Starbucks is trending on social media because of an incident in which two African-American men were arrested for trespassing at their Philadelphia store. They were taken in handcuffs just as the person they were waiting for arrived. You can find out more about the story here: Starbucks
What I found interesting is how quickly the internet blame roared into action. People have been almost gleefully eager to throw the first stone at Starbucks. This kneejerk rhetorical bile wasn’t directed at the employee who called the cops, or that employee’s manager, or the cops who made the arrest—all individuals who might rightly be criticized. The same puritanical souls railed against Starbuck’s press release as “unacceptable” and claimed that it doesn’t really “scratch the surface of the issues.” Many of these reactions came from people whose stances I generally find well-considered and fair. These are people in HR.
I hate the tendency to indict an entire HR department because of one isolated incident. I also hate it when companies known for strong corporate values are maligned because of one individual’s poor judgment.
Yes, even the best companies have bad apples. Is that really HR’s fault? Is it the fault of the company as a whole? It is, if the bad apples are allowed to continue to be employed there.
If you were on Starbuck’s PR team, how would you address this in a short amount of time? If you were one of their HR people, how would you react? Is it really practical for them to address the entirety of the racial discrimination issue, or does a greater weight rest on the police department who made the arrest? At the end of the day, the cops have an obligation to assess the situation and determine whether the law has been broken. There is no doubt that Starbucks does have certain responsibilities as well. They must investigate in a robust and comprehensive manner. If the employee was at fault, would you fire them right away, or approach the incident as organizational learning moment, to be addressed by intensified training?
Many have responded to #MeToo by asking “Where is HR?” instead of “Where’s the HR representative”? We all got painted by the same insidious brush, when most of us would never let that sort of thing happen. HR gets blamed for failing to do proper training without bothering to find out whether or not training was actually done.
If we want to ask for fairness and equality, let’s not throw the first stone. Let’s not replace accountability with hypocrisy. As HR folks, we wait for all information and investigate rather than passing judgement based on a sensational smattering of unsubstantiated claims. Let’s instead focus on constructive questions: If you worked for Starbucks, what changes would you implement so that this won’t happen again?
I’m not ignoring the fact that something unacceptable happened. It was wrong, and it was clearly racial discrimination, based on eyewitnesses accounts. But to expect Starbucks to take full responsibility for an action of one person (whose story is yet to be heard) is unrealistic. It would be a different story if this was happening at every Starbucks, but it simply isn’t. If anything, we should be asking more for better accountability from the police department whose officers were involved.
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