To Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz, the training program employees participated in on Tuesday has “critical importance” for the company’s vision of being a “third place” where everyone is welcome.

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Before the unprecedented afternoon closure of 8,000 company-owned U.S. Starbucks stores Tuesday, executive chairman Howard Schultz told reporters that he and his top executives had done the same anti-racial-bias training the week before.

“There were a number of tables where people began to cry,” he said of the session with about 40 top Starbucks executives at the company’s Seattle headquarters.

It’s less clear what impact the four-hour training had on the estimated 175,000 employees who undertook it, and whether it will effect a meaningful change in the atmosphere at outlets of the coffee giant, which has prided itself on providing a “third place” where everyone is welcome. That vision was challenged by the April arrests of two black men in a Philadelphia store.

Employee reaction was tough to gauge as the training ended late in the day Tuesday and few employees were talking about it directly on social media — though some posted pictures and anecdotes about customers pulling on locked doors or waiting at the drive-thru to place an order.

But people did share thoughts going into the event — snarky and serious — on online message boards for Starbucks employees and customers. As would be the case with anything 175,000 individuals working in 8,000-plus different workplaces experience, expectations and reactions varied.

Tuesday’s training included a short film by documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson: 

This independently created film by Stanley Nelson was underwritten by Starbucks as part of the company’s training to address racial bias in its store. (Courtesy of Starbucks)

One post on the Starbucks channel of online forum Reddit read, “I can tell you that you’ll get out of it what you put in (i.e. you need to be willing to voice opinions and openly discuss stuff), and it will be helpful if your team does come from a variety of backgrounds.”

Others complained that the four-hour training — for which employees were paid — was tacked on to the end of a regular shift for some, making for a 12-hour day.

Schultz, speaking to a small group of reporters Tuesday morning, said the tears at the executive session came from the emotion of the personal stories participants shared, and reflections on “the critical importance of what we were about to do.”

The Tuesday exercise, part of a broader effort that includes policy revisions and ongoing training, was developed with the help of outside consultants in a little more than six weeks after a Starbucks store manager in Philadelphia called the police on two black men waiting for an associate. Video of the subsequent arrests blew up on social media, sparking protests and sending Starbucks into crisis mode. Schultz said the store manager, with whom he talked in the aftermath, ultimately agreed to a separation agreement “which she felt was best for her.”

“Critically important”

Schultz has long sought to balance the company’s business growth with a social component as he built Starbucks from a small chain of cafes modeled on the community-centric espresso bars of Milan to a global coffee titan.

Over the years, the company has implemented many programs “that advance the cause of the culture and values and humanity of Starbucks,” Schultz said.

But the anti-racial-bias training, he said, stands out. “I can’t think of anything in our history that we feel is as critically important, especially at this moment in time in the country, as this.”

Some employees expressed concerns about a backlash against Starbucks coming from across the spectrum, including accusations that the company and its employees are racist as well as anger from those who see the company’s reaction as political correctness run amok.

“Yet again Starbucks has put its employees on the front lines with no protection,” wrote Reddit user pagel_thechongabagel. “Other than trying to diffuse or calling the cops, there were no protocols put in place to keep us physically or mentally safe from the bullying we are receiving everyday since this training was announced.”

It’s not the first time Starbucks front-line workers have felt at risk during a high-profile discussion of race.

Schultz said the company’s 2015 “race together” campaign, in which baristas were encouraged to write those words on cups as an icebreaker on the fraught topic, was shut down after a week “primarily because of the concern we had for the safety of many of our partners. It just wasn’t a program that was ready for 2015.”

Schultz has billed Starbucks as a “third place” — not work, not home — that is, in his vision, welcoming to all. That’s more challenging to live up to today than it was three decades ago when the company had 11 stores, he said, citing systemic issues in society that present themselves in stores including mental illness, homelessness, the opioid crisis and the racial divide.

The Philadelphia arrests laid bare the extent to which Starbucks is not always a welcoming place to everyone, prompting recent policy changes that allow anyone to stay in the store or use the bathroom regardless of whether they’ve made a purchase (the Philadelphia men had not). But those changes bring challenges of their own, exacerbating an already difficult situation employees face when people use drugs, vandalize or contaminate Starbucks bathrooms.

