treated. And they need to bring accountability to diversity management. When you make the diversity element part of (the employees') performance, people pay attention."

To be most effective, bias training should focus on how people make decisions,  says Howard Ross, founder of Silver Spring, MD-based Cook Ross business management consulting. Ross' remarks were reported by the Society For Human Resource Management.

"The training is a beginning," Ross says. "It can bring awareness and point people in the right direction, but training by itself will rarely have any long-term impact" unless there is change in the company's culture and employees are held accountable for their actions.

Starbucks should include training that gives it employees an understanding of what it is like for people of color to live in a society "where they must always be aware of the suspicion others have for them, to be profiled and watched because crime or disruption is expected of them," says Steve Humerickhouse, executive director of The Forum on Workplace Inclusion at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis.

"Starbucks can go a long way in educating 175,000 employees about what it means to be a person of color in the U.S., especially if those employees take that training to heart and share it with their extended friends and family," Humerickhouse says. "The impact can ripple out from Philadelphia to the whole country."

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