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3 employee communications lessons learned from the Starbucks fiasco

Starbucks Corp. is not finding it easy to put the cap back on the can of worms opened by the April incident in Philadelphia where a store manager called the police to remove two young black men who had asked to use the restroom without purchasing anything while waiting for a friend, and then refused to leave when asked to do so.

The company responded quickly and appropriately. The CEO flew to Philadelphia and personally apologized to the two men, and the company announced a day of racial bias training for all U.S. store employees. But coming up with a workable new policy while under the hot glare of the media has been challenging.

Executive Chairman Howard Schultz’s impromptu May 11 disclosure that people will now be allowed to use Starbucks’ cafes, including its restrooms, whether they make a purchase or not, “generated an onslaught of weekend criticism.”

Starbucks has since clarified that broad policy with more nuanced guidelines. “Managers and baristas should first ask a fellow employee to verify that a certain behavior is disruptive and if it is, respectfully request that the customer stop.” The guidelines list examples of unacceptable behavior (such as talking too loudly or sleeping) and go on to describe more serious situations when employees should call 911. 

It’s hard to imagine how a company as progressive as Starbucks, with a widely lauded employee training program, left itself open to this kind of public relations disaster. If it can happen to Starbucks…So let’s note three employee communications lessons drawn from the Philadelphia fiasco.

1. Company policies must be clear and clearly communicated.

Starbucks did have a policy that addressed the situation in Philadelphia, but it was “vague,” “loose” and obviously not clearly communicated. It left a lot to the store manager’s discretion without providing much guidance. The Philly store manager, who left the company after the incident, told one local reporter that she was following the policy specific to Center City Philadelphia locations that prohibited excessive loitering.

2. Companies need to listen to their employees.

Starbucks baristas and store managers “have long found the coffee company’s guidelines on how to treat lingering nonpaying guests vague at best,” the Journal reported. How was Starbucks management not aware of this?

I don’t know if Starbucks conducts a regular employee survey (or maybe just wasn’t asking the right questions or listening to the answers), but a recent article in Harvard Business Review cautions about the declining use of this one-time corporate staple.

With “cool new machine-learning algorithms that crunch big data to measure employee engagement,” traditional employee surveys are starting to look like diesel trucks collecting dust in the age of electric cars,” write Facebook’s Scott Judd and Eric O’Rourke, along with their co-author, Wharton professor Adam Grant. “Our internal research at Facebook suggests that…it would be a big mistake to abandon them today.”

Other areas that should be monitored for early-warning signs of trouble include suggestion boxes, exit interviews and whistleblower hotlines.

3. You have a mission statement. Use it!

Mission-and-values statements can be powerful tools if they are well written and regularly referred to – not stale bulletin board material or bloated corporate-speak. Wells Fargo had a 37-page “Vision and Values” brochure. We all know how effective that was. (Well’s new CEO recently introduced a new one.)

Starbucks has a great mission statement: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”

The first of the four Core Values under the mission is: “Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome.” There is no way you can get from that statement to calling the police to remove two patrons who say they are waiting for a friend and are not disturbing anyone.

Does your organization conduct a regular employee survey and make use of other feedback tools?  Do the company’s policies and practices align with the mission and values? Email me if you’re interested in continuing the discussion.

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