“We don’t want to become a public shelter. We don’t want to become a public bathroom,” Schultz said. At the same time, “we want to manage the company through the lens of humanity, and that’s a very fragile balance.”

Employees at the Pioneer Square Starbucks at First Avenue and Yesler Way talk to each other during the training as seen through a window Tuesday. The training included a guidebook with discussion prompts and activities. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
Employees at the Pioneer Square Starbucks at First Avenue and Yesler Way talk to each other during the training as seen through a window Tuesday. The training included a guidebook with discussion prompts and activities. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)

The Tuesday training is part of an effort to help employees strike that balance.

It was delivered as a self-guided exercise. Employees were told to break into groups of three to five and provided with a 68-page guidebook with discussion prompts and activities.

They also received personal notebooks to capture their thoughts and shared iPads to view videos from company executives, implicit-bias experts and documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson on the continuing history of racism in public accommodations in the U.S.

Employees were given an 800 number to call if they needed help navigating difficult moments — a concession to the fact that trainings like this are usually delivered by a third-party moderator, in person.

Starbucks tapped a group of high-profile advisers in developing its response to the Philadelphia incident, including Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, who connected the company with more than 30 experts in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, behavior change and other fields.

The May 29 curriculum was developed by an internal Starbucks team working with outside research and advocacy consortium The Perception Institute and SYPartners, which runs large-scale training programs for companies.

Starbucks intends to make its training materials available to other companies and organizations. However, the curriculum was highly tailored to Starbucks, so its direct utility for other businesses may be limited.

Not without critics

The training effort is not without its skeptics, and Schultz is not without his critics.

With its very public push to conduct the Tuesday training, Starbucks has been accused of a “self-righteous and disingenuous public-relations stunt” — in the words of Orlando political activist T.J. Legacy-Cole — without making meaningful changes that would benefit those impacted by systemic racism.

Schultz said the company has attempted to make amends to the two Philadelphia men with an offer of college tuition, an undisclosed financial settlement, and a day spent visiting Starbucks headquarters last Friday hosted by Chief Executive Kevin Johnson.

I think, from my perspective, it takes moral courage to do this. I’ll also say it’s quite expensive.” - Howard Schultz

He also pointed to stores the company has opened in recent years in communities where it hadn’t previously ventured, such as Ferguson, Missouri, Jamaica, Queens, in New York City, and Oakland, California, and programs to hire young people who are unemployed and not in school — mainly people of color, Schultz said.

Some Starbucks shareholders have also been critical, calling to ask how much all of this is going to cost, and how the company justifies it, Schultz said.

“I don’t know of another company in the history of American business that’s done anything remotely close to this,” Schultz said. “I think, from my perspective, it takes moral courage to do this. I’ll also say it’s quite expensive.”

(The company has yet to disclose a specific financial impact of the store closure and training program.)

However, Schultz said, he views it “as an investment in our people and the long-term culture and values of Starbucks,” in the same vein as its stock-option grants, health insurance and college-tuition benefits.

Moreover, he said, Starbucks employees sent him hundreds of emails supporting the company’s response and looking forward to the training.

Asked how he would measure the effectiveness of the training, Schultz said, “we’ve been asking ourselves that. This is not science. This is human behavior.”

The training, he said, will strengthen the bonds among store employees and provide tools to help them treat customers with more empathy and compassion, and create a welcoming environment.

“I’m very confident that what we’re about to do is going to accomplish that,” Schultz said.

A spokesperson added that the company is surveying employees before and after the training, and a plan for measurement would be developed with outside experts as Starbucks maps out its longer-term program, which is to include monthly trainings via iPad on topics such as de-escalation and bias, and a summit next year for store managers.

Schultz is hopeful that the Tuesday training will inspire other companies and organizations to take similar steps, but he has no illusions about what can be accomplished in one afternoon.

“There’s no expectation on anyone’s part that a four-hour block of training is going to comprehensively solve the issues of racial bias or inequities, discrimination, however it’s critically important to start this conversation,” he said. “This is the beginning of a long-term journey.”