Starbucks to close all stores for bias training

Marvin Greer (left) meets friend Lee Kimbrough for coffee at the Starbucks location at 3660 Cascade Road in southwest Atlanta. “Starbucks has to understand it is more than a coffeehouse. It is a neighborhood gathering spot,” Greer said. LIGAYA FIGUERAS
Marvin Greer (left) meets friend Lee Kimbrough for coffee at the Starbucks location at 3660 Cascade Road in southwest Atlanta. “Starbucks has to understand it is more than a coffeehouse. It is a neighborhood gathering spot,” Greer said. LIGAYA FIGUERAS

Some welcome it, others say it goes too far.

All eyes are on Starbucks. And not because it’s rolling out a new caffeinated drink.

Starbucks is shutting down its more than 8,000 locations across the country today to conduct racial bias training for its 175,000 employees.

Some critics, mainly on social media, see it as political correctness gone too far. Others welcome the training.

It comes nearly seven weeks after two black men waiting at a Starbucks in Philadelphia were arrested when a store manager called the police.

Since their April 12 arrest, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson have reached a settlement with the city: A payment of $1 to each in exchange for the creation of a $200,000 fund to help young entrepreneurs in Philadelphia.

Starbucks has experienced a backlash of criticism and calls for a boycott. Earlier this month, it announced a new policy that allows anyone to use its spaces, including restrooms, cafes and patios, regardless of whether they make a purchase. Company executives said its previous policies were loose and ambiguous, leaving decisions on whether people could sit in its stores or use the restroom up to store managers.

“I think training is a necessity,” said Marvin Greer, a real estate developer who frequents the Starbucks at 3660 Cascade Road near his home in southwest Atlanta. Greer visits the coffee shop multiple times a week for meetings or chats with friends, like Lee Kimbrough of Gwinnett County, who met him on the patio there last Thursday.

There are more than 50 Starbucks locations inside the Perimeter, but the one on Cascade Road is the only free-standing Starbucks outside the airport in this predominantly black area of Atlanta. “We don’t really have a coffeehouse here. This is the place,” Greer said.

It’s a place where Greer might bump into a politician, run into friends and certainly find self-employed professionals pulling out their computers and phones and setting up shop.

Although Greer has always found this Starbucks location to be a welcoming place, he considers the training a good move for a corporation that has grown to more than 28,000 locations in 77 countries. “Starbucks has to understand it is more than a coffeehouse. It is a neighborhood gathering spot.”

“Starbucks has become part of our culture,” echoed Kimbrough.

Starbucks patrons will find a sign on the front doors that reads “WE’RE CLOSING EARLY ON MAY 29,” so that its team “can reconnect with our mission and share ideas about how to make Starbucks even more welcoming.” But Starbucks has said the brief closure is just the first stage in bias training.

The effect of training corporations offer against racial bias is hard to quantify, and Starbucks' well publicized step has potential risks along with potential benefits.

“It has to be ongoing. Can you imagine trying to bring people out of unconscious bias in one day?” said Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, an associate professor of African American History and Gender Studies at Indiana University and currently a fellow in residence at the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference at Emory University.

“I spent my life teaching implicit bias. I can’t necessarily do it in a 15-week semester class. I only scratch the surface. Starbucks can’t necessarily hire a company to do it in one day,” she said.

To help design the May 29 training, Starbucks sought the expertise of the Equal Justice Initiative, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and public policy organization Demos to work with anti-bias training experts “to set the foundation for a longer-term Starbucks anti-bias, diversity, equity, and inclusion effort,” according to the company.

Myers is particularly interested to know who will be conducting training today.

“I hope they come with sensitivity and with real practical solutions. I hope they are people of color who have experienced these issues and can speak to them not just from an academic perspective but from a personal perspective,” said Myers, who is black.

Starbucks did not respond to a request for details regarding the training.

Greer, the Starbucks regular, sees vast potential for Starbucks’ undertaking. “Starbucks has the ability to be a catalyst to help other corporations,” he said.

That contrasts with the view of many. One social media poster wrote Saturday, for example, that he doesn't support the company's plan, writing, in part: "Calling the cops on 2 dudes loitering is not racism. So in response you are turning your stores into public toilets. Liberal idiots."

Starbucks could be one of the first major corporations to develop a comprehensive plan to combat bias. In the least, today’s training is an opportunity for other large corporations to consider their own policies.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contacted a half-dozen large, locally-based companies to ask what – if anything – they do to minimize displays of bias among employees.

Coca-Cola spokesman Kent Landers said his company works hard to embrace “similarities and differences” of people and culture.

“We continue to expand our unconscious bias awareness programs as part of our overall diversity and inclusion training curriculum and leadership development programs,” he said.

Home Depot, the largest Georgia-based company, has a commitment to respect for all people, said spokesman Stephen Holmes. “That is one of our core values and we reinforce that through ongoing training.”

Managers take a course on unconscious bias to raise their awareness, he said, and a different training program is done in the stores for front-line employees. “If you work for Home Depot, you are going to have periodic training.”

Chick-fil-A, Genuine Parts and Arby’s did not respond to AJC inquiries.

A reluctance to talk is not surprising, said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, a 285,000-member group.

“What are they going to say? The problem is, none of us has an answer,” he said. “This is a really complicated issue, and we are not convinced at all that anyone has figured out what’s an effective intervention.”

Starbucks is taking “bold, courageous” action – which could easily backfire, he said. “You assume it can’t do any harm, but it can. What Starbucks is doing, with 100,000 employees, is not a small thing and if something goes wrong, it won’t be a small thing to fix.”

Of course, not doing anything is also risky, he said. “It’s about reputational risk. It’s about financial risk.”

Everyone has various kinds of bias, Taylor said. Programs can encourage employees to dredge up all sorts of issues, but there is a danger in that: “What happens if you have everybody in what is supposed to be a safe space and the manager says, ‘You know, I’ve never liked black people.’ As an employee in that shop, would you still be comfortable working there going forward?”

The company-operated and owned Starbucks stores in metro Atlanta will close about 2:30 Tuesday afternoon. Some licensed Starbucks, in grocery stores, airports, colleges and retailers, may remain open.

At heart, the most crucial question is behavior, he said. “If I’m a gay man and my boss treats me well, do I really want to know that he thinks I am immoral?”

Taylor said he will be watching what Starbucks does and how it plays out. “Nothing magical is going to happen Tuesday. And the real test is not Wednesday. It will be six months from now.”

THE STORY SO FAR

April 12 – Two black men waiting at a Starbucks in Philadelphia are arrested after a store manager calls police. The arrest leads to calls for a boycott of the global coffee chain and to conversations about implicit bias against people of color.

April 17 – Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson announces the chain will close its more than 8,000 U.S. locations the afternoon of May 29 to conduct racial-bias education for its 175,000 employees. The training is geared to prevent discrimination in its stores.

May 19 – Starbucks announces a new policy that allows anyone to use its spaces whether they make a purchase or not. Company executives say its previous policies were loose and ambiguous, leaving decisions on whether people could sit inside or use the restroom up to store managers. The company notes workers should still call the police if someone is a safety threat.

May 29 – Starbucks will shut down all of its U.S. locations in the afternoon to conduct racial bias training for 175,000 employees.

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