The View From Here – Starbucks requires staff to take drive-through lesson in sensitivity

Tom Henihan

Corporations will go to any lengths to assert damage control, if it means protecting the brand from negative associations.

Starbucks, the coffee house for the discerning and the enlightened, showed a less progressive side in Philadelphia last April, when an employee or “barista” called the police on two men for no other reason than they were black.

The incident in Philadelphia gained international attention, which prompted the corporation to quickly become sensitive about sensitivity, especially the sensitivity of their employees.

Following the lead of the the US, Starbucks Canada closed all of its 1,100 locations across the country for four hours, to present its employees with a crash course in sensitivity.

Starbucks’ employees, once they don the company mantel no longer understand the concept of small, medium or large and steadfastly refuse to trade in such pedestrian measures.

In Starbucks you speak Starbucks, you conform to its pretences or you go without service.

Starbucks is a company that has difficulty calling anything by its proper or common name: small is Tall, medium is Grande, large is Venti and counter staff are baristas.

So, it is safe to assume that sensitivity training is another name for encoding employees to act nice and to keep the lid on any prejudicial attitudes or impulses that could damage the brand.

Sensitivity training has nothing to do with genuine decency or respect for others.

The company has made such a public display of this sensitivity training initiative simply to garner enough positive press to eclipse the widespread negative coverage of the Philadelphia incident.

Typically, this is a drive through course where, after four hours employees submit to a generic, corporate take on sensitivity.

I assume, following the intense, 4-hour debriefing that staff, that is baristas, will pick up their sensitivity certificate, and with military precision the brand will move forward to prosper and prevail.

I am confident that most people who work at Starbucks are already cooperative, civil, non-judgmental individuals who treat people they encounter with grace and respect and the incident in Philadelphia was an anomaly.

However, call me cynical or even insensitive, but I believe the corporate mindset sees everything within its purview as a commodity and that includes simple, fundamental virtues such as having an inherent respect for others.

If Starbucks decides it needs social grace and common decency to do business and prosper then it will acquire it and distributed it as a commodity among its employees.

Fortunately, most people don’t need a lesson in how to behave properly towards others, but if some Starbucks’ employee happens to need some direction it will certainly take more than a four-hour corporate scrum to purge him or her of their prejudices and pre-conceptions.

I trust that this grueling, four-hour sensitivity lockdown is not to change people’s minds and hearts but to dictate staff behaviour, which is, of course, a corporate specialty.


Share this post