Starbucks arrests in Philadelphia: CEO Kevin Johnson promises unconscious-bias training for managers

Protestor Anthony Smith, right, leads a chant, inside the Starbucks at 18th and Spruce Streets, in Philadelphia, April 16, 2018. Protesters are angry over the arrest last week by Philadelphia police of two African-American men inside this Rittenhouse Square area coffeeshop.

Starbucks is in damage-control mode after a weekend of negative media coverage and protests over the arrest of two men who — to many who saw a viral video of the incident at the chain’s 18th and Spruce location Thursday — appeared to be guilty of nothing but waiting for a friend while black.

Chief executive Kevin Johnson was in Philadelphia on Monday morning to meet with the two men, who have not been identified, as well as with government and community leaders.

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In an interview with the Inquirer and Daily News, Johnson said he was in town to learn more about the situation and formulate a plan to make sure such a “reprehensible” incident doesn’t happen again.

You spoke with Mayor Kenney and Police Commissioner Richard Ross over the weekend. What did you discuss?

The fact that what happened in our store last Thursday and the outcome from that incident was reprehensible. That should not have happened, it was wrong, and my role and responsibility as CEO is to learn, to understand it and fix it. So that’s why I’m here: to listen, to learn from this experience, and to ensure we take appropriate action to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

What do you plan to discuss with the two men?

To start, that, in watching the video, it was painful. And that the incident that escalated and the outcome from it was reprehensible. It is my responsibility to ensure that we do a complete review and to make sure we understand how this could ever happen.

In conducting that review, in the process we’re at right now, clearly, with 28,000 Starbucks stores around the world, in some local markets they have some guidelines they implement that, in this particular case, were ambiguous. That ambiguity was part of what caused the problem, the ambiguity about when and whether to call the police. There are situations where it’s appropriate to call the police, situations where there are threats or disruptions in our store. This situation had none of that, and these two gentlemen did not deserve what unfolded.

What was the policy?

It was a policy on incidents and scenarios of whether to call the police. These two gentlemen were in our store to meet another customer that was coming. There was no reason in my opinion to call the police, and when you look at our guidelines, that could have been much more clear. I think our focus is on not only the guidelines but also the training we intend to do for our store managers, not only on the guidelines but also on unconscious bias. … Part of our plan is to make sure we do a broad set of training that includes unconscious bias for all store managers.

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There was a report that the manager called the police before asking the men to leave. Do you know whether that’s accurate? 

My understanding is that the store manager had asked the gentlemen to leave and then, following that, called the police. Calling the police was wrong; it should not have happened. Calling the police was unnecessary.

Was there training in place that should have prevented this?

We have training, and that’s part of the review we’re going through to understand: Are there gaps where we could do a better job to ensure we have a very clear set of actions to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

How will you accomplish that?

All I can say right now is we’re doing a complete review, and we are making the changes necessary to ensure this doesn’t happen again. That’s part of why I’m here in Philadelphia, is the opportunity to listen and learn and understand the scenario. But at a broad level, if there’s something threatening or disruptive in our stores, there are appropriate times where partners should call the police and this is not that. Clarifying that policy is one of the actionable steps we’ll be taking.

After the failed “Race Together” campaign (to encourage baristas to lead conversations about race) and now this, some people may perceive Starbucks as a racist space. Do you need to work on diversity?

We’ve always been an inclusive company, and this comes down to an individual incident and an individual leader’s decision. We’re an industry leader in the retail industry on diversity. We continue to embrace diversity and inclusion. This particular incident does not reflect who we are as a company.

Starbucks has tried to navigate a space that functions as a business but also a de facto community center. How do you want people to use this space now in 2018?

Our concept has always been that Starbucks is in the community. It’s a gathering place. … Starbucks was built around the concept of the third place and creating a warm and welcoming environment for all customers. … In this particular incident, we did not deliver on that warm, welcoming environment for those two gentlemen, and for that I apologize to them.

It’s clear from Starbucks Reddit discussions and online forums that staff regularly must make decisions on how to deal with people dealing with addiction or homelessness. Are there clear policies for this and how do you equip staff to handle these situations?

We’re working to ensure we have clarity for our partners — we call our employees “our partners” — and that we’re doing the right thing to train them to handle these situations and to handle them in the right way. And in this particular case that didn’t happen.