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Starbucks Wastes Millions Proving Culture Beats Training Every Time

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By Steve Moran

It honestly seems so weird to say, “If you want to see how not to do culture right, look at Starbucks.” For decades they have been the pinnacle of culture. The one company that seemed to always get it right, even when they got it wrong, by tackling difficult conversations.  

Then 4 months or so ago, there were two black men who were kicked out for wanting to use the restroom without buying anything.

Starbucks response was swift and massive. The offending employee was fired, they shut down 8,000 Starbucks stores, and spent several hours on diversity training, believing that the problem was a lack of training and that better new training would solve the problem.

And Then . . .

A few days ago a young man by the name of Sam who stuttered went into a Starbucks store, was made fun of because of the stutter and then the employee doubled down on the insult by writing his name down as "SSSam." The employee was fired and the incident might even suggest that somehow the training made it worse, but definitely not better.

How We Handle Problems

Bad stuff happens and will always happen. Team members do dumb things, or come at issues with a different perspective, or are lazy, or misinformed or . . . the list is endless. The question ultimately is what do we do when they happen? This is actually a really difficult problem because the real answer, the best answer, is "it depends."

If a resident is abused . . . immediate firing is a must.

If a team member comes to work drunk . . . immediate firing is a must, except maybe not 100% of the time.

This could run to 5,000 words of if’s. But beyond those times of immediate firing, some considerations:

  • Some of you will hate this . . . but in every single case, the first question that needs to be asked is how did the culture fail? How did leadership fail? Sometimes the answer is that there was no failure on the part of management and leadership, but it is really important that you start with the idea that leadership failed.

  • Can this be turned into a teachable moment? That has to be the next most important question. In both Starbucks situations, I understand from a public relations perspective why the firing took place. But I am far from convinced it was the right thing to do.   

    Two firings in a few months for public stupidity has to be chilling for Starbucks employees who will start to wonder if every customer is an immediate threat to their job. I don’t know any specifics about these two circumstances maybe firing was justified but maybe not.

  • This was a culture problem. This person somehow thought in his/her own head that it was an okay thing to do. They likely thought that it was even funny and probably that fellow team members would get a laugh. There is no amount of training that can fix a culture problem.

  • Not every bad thing that happens needs a new policy. The first case (the bathroom case) resulted in a slew of new policies, that of course came with their own set of unintended new potential problems. This second case probably does not mean new policies, but over and over in senior living, I see communities taking teachable moments and turning them into new policies. This always makes culture worse, not better.

How do you keep your culture in line?

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