With its decision to allow the non-paying public unlimited access to its cafes, Starbucks may have traded one grande problem for another.
The Seattle-based coffee giant closed more than 8,000 shops for a half-day Tuesday to conduct racial-bias training with 175,000 partners, or employees, absorbing an estimated $12 million hit in response to the high-profile arrests of two black men last month at a Philadelphia café.
While the workshop drew skepticism — liberals noted that such one-day diversity exercises rarely change behavior, and conservatives called the event a “reeducation camp” — the long-term dilemma for Starbucks lies with how much leeway it’s willing to give its non-paying customers.
The come-one, come-all policy announced earlier this month arrived even as fast-food joints, libraries and other public establishments have increasingly cut back access in order to avoid becoming homeless havens and drug dens amid the opioid and heroin crisis.
“Do you really want to deal with a mass of homeless people or whoever is in there — could be drug-addicted, you don’t know — when you’re there with your kids?” asked NBC host Megyn Kelly on her show Tuesday.
In reality, many Starbucks stores, particularly those in suburban, residential and rural areas, have long allowed non-paying customers to loiter and take advantage of the facilities, but the other outlets often had a reason for their tighter policies — problems with a disruptive clientele.
“Public Restrooms Have Become Ground Zero in the Opioid Epidemic,” declared DrugAbuse.com in a post earlier this month.
In Los Angeles, for example, three downtown locations in 2016 closed their bathrooms entirely, even to paying customers, citing safety concerns, according to NPR.
Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz said earlier this month that he understands the policy’s drawbacks, but that he didn’t want anyone to feel as if they were “less than.”
“We don’t want to become a public bathroom, but we’re going to make the right decision 100 percent of the time and give people the key,” Mr. Schultz said.
Posts on a Reddit thread for Starbucks baristas show them grappling with a vagrancy problem both before and after the company’s May 19 announcement.
“I already have customers yelling at me for letting homeless people hang out,” said a Sunday post. “I don’t know what they expect me to do. They aren’t even bothering anyone. Just feels so good to be yelled at over this, thanks Starbucks. We’ve already lost a good chunk of regulars over this crap.”
Said one responder: “Tell them to call corporate and complain. Us baristas didn’t decide on these new rules, corporate did.”
Many were also sympathetic to the plight of the homeless. One barista said a panhandler was polite after being asked to stop begging other customers for cash, while another added, “I’d rather be a good person than a [expletive] one for kicking someone out due to their living arrangement.”
Another barista who worked previously at a store across from a bus station said 9 out of 10 homeless were “fine and respectful,” but others were “doing drugs in our bathroom, scaring and harassing or assaulting other customers,” leading staff to call the police.
The company has since clarified its policy by asking those who use “a Starbucks space” to “behave in a manner that maintains a warm and welcoming environment,” and providing procedures for staff on handling anyone whose behavior “does not maintain the third place environment.”
First off: “[A]sk a fellow employee to verify that a certain behavior is disruptive and if it is, respectfully request that the customer stop,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
‘Steeped in inclusion’
The decision to close down thousands of stores for diversity training struck some as an overreaction, given the company’s well-known commitment to progressive causes and reputation for hiring young, liberal baristas.
What’s more, “40 percent of our workforce are people of color,” Mr. Schultz told CNN, adding, “We are steeped in an understanding of inclusion and diversity as part of the history of Starbucks.”
None of that protected Starbucks from a public-relations backlash over the April 12 arrests of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, who were denied bathroom access after they declined to make a purchase as they waited for a third person at the Philadelphia store.
The two received an undisclosed financial settlement and an offer of college tuition, and settled with the city for $1 each as well as a commitment to set up a $200,000 program for young entrepreneurs.
The decision to add anti-discrimination training to the mix drew praise from civil-rights groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, which helped devise the curriculum, even though experts on diversity education say it’s often not all it’s cracked up to be.
“We find that oftentimes diversity training has mixed effects, and in some cases it can even backfire and lead people who are kind of already reactive to these issues to become even more polarized,” said Calvin Lai, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.
In addition, many baristas are young and still in school or pursuing other careers, meaning that they “won’t be here next year or two years or three years down the line,” he told The Associated Press.
But diversity training has other benefits: The nearly $8 billion industry has boomed as companies seek to gird themselves against allegations of bias and lawsuits.
A January 2016 study in the Harvard Business Review, “Diversity Policies Rarely Make Companies Fairer, and They Feel Threatening to White Men,” reported that Walmart was able to use its anti-discrimination policy to help fend off a 2011 gender-bias lawsuit.
“And Walmart isn’t alone: the ‘diversity defense’ often succeeds, making organizations less accountable for discriminatory practices,” said the study by researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara and University of Washington.
Starbucks isn’t done. While the Tuesday training is centered on race, the coffee colossus will later “address many other facets of what makes us truly human,” expanding its effort to encompass a host of identity-politics categories, according to a newly released video.
“The work will grow to reflect the realities of our abilities, ethnicities, gender identities and expressions, sexual identities, class, language, citizenship, political views, religious affiliations, and more,” said the company.
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