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Public Displays of Bias: Lessons From Starbucks

Earlier this month, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, both 23, entered a Starbucks coffee shop in Philadelphia to meet with a third person to discuss a potential real-estate project. Nelson asked to use the restroom and was told it was only for paying customers. Shortly thereafter, a store employee called 911 to report the two men trespassing, and they were subsequently arrested. Nelson and Robinson were released after several hours in custody, and Starbucks ultimately declined to press charges.

Nelson and Robinson are black men.

Anyone who’s watched or read the news in the last several days is well aware of the PR crisis this has incident has caused Starbucks. Additionally, the coffee giant is facing boycotts over the treatment of Nelson and Robinson. In response, Starbucks has been playing damage control. CEO Kevin Johnson met with the two personally to apologize, and Starbucks has announced that it is closing all of its roughly 8,000 U.S. stores the afternoon of May 29 for anti-racial bias training. The training is designed to address implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion and prevent discrimination, according to Starbucks. This effort raises some interesting questions:

Why No Previous Training?

Starbucks’ move here is obviously reactionary and begs the question: what, if any, diversity, inclusion and bias training did employees receive previously? Why wasn’t this a priority before this incident occurred?

Sincere Effort or PR?

It’s possible that Starbucks and CEO Kevin Johnson are sincere in their efforts to remedy this recent situation. But it’s also possible no learning effort would have come of this incident had it not been for the massive and highly publicized backlash.

Is an Afternoon Enough?

Finally, and without knowing the details of any further efforts Starbucks may be considering, what does the company truly hope to accomplish in a single afternoon? Companies that are successful at promoting an environment of diversity and inclusion, and recognizing and addressing unconscious bias, spend years on these efforts and make them a part of their culture day in and day out.

The Starbucks arrests are just the latest example of the perils of overlooking diversity and inclusion efforts in today’s marketplace. Companies that neglect these efforts may see few if any explicit consequences for years until a major scandal erupts and they find themselves playing damage control.

Inclusion is a business imperative. Be inclusive—always!


Are you tired of workplace diversity training that does not link to business? Are you tired of tactics that don’t drive business results? InclusionINC has inclusion training solutions and strategic consulting that link inclusion to employee engagement, productivity, innovation and retention, moving inclusion beyond tactics to a critical business strategy.

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