The Starbucks Culture Flower; “Houston We May Have A Problem!”


By Solomon Carter
Corporate Training Manager

When I think of Starbucks, I think of a decent place to meet, good service with a kind of grunge hippie flavor to it and a treat or two that I like to indulge in from time to time. Generally, it symbolizes a good place to get a lot of different things other than regular coffee.

The reasons why I perceive Starbucks as being that way isn’t by happenstance or just because I love the treats that fatten me up. It’s cultural. My perception of Starbucks is based on exactly what they’ve been trained to offer and “give off”. And the manifestation of all training equals culture. This concept includes what we fail to train too. What you fail to train can invoke certain behaviors that are even more prevalent and powerful than what you train on a daily basis. As executive leadership, particularly in training and compliance, we are responsible for both equally. What’s trained and what is not trained all equals training because some very specific behaviors manifest from both.

So let’s get back to Starbucks. Recently, I’m starting to believe that the beautiful Starbucks culture flower I’ve come to know and love is rotting. I thought to use the term “wilting” but as of recently, that word would be giving them a pass. But in actuality, using fruit as an analogy is the better example because just like fruit, rarely does a good culture rot overnight—– It takes time. And if exposed to certain conditions it can be accelerated or retarded unknowingly or at will.

The First Chink In The Armor

So if you research long and hard enough, like with any large organization I’m sure you’ll find at least a few other publicized incidents over the years but for me, the one on April 12, 2018 is the one that really got everyone’s attention and certainly made me think about their training and culture differently.

Though it’s somewhat of an involved incident, in sum and substance, there was an ugly incident in a Philadelphia Starbucks that evoked national outrage where two black men were carted off to jail for what has been termed “drinking coffee while black”. Much like the recent case of the young lady graduate student taking a nap in a common area at Yale University and having the police called on her and the “Selling water while black” incidents with the latter being about a young girl selling bottled water in front of her home to raise funds for a trip to Disneyland—-They all involve the police being called without good cause. The terms are all in reference to or a play on the term “Driving while black”. It’s the concept of a fictitious and/or unnecessary charge or negative interaction with the police for only doing what most of America does daily without a second thought much less a hassle from the police or anyone else for that matter.

All of these cell phone video documented cases can be seen on Youtube with just a click of the mouse if you’re unfamiliar with them.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, in this Philly case, these two young black men went to meet another White gentleman for a business meeting at the place where we all love to get our caramel frappuccino’s (I like mine with extra caramel drizzled on the inside please!). Shortly after arriving but before the third party arrived, one of the two black men had the gall to try to use the restroom before ordering. But in the baristas wisdom, she not only denied him access but also demanded that he order first. Say what? A practice that is not appropriate and certainly isn’t how Starbucks normally treats its customers. After calmly addressing his mistreatment and being there for…wait for it…what the 911 records show as approximately two minutes from the time they entered the store, The barista called the police where they were arrested and taken to jail for criminal trespassing. But not before the third member of the party arrived and along with several other good Samaritans, cell phones handy, recorded the incident and verbally chastised the staff and officers for the disparate treatment of these men which went viral.

The pivotal moment prior to being arrested was when the officers improperly co-signed on the barista’s demand that they leave the store. When the men asserted that they had done nothing wrong except exist, breathe and respectfully ask to use the restroom—-And that it was their right to be there like everyone else, they were arrested. It’s pivotal because it is the exact same as the stories and black and white footage we’ve seen time and time again where men, women and children refused to leave a counter of a restaurant, use a water fountain, bathroom or sit on a bus seat “not assigned to them” and get arrested and much worse. Not a proud moment to say the least.

So without going over every detail of what happened next, I can say that the District Attorney’s office refused to prosecute the case and it was dropped.

After tremendous public outcry,  the CEO admitted that the police should have never been called, they should have never been treated that way by his staff,  these young men did absolutely nothing wrong and they certainly shouldn’t have been arrested. In a tweet, he literally said that Starbucks was “ashamed” of the incident which they should have been.

