Starbucks closed about 1,100 Canadian locations for anti-bias training Monday afternoon in a bid to make its stores more inclusive after the April arrest of two black men at one of its Philadelphia locations.
The four-hour training sessions that begin at 3 p.m. involve sharing experiences, listening to experts, reflecting on the realities of bias in society and talking about how employees can create public spaces where everyone feels like they belong.
In a media sneak peek of the training, the Seattle-based company said the sessions will begin with a video message from Starbucks Canada president Michael Conway, where he notes that the exercises were triggered by a "very regretful event." The April incident in Philadelphia – in which two men were arrested after a Starbucks employee called the police on them – prompted the company to close its 8,000 U.S. locations for training last month.
"You may think this does not relate to us in Canada, but it does," Conway said in the video. "The world is changing and we are not immune to the complexities or biases and neither are our customers or our communities."
Conway said Starbucks locations grapple with issues around homelessness, language barriers and "Canadians that simply appear very different from one of us," but he believes the training will "only strengthen our resolve to make sure every customer feels welcome every time."
Following his introduction, employees will break into groups of between three and five people to go through a 68-page book of exercises.
The materials ask employees to discuss the first time they noticed their "racial identity," "had a friend of a different race who regularly visited your home," "felt distracted at work because of external events related to race," and "went to work with your natural hair without comments or questions from others."
The booklet references biases that negatively impact African American customers, but also asks broad questions around inclusion and diversity. It does not include direct references to issues faced by customers and employees of other races, of Indigenous backgrounds or those identifying as LGBTQ or having a disability.
The workbook is supplemented with videos from Starbucks executives, including board members and founder Howard Schultz, rapper and diversity advocate Common and inclusion experts.
Tomee Elizabeth Sojourner-Campbell, a Toronto-based consultant focusing on human rights compliance, diversity and inclusion, reviewed the materials Starbucks provides its stores with and said she thought it should be more tailored to Canada because the country has its own history of anti-black racism and challenges faced by stores are not uniform throughout the country.
She also wanted to see more acknowledgment of not only race, but issues around appearance, perceptions around mobility and ability to pay for goods.
"I would have expected them to actually address issues related to consumer racial profiling," said Sojourner-Campbell, noting that the term is not even included in the glossary or list of themes the workbooks have, but was at the heart of the incident in Philadelphia.
"That seems very odd to me... I think they could have directly responded to it with a series of scenarios about what to do if there is consumer racial profiling. Bias training only gets people to point A, understanding that they have some semblance of a bias."
She chalked Starbucks' training up as a "public relations response," but said it is a good way for the company to take stock of what it happening in its stores.
"Do I think four hours and this commitment will prevent a future complaint about consumer racial profiling? It is unlikely," she said. "The complaints are not driven by the intent of the business or the employee, but the experience of the individual."
She said she expected that the training would create "the Starbucks effect," where other companies assess how they can be more inclusive and consider measures like Starbucks.
In the wake of the Philadelphia incident, Starbucks said it is providing all locations with lists of ways they can access mental health, substance abuse and housing services and committing to ongoing education and development for staff.
It also promised to tackle the circumstances that led to the training.
"Whether a person makes a purchase or not, they are welcome in our spaces," said chief operating officer Roz Brewer in training videos.
"This includes the use of restrooms, cafes and patios – regardless of whether a person makes a purchase, they would be considered a customer."
Customers outside one of the coffee chain's locations on Spring Garden Road, the largest downtown shopping street in Halifax, praised inclusion training, but said they were disappointed that it is necessary, given how progressive society has become.
"Companies are seeing consequences because they're losing customers, but it shouldn't take that. Money shouldn't be the motivator for people to have respect for one another," said Matthew Williams, 26. "People just feel they can be racist and freely racist ...There needs to be consequences to being racist."
Over in Victoria, B.C., Starbucks customer Pamela Manhas said she couldn't help but feel an anti-bias session held over one afternoon will not accomplish much for employees and appears more of a company "PR stunt," but said "if they are making an honest effort I can't fault them for doing that."