What companies can learn from Starbucks (and each other) on race and diversity

This article first appeared in Indianapolis Business Journal on June 8, 2018

For one day in May, there were no Starbucks breakfast blends, no caramel macchiatos and no afternoon Frappuccinos.

On May 29, Starbucks closed all 8,000 company-owned stores nationwide—including the more than 220 in Indiana—while employees participated in unconscious bias training. The decision, announced by CEO Kevin Johnson, was part of the company’s response to accusations of racial bias following the controversial arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia-area Starbucks on April 12.

This is only the latest and most prominent example of a major company being accused of bias. And it won’t be the last. But there’s a lot we can learn from how Starbucks responded—and how Indiana companies are addressing bias and fostering inclusion.

First, don’t equivocate on racism or discrimination issues

An incident of this magnitude not only threatens an organization’s reputation, but—if you’re Starbucks—it exposes an acute conflict between who you say you are and who you appear to be. It demands clarity from leadership about what happened and why.

It’s either wrong or it isn’t, which is why Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson wasted no time in calling the incident “reprehensible.”

But too many companies can be slow to acknowledge the obvious. And failing to do so only fuels the original critique.

Second, engage at the most senior levels

Employees and customers can sense when organizations are just going through the motions or when an apology feels insincere. Johnson knew this and made a point to fly to Philadelphia to apologize in person to the two men.

CEO leadership also adds gravitas to ongoing inclusion initiatives that may not always be top of mind during day-to-day management.

Four Indiana CEOs—at Eli Lilly & Co., CNO Financial Group, NiSource and Anthem—appear to recognize this as well and have signed the CEO Action pledge on diversity and inclusion. The commitment is straightforward: commit to supporting the complex and difficult conversations about difference; implement and expand unconscious bias education; and share best practices with peers.

Third, be willing to take meaningful action, and remember that you’re never “done”

Rebuilding reputation is about making sure your key audiences and constituents are aware of the substantive changes you’re making. It’s not about making the current crisis “go away.” And if you’re not willing to act accordingly, people will quickly realize you’re all talk.

There is plenty of room to debate whether the Starbucks approach to training will ultimately be successful, but there’s no doubt that they have skin in the game. By closing for the entire day, Starbucks forced their most loyal customers to join them in wrestling with the perils of unconscious bias—even if just in a small way.

Fourth, don’t wait for a crisis

It shouldn’t take a crisis to realize the benefits of a more inclusive culture. And that’s true for business and community leaders.

Programs like Cummins Powers Women have merged corporate social responsibility efforts with critical conversations about advancing women as leaders.

In our community, United Way of Central Indiana is helping civic and business leaders wrestle with difference through sessions that ask a simple, but deep question: What’s it like to be me? These conversations have led to the type of barrier-breaking insights that are often the first step to tackling complex issues of poverty and inequality.

And finally, remember an inclusive culture is good for the bottom line

Fostering inclusion is the right thing to do. It also increases productivity and customer loyalty. Salesforce research found 80 percent of employees and customers expect businesses to contribute to society. Meanwhile, employees who indicated their voice matters within the organization were almost five times more likely to feel empowered to perform to their potential.

In short, don’t wait for your Starbucks moment. Make sure you truly understand the climate you’ve created within your company for women, people of color, members of the LGBT community, and other under-represented groups. How do they experience you, as colleagues, business partners and customers?

Consider what programs your company and community climate demand. Build a plan. And as you put it in action, make sure to tell the story of why it matters.

What companies can learn from Starbucks (and each other) on race and diversity

This article first appeared in Indianapolis Business Journal on June 8, 2018
For one day in May, there were no Starbucks breakfast blends, no caramel macchiatos and no afternoon Frappuccinos.
On May 29, Starbucks closed all 8,000 company-owned stores nationwide—including the more than 220 in Indiana—while employees participated in unconscious bias training. The decision, announced by CEO Kevin Johnson, was part of the company’s response to accusations of racial bias following the controversial arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia-area Starbucks on April 12.
This is only the latest and most prominent example of a major company being accused of bias. And it won’t be the last. But there’s a lot we can learn from how Starbucks responded—and how Indiana companies are …

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