Using Starbucks’ Hard Lesson of Racial Bias to Your Advantage
Earlier this year, the country watched a video in shock and dismay as two African-American men were led out of a Starbucks outpost in Philadelphia in handcuffs. Only two minutes before they had arrived, a white manager had called the police to report they were “trespassing.” Following outcries from community and national civil rights leaders, Starbucks acted quickly, announcing it would simultaneously close 8,000 stores for a four-hour session on racial bias.
Denny’s, IHOP and Waffle House also found themselves in the headlines in recent months, not for their famed all-day breakfast menus, but for racially charged incidents widely circulated on social media. From an IHOP server in Maine demanding black teens pay in advance for their meals to an Alabama manager at Waffle House calling the police on a black woman disputing charges on her bill, these racial biases have affected some of the country’s most recognized brands. There have also been numerous complaints of homophobic and xenophobic actions by customers patronizing smaller establishments in recent months.
All companies have issued apologies to the affected parties and statements to the media about their “commitment to diversity,” of course, but the real issue is how they could have avoided these situations in the first place. With more Americans dining out than ever before, the likelihood of catering to diverse clienteles is higher than ever. One of the most important factors to operating a successful restaurant is customer service, say experts, and that means servicing all customers at the highest level.
Dr. Kevin Cokley’s solution is simple. “You need to treat every customer as though that customer is your family,” says the distinguished psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has written for professional journals like Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development and Harvard Educational Review. “We all have family members who get on our nerves from time to time, but think of these individuals as your family members, and how would you want your family members to be treated when they are being served? We tend to put people in a box when we don’t feel connected to them, whether it’s by race, gender, sexual orientation or religion.
“Instead, see these individuals as a part of your family. If people in the restaurant industry got to that point, it would go a long way to ensuring that people will be treated with dignity and respect.”
When incidents do manage to spiral out of control, Dr. Cokley believes diversity training should be mandatory, however, these trainings should be carefully curated for effect.
“The question is what is the content of these diversity trainings?” he says. “You have a lot of people who claim to be these diversity consultants, and they make quite a bit of money doing this sort of consultation, to me it would be very important to find out what that diversity training entails. And is it impactful?”
He cites as a good example Starbucks, whose training after the Philadelphia incident earlier this year consisted of employees breaking into groups of three to five people to engage in written and visual curriculum put together by implicit bias experts and civil rights activists. According to the Chicago Tribune, store managers and their employees worked alongside each other—and examined their own biases.
“I think that Starbucks workers know and understand very clearly now that the behavior that caused them to get all that negative press is not acceptable and there will be social media consequences and other sort of consequences,” says Dr. Cokley. “I suspect a Starbucks worker will think very carefully now before making that decision that that particular Starbucks employee made.”
for All Operators to Consider from Kathleen K. Henson, Founder & CEO, Agency H5, an award-winning integrated marketing firm based in Chicago:
Start with a diverse team. Different backgrounds means different perspectives and more ideas. The worst thing you can do is put yourself in an echo chamber.
Ensure everyone knows your company culture. Make sure employees understand your values clearly and succinctly so they can be good stewards of your brand – both in and out of the restaurant.
Be straightforward with expectations with employees in terms in how they treat all customers. Put proper training and policies in place so everyone understands how to handle delicate issues and situations with customers. When they arise, address them openly and honestly.
Communicate outward to hold accountability. Make sure everyone on the outside knows what your brand stands to ensure you uphold your values. Encourage employees that when they see something, say something to management.
Practice what you preach both internally and externally. People sense and respond positively to authenticity. Ensure that your actions and words align.