Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on April 23, 2018
An April 12 incident at a Starbucks in Philadelphia has led to a public relations crisis for the company. Two African American men were arrested for not making a purchase within minutes after their arrival.
Shortly after Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson arrived at Starbucks, they were asked if they would like to make a purchase. They responded that they were waiting for a business colleague. They were then asked to leave the café but refused.
The café manager called 911 and told the police dispatcher, “I have two gentlemen in my café that are refusing to make a purchase or leave.” The police responded, and after a conversation with Robinson and Nelson, arrested them.
Why did the café manager ask Robinson and Nelson to leave, and then call 911 when they refused to do so? If they were disruptive, the manager would have said so in her call to 911. How are other people who don’t make a purchase soon after arriving treated? Did the café manger fail to use common sense and good critical judgment, or was her decision to call 911 a reflection of racial bias?
Starbucks promotes its cafés as a comfortable and inviting place to meet friends, hang out, enjoy coffee, food and conversation and use its wi-fi service. This is their business model. It is not unusual for people to arrive and not make a purchase until their friends or colleagues arrive.
Quoting from the Starbucks Values Statement, “With our partners, our coffee and our customers at our core, we live these values … creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome.” Perhaps not so for everyone at this Starbucks that day.
To say that the arrest of these two individuals caused an uproar and accusations of bias and discrimination against black customers is an understatement. The incident went viral, and smartphone videos of the arrests have been viewed around the world millions of times. There has even been a call to boycott Starbucks.
Immediately after the incident, Philadelphia police commissioner Richard Ross, who is African American, defended the actions of the police officers. On April 19, he changed his position and apologized to Robinson and Nelson.
In a public statement, Ross said, “… It is no excuse … [that] my lack of awareness of the Starbucks business model played a role in my message. While … [it] is apparently a well-known fact with Starbucks customers, not everyone is aware that people spend long hours in Starbucks and aren’t necessarily expected to make a purchase. … It is also reasonable to believe that the officers [who responded to the 911 call] didn’t know it either.”
In response to this incident, Starbucks has announced that on the afternoon of May 29, the company will close all its 8,000 U.S. based cafés for racial bias training.
The company’s CEO Kevin Johnson arrived in Philadelphia to apologize to Robinson and Nelson and express his regret that this situation occurred. In his statement about the incident, Johnson called it a reprehensible outcome.
This is not the first time that Starbucks has seen its reputation damaged due to a lack of common sense and good critical judgment by an employee. In November 2014 at a Phoenix, Arizona Starbucks, a pregnant woman was denied the use of the restroom even after her husband offered to make a purchase.
In September 2015 at another Philadelphia Starbucks, a police officer was refused the use of the restroom. In this and the Phoenix incident, Starbucks offered the obligatory apology, but there was no public announcement about specific actions to avoid these types of events in the future.
What do all three Starbucks incidents have in common? The employee in each incident didn’t use common sense and good critical judgement.
For Starbucks to deliver on its Values Statement, it needs to review its pre-employment screening procedures, its policies and procedures as well as conduct ongoing training of its employees. Racial bias training is a good start.
Lack of common sense and good critical judgment in employees is a risk factor, like many others, that can damage a company. It needs to be treated as such by management. This is a lesson for all companies.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School.