He apologized profusely, publicly and quickly which was the right thing to do. His behavior post incident is the textbook way to address an issue that had the ability to debilitate his organization if handled any other way than the way it was. His leadership behavior should serve as a case study and management training tool for smart organizations for decades to come. Talk about post-incident risk mitigation! This was the bambino. I highly recommend you study it and then emulate it. He not only said almost all of the right things but did it in a public and media-savvy way that I believe enhanced our perception of Starbucks in a lot of ways and did more than just squash a major beef. And not for nothing, he seemed genuinely sincere.

With that being said, as a Starbucks fan, I was really happy to see him do that because if he hadn’t, after writing my fifty point dissertation on why he must immediately step down or be removed, you would have had better chance of seeing Bigfoot breakdancing in a Starbucks than me spending my money or time there. So on behalf of my taste buds and that banana bread loaf with the nuts on top thing you guys always kindly warm up for me, thank you once again!

Aside from the money these men were paid for having their constitutional rights shredded in an instant, for the coup de grat, the CEO promised “racial bias training”. This consisted of closing their 8000 stores covering 175,000 employees on May 29th at a cost of an estimated 12 million dollars or so.

To the laymen this sounded great and undoubtedly, the gesture was outstanding but again as I’ve previously outlined, singular training events or a series of singular training events often can’t provide the best opportunity to change the culture of an organization. It takes more skilled ways through cutting-edge training techniques and a diverse multi-pronged approach that often transcend the classroom environment. Your entire organization is the classroom and it must be used through other profound training methodologies outside of conventional training in order to really affect culture.

The Remedy

So without giving away the secret recipe to my frosted flakes here, let’s briefly go over some advanced training concepts that I like to share with executive leadership and training managers who may be in need of a remedy. It’s imperative that when curricula is developed, we now move past the concept of simply writing objectives or standardized outcomes such as “at the end of this course, you would have learned these three things”. Now don’t get me wrong, those are good and you’d be shocked at how many training platforms lack clear objectives that staff can accomplish at the end of the training evolution. But now the game has changed. When developing curricula and engaging in the act of training, trainers must develop and present in a way that has an impact on the culture of an organization which requires a modified approach.

So for instance, I recommend trainers write out “Exactly how is this going to impact the culture of the organization immediately after they learn it.

There must be two objectives that parallel each other. One is identifying an objective you want someone to do and the other is to know without a shadow of a doubt what you’re teaching will impact the culture of your organization. If you line them both up, often you’ll find that they won’t match at which time you must reconcile them. Yes, it can be difficult because there are sophisticated training nuances involved but it’s why your training leadership must be the tip of the spear.  Otherwise undue exposure to risk, repetitive negative occurrences and failure is imminent.

With that being said, certainly because of that one incident it wouldn’t automatically cause me to doubt Starbucks as an organization. Particularly after their leadership so adeptly responded to the crisis. But then just a few short weeks after the aforementioned incident, there was another blip on the screen wreaking of the same stench.

A young man and student at UPenn with a speech impediment named Sam went to a local Starbucks and ordered a beverage. Sam stutters. Sam alleges that after the barista made fun of him by stuttering back at him while ordering, he then took it a step further and wrote “Sssam” on his cup which is a method Starbucks uses to identify who ordered what drink. They write your name on it.

When I saw this, I thought “Houston, we definitely have a problem”. Not just because of the ugliness of what the barista did. That commentary is obvious.  The deeper reason why I suspect Starbucks may have a handful of other serious issues that all stem from training and that they may no longer represent the kind of company that engages in superior training and thereby a superior culture derived from that training is this;

1. What are the chances that this employee was hired after the previous mandatory racial sensitivity training? I’d say slim. But if he was, that probably gives them less refuge.

2. Even if he was hired post the major training event, that would make him a new employee who should have gone through serious training that emphasized the new way of doing things in a meaningful and cultural kind of way.

