Starbucks Sign

On May 29, 2018, Starbucks is closing all its US stores for diversity training. According to Time Magazine, experts say that in light of recent events, this is not enough—myself included. It’s not that I believe this training should be skipped. It’s that I believe Starbucks culture is more likely the problem.

(For more on organizational culture, read The Art & Science of Culture & Community.)

Is it actually possible that in 2018 people working with the general public daily are ignorant to diversity? Is it possible that they cannot spot racism when it’s on display?  

There might be a small minority of Starbucks’ employees who might actually need some basic training on inclusion, tolerance, diversity, common courtesy, and acceptable customer service. But I do not believe a majority of Starbucks employees can’t spot intolerant behavior when they see it.

If Starbucks’ Employees Know Right vs. Wrong, How Did This Scandal Happen?

There is a really great YouTube video that Seth Godin wrote about in 2009 about a mob of dancers. The video shows the mob mentality and how being unconventional is acceptable in a group.


We know from the backlash against Starbucks that inclusion (not racism) is actually the norm. Intolerance is unconventional. So for Starbucks’ employees to behave so unconventionally, they must be following a different set of beliefs. There must be a culturally acceptable norm at some level within Starbucks that protects the offensive behaviour we have seen in Starbucks’ stores recently.

Understand the Starbucks’ Culture

I’m not saying intolerance is for sure a part of Starbucks culture at all levels. I am saying that whether it is company-wide or even store specific, the intolerance shown to some customers is an internal Starbucks problem. Whether part of the Starbucks culture at all levels or only in some Starbucks subcultures, the problem is most likely cultural.  

It is far more likely to me that there is a culture internally at Starbucks that suggests…

1) employees can, and regularly do, treat some communities unfairly; and,

2) this treatment is accepted by management at some level. Just knowing what behaviours are accepted, sets a cultural standard in an organization.

Humans & The Mob Mentality

It’s sad to say but it is very true that when humans are part of a group, we are very comfortable applying a copycat approach. It is very possible that the offending Starbucks’ employees might never have acted as they did at work, if they were outside of work. It is very possible the offending Starbucks’ employees just thought they were being regular Starbucks’ employees. Of course, this is no defense! It does, however, point to the likelihood that diversity training is not the solution. It is my opinion that an internal cultural shift is a bigger and better focus.

A Different Culture Would Produce Different Behaviour

When employees see managers, supervisors, and long-standing employees stand up for inclusion, tolerance, diversity, and the general appreciation of difference, it becomes evident that being an employee in this group requires adopting these values. If diversity training and examples of acceptable behaviour are required in order for management to lead this change, then sure, start with Diversity 101.

Cultural Evaluation

I would personally recommend an organizational cultural evaluation, from rank-and-file to leadership. I think it is critical to determine whether the behaviours displayed in-stores are also represented by managers and leaders. And, if not, what needs to change in order for the front line to be in alignment with Starbucks’ leadership?

Path to Resolution

There are many insights that can be achieved through an organizational cultural assessment. These insights should lead to a clear resolution. Great organizational culture evaluation, like the Denison Model, include the ability to assess internal culture but also compare with industry competitors. A cultural assessment will highlight misalignment between staff and leaders, as well as differences between one organization versus the industry as a whole. Then the strategy actually has a baseline for comparison and planning.

Recognize The Power of Culture

Organizational culture is often ignored in the face of corporate challenges. We tend to look at culture once we’ve exhausted all options (e.g. hiring consultants, changing leadership, and throwing our hands up in the air and saying, I don’t know what it could be?). Saying “it’s a cultural problem” may seem like a cop out. After all, some think culture is a mystery that cannot be isolated and corrected. But that is simply not the case.

Somewhere along the line, Starbucks’ employees faced challenges and decided that intolerance was the right way to respond. By measuring the current cultural baseline today, we can correct internal weaknesses and measure progress over time.

I think diversity training can be fundamental, critical, and powerful. And, I truly hope Starbucks’ employees are richer for it. Soak this learning up like a sponge!

Culture Change Is the Greatest Opportunity

More importantly, be a champion for a culture you can be proud of. Yes, you need to know what values your company stands for. But the bigger hurdle towards cultural change is having a culture where being an advocate is acceptable and rewarded.

Is Starbucks Culture Being Ignored as the Culprit Behind Racial Intolerance?