On Tuesday afternoon, the line at the Starbucks in Government Center stretched toward the door when an employee appeared with an announcement: The two dozen waiting customers in line could get their afternoon caffeine fix, but they couldn’t linger.
“I’m locking the door in seven minutes,” he said. By 2:35 p.m., the doors were shuttered.
In response to a racist incident in the one of its Philadelphia locations earlier this year, the coffee chain closed 8,000 of its stores on Tuesday afternoon to provide 175,000 employees training on “race, bias, and the building of a diverse welcoming company.” In closing the stores during peak afternoon hours, the company’s message was clear: To keep its identity as the nation’s “third place” — a respite from home and work — Starbucks must eliminate institutional bias behind the counter.
Given the current polarized political climate, “corporations, businesses, and business leaders have a moral obligation today to do more for their employees and the communities they serve,” founder Howard Schultz said in an interview with CNN on Tuesday morning.
“Race should be a subject that we should be able to talk about, even though it’s difficult,” Schultz said. “What we’re doing today is historic, no other company in America has ever done this.”
Schultz said the training will cost Starbucks tens of millions of dollars. But its executives are betting that the effort will win the company good will and customer loyalty, not to mention earned media coverage, benefits that may not be quantifiable just yet.
The company has faced national scrutiny since April, when an employee in a Philadelphia coffee shop called police and had two black men arrested while they waited for their friend to arrive for a meeting. The incident, which was caught on video and shared widely on social media, prompted a swift reaction online. The chief executive, Kevin Johnson, met with the men to offer his apologies, and subsequently announced a major sensitivity training effort.
“Starbucks is a company built on nurturing the human spirit, and it’s on us to harness our scale and expertise to do right by the communities we serve,” Rossann Williams, Starbucks’ executive vice president, US retail, said in an note to employees about the training.
The interactive four-hour training sessions were designed with advisers from the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Equal Justice Initiative, and diversity trainers at the Perception Institute, according to a preview of the trainings released by the company. During the trainings, Starbucks “partners” — the company’s term for staffers — watched excerpts of the new documentary “You’re Welcome,” by Stanley Nelson on an iPad and discussed the history of racial discrimination in public accommodations from the Civil Rights era through today.
Schultz said he and his executive team had undergone the antibias program last week, and would release the training to the public after Tuesday.
Katie Herzog, a management consultant in Boston who has worked with corporate clients on diversity efforts for over two decades, called Starbucks’ public rollout of its program courageous. She said it was important for the training to create an interactive dialogue with employees that allowed them to engage in a discussion and that incorporated their backgrounds and experiences.
“If you have people be passive recipients of a video, it’s just useless, it actually creates more backlash and resistance,” she said.
She said Starbucks should follow up by surveying customers to gauge how comfortable they feel in the stores, and then periodically revisit those findings in follow-up surveys. She said the company should also hold managers accountable if they fail to react to bias incidents.
Starbucks’ role in shaping a national dialogue about unconscious bias in corporate America will depend on how the training is both received and adopted by its employees, and whether they feel empowered to speak up if a colleague exhibits bias on the job, said Daena Giardella, an organizational leadership consultant and senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management.
“We have a deeply troubling unfinished conversation about race in this country,” she said. In the charged political climate, “companies have an extraordinary opportunity to take the lead” on issues of bias because Americans spend so much of their time at the office, she said. She said she hopes more will take on the institutional mission to “promote civility, respect, and to tackle inequality with vigor,” in the workplace.
But Herzog warned that any attempt by Starbucks to extend that conversation beyond the workforce risked seeming presumptuous and could have significant consequences. She pointed to Starbucks’ disastrous 2015 “Race Together” campaign. Rolled out during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, the initiative prompted customers to engage in discussions about racism over their Frappucinos, but was met with backlash for being tone-deaf.
“It is Starbucks’ responsibility to educate their employees and to be clear about behaviors they which all employees to exhibit,” Herzog said. “But it is not their right or responsibility to educate the public.”
Public response to the shutdown was mixed in the Government Center Starbucks on Tuesday.
Bill Collins, 55, a Boston native who now lives in Big Sky, Mont., said Schultz’s appearance on CNN on Tuesday convinced him that the training wasn’t just an attempt to patch up the Philadelphia problems. “I think it’s real, I think their CEO gets it, that it’s a bigger issue than just one incident,” he said.
Tilghman Kazmierowicz, 22, who was visiting from Nashville, was more skeptical. “I kind of think it’s a publicity stunt to cover up the issue they had,” he said. “I think at the end of the day they’re just trying to make the public forget what went wrong.”Janelle Nanos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos. Margeaux Sippell contributed reporting.