3. If the training was performed in a way that was specifically designed to have a powerful effect on the culture, even if it was sensitivity training towards…. let’s say mistreating stray animals you encounter during your walk home after work, it would have transcended that topic and compelled him to understand to not mistreat anything or anyone based on gender, race, color, ethnicity, origin….. And yes disability too! If it were taught in a way that was meant to affect culture and not just for the sake of doing it (no matter how well intended), the chances of him doing this would have been greatly reduced. If making people more conscious of their humanity in how we treat others was a cultural objective and not just a “training objective”, then without even mentioning disabled persons in the training, he would have gotten the memo to not behave so ignorantly.

The concepts of basic decency in our sense of humanity transcend the specifics of most any genre. We don’t laugh at someone who is struggling and we don’t mock the disabled. We give up our seat to a pregnant woman or elderly person on a crowded bus (I was raised to do that for women in general) because of our humanity. We are decent human beings. These concepts are rather simple but to train it is hyper-complex yet more than doable for those who understand how. And again, it is not the same kind of training as when you train a lot of other things. The psychological approaches are often profoundly different when applying motivational methodologies and even compulsion.

4. Last but not least, if the training was performed in a way to affect culture in a powerful way, then the culture of Starbucks wouldn’t have allowed him to do that in the first place because he would have known that by doing it, he would not only be immediately fired but that his conduct would be so severely frowned upon culturally, it would not have been in his best interests to do it unless he just wanted to be an outcast and an ogre. Which no one really wants to be no matter how much they act like they do. If the allegation is true (Sam had the wisdom to take a picture of the receipt and has shown the world a copy of the receipt with his name misspelled on it by the Starbucks employee. So for the record, I believe him). The culture of Starbucks should have been stronger than what it is to deter that kind of conduct so close to the incident with the other gentlemen. And in the same immediate area? Even worse! If I were that regional manager’s boss, they would know to not show up to work that next day, or the next ones after that until the 5th of forever. It appears to me that Someone or in this case a group of someones are not taking the mistreatment of human beings seriously at Starbucks and they better wake up.

Anyhow, after leaving, Sam contacted their corporate office with an official complaint. He was replied to by being given a cattle call standardized “sorry for your inconvenience” kind of response and a $5 gift card.

And there you have it. Problem confirmed once again. The system isn’t working anywhere as well as it should. If the only time things are perfectly adjudicated is when you, the executive leader gets involved, then you know you have very a serious problem screaming of risk.

Starbucks has since apologized, fired the employee and admitted that they also dropped the ball in their response.

You see conducting training in the feel-good areas of what you do like serving tasty treats is infinitely easier than developing curriculum, administering training and developing policies and procedures to make sure they do that and simultaneously don’t do the ten thousand other things your staff has no business doing at the same time. Like calling a customer “Sssam” or calling the police on and kicking them out of your establishments for no legitimate or legal reason.

Whether it’s in the compliance of something on healthcare, finance, aviation or customer service,  when it comes to training, The same things that got you this far aren’t the same things that will insulate you from the accompanying risk if you don’t have superior training that constantly evolves.

Unfortunately, good intentions and having a good heart as a leader doesn’t always go hand in hand with understanding the evolution of sophisticated training methodologies that yield the greatest results. This statement isn’t meant to condemn the leadership of Starbucks but meant to serve as a training tool for everyone.

It was once said that “the poor will always be with us.” It is the same for mean-spirited people and fools too. We understand that we will always have employees who go on a frolic and detour where there was no foreseeable way to know they were going to use poor and independent judgement in their behavior. But as leaders, that should never give us sanctuary in our style of leading and ensuring compliance. Irrespectively, I believe we are witnessing something that if my beloved Starbucks isn’t careful, they may be viewed as the “Vanilla Ice” of coffee shops which previously seemed like an impossibility—- and viewed as the anti-place to go and Passé, instead of the place we currently enjoy. Because the only thing worse than their culture flower dying is for us to find out it was fake from the very beginning.

Or at least has been for a very long time.

Feel free to contact me about anything anytime
Solomon Carter is a corporate training manager specializing in curricula development, policy and process improvement. He is a compliance professional and an executive at All Power In His Hands Christian Mission.