Ethics Observations on Starbuck’s “Put Your Customer On The Spot” Program

Race together

Beginning this week, Starbucks baristas will have the option of handing coffee cups to customers on which the Starbucks employee has written the words “Race Together” as an invitation to start a discussion about race in America. Friday, each copy of USA Today will have the first of a series of insert with information about race relations, including a variety of perspectives on race. Starbucks coffee shops will also stock the insert.

Good golly Miss Molly. Where to begin?

1. This is, we are told, social issues activist CEO Howard Schultz’s brainstorm. It’s good that he is public minded. It’s good that he wants Starbucks to be a beneficent public citizen.  It is commendable that he wants to take proactive steps to bridge the widening racial divide in this country. All of this is commendable.

2. As I have been saying a lot lately, a business owner can run his business any legal way he wants, and let the market decide if they like it or not.  From a business ethics standpoint, there is nothing wrong with his plan. It’s well-intentioned, it’s good publicity for Starbucks, and it reflects well on the brand.

3. Now I, for one, do not go to a coffee bar to be challenged to discuss race issues, especially in public, and especially with strangers. Call me quirky, but that doesn’t say “relaxing” to me.

4. Moreover, you don’t want me to discuss race with you unless you are prepared to stick to facts, avoid rationalizations, and not lead with your biases. Trust me. You do not want to have that conversation. If you are going to start talking about reparations, Trayvon, “Hands up!,” affirmative action, how the Supreme Court “gutted” the Voting Rights Act, how the Academy Awards are racist, why it’s racist to require people to show as much proof that they are who they say they are in order to vote as they would have to do to rent a motel room, or how Barack Obama is the greatest President alive but has suffered unprecedented criticism solely because he is black, it will be a real quick conversation, and a painful one. Is it responsible for a CEO to place his young, idealistic, sort-of educated employees on a path to collide with someone like me? I think not. In fact, its reckless and unkind…to both of us.

5. What is the objective of such a discussion? What about race? What’s the goal? What’s the context? What are the assumptions? What’s the point? “Talking about race” is not itself a virtue if the talk is going to be without useful reference points and quantifiable objectives.

6. One of America’s problems in civic discourse is that everyone believes that their opinion is as valid and worth listening to as everyone else’s. That isn’t true. Everyone may have an opinion on race, but it is an incredibly difficult, complicated, many-layered area that has perplexed some of the greatest minds in the world. Not to be cruel about it, but what does a coffee server have to add to the debate? Why are we having this discussion? Am I supposed to enlighten him or her? Is she supposed to enlighten me? Are all Starbucks employees presumed to feel the same way about race? Is there an official Starbucks position that they have to adopt? If another employee disagrees with what an employee is saying, is that dissenting employee allowed to enter the discussion (while his customer’s coffee gets cold) or does he have to engage a customer–“Quick! Take this cup!”— to have his say?

7. The ethics verdict on this stunt is incompetence. The Starbucks CEO thinks all talk is good, when in fact most talk just confuses things and hardens misconceptions, unless the speakers are serious, prepared, knowledgeable, well-read, objective and articulate. In the matter of race, just because everyone has one doesn’t make everyone conversant on the issues involved. This has the smell of a feel good exercise that trivializes a serious and, in these times, often deadly topic. A thoughtful, careful, objective effort to make discussions about race more productive is much-needed and would be welcome. Promoting hit and run shallow exchanges on the topic while one party is distracted preparing coffee and the other has a plane to catch isn’t the way to do it, and forgive me if I add obviously.

40 thoughts on “Ethics Observations on Starbuck’s “Put Your Customer On The Spot” Program

  1. Wonder how many times the police will have to be called because of the discussions taking place at Starbucks?
    Wonder how many times Starbucks will be in court because of their promotion of opening the discussions in their coffee house and someone is hurt?

    • My first thought exactly. This isn’t a subject you want to broach to a total stranger, especially if he might be a Nazi, a Black Muslim or La Raza Unida. It can go bad very quickly! Add it to the category of “not for polite conversation” subjects along with politics, religion and sex. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the average Starbucks denizen is going to have the common sense to know that. More work for the cops and the paramedics.

  2. Obviously, we all… at least most rational people…want harmony in our culture… racial… ethnic… gender… or whatever…

    But really… is it mandatory that we all be compelled to have political, philosophical, ethical… or worse yet sports related discussions… forced upon us just because we want a cup of very unhealthy but tasty coffee, or when we go to our accountant, or when we buy a house, when we need to get a bite to eat or when we need any other service or product?

    I guess… if my coffee server wants to do this, it is his or her right to do so.

    But… call me crazy… I myself would prefer to choose who and when I have a conversation with and about what subject.

    Yes, this Starbucks corporate policy may be well meaning. But “coerced discussion” awkward as it promises to be, will not likely advance meaningful understanding of anything.

    • And the barista would much rather move onto the next customer rather than be pushed into a discussion about race, as well. I worked in fast food while in college. Some things have changed since then, but a lot hasn’t. People who work with the public are busy and have many more important tasks to accomplish than keeping customers in the store to have a conversation unrelated to the transaction. Further, employees know that most customers have places to go, people to see, as well.

      Mr. Schultz should just let his employees sell coffee.

  3. I sleep peacefully at night knowing Ablativemeatshield is going to every Starbucks he can to as offensively as possible demonstrate why this is an incompetent policy.

    • At the risk of posting little more than “LOL”, …
      I did quite literally laugh out loud at this, and couldn’t stop for a couple of minutes.

      Thanks, Tex.


  4. “What’s this on my cup?”
    “It means you’re supposed to start a conversation about race.”
    “You start a conversation about race. It was your idea.”
    “Umm, no, it’s like you’re supposed to start a conversation with other people.”
    “No one else asked me to start a conversation about race. You did.”
    “Okay…well, it’s supposed to be you starting the conversation.”
    “Okay. Which is your favorite race? Least favorite?”
    “The line at my register is getting kind of long.”



  5. This promotion may have been Howard Schultz’s idea, but he relied heavily on Dunder Mifflin Paper Company legend Michael Scott. And he will leave you all in TEARS.

  6. Well, I guess it’s important to have some good race-conversation starters ready now when you go to Starbucks:

    1. “So, why aren’t there any Starbucks in black neighborhoods? Is it their official policy or does it just work out that way?”
    2. “I heard that significantly less Starbucks cocoa comes from African slaves now than in the past. Cool, huh?
    3. “So, gun to your head, barista- which race tips you the least?”
    4. “[Exhale loudly.] I wish there were some minorities around here to have this race conversation with.”
    5. “McCafe: only $1.50 for this same coffee and you might see a dark person!”

  7. Thanks Jack. I’ve always been annoyed by the “we need to have a discussion about [fill in the blank with a progressive obsession]” mantra. Fine, go ahead and talk amongst yourselves. I’ve got better things to do.

  8. I could always dip into my store of politically incorrect jokes. You want to have a conversation about race? OK, what’s color’s a black who’s been mashed in a hydraulic press?

  9. This is just another way to keep introverts from going to Starbucks. Because even if one doesn’t write anything on their cup, that still could be a social statement and someone might want to talk about that. It is just too much pressure for some of us to handle.

    Also, what if your name is Race?

    This business strategy reminds me of an old Dilbert Cartoon, where the CEO comes in and changes corporate policy based on a magazine article he read in an in-flight magazine.

    • Another introvert here. I’m pretty sure Starbucks hates us all.

      The last thing I need is an ambush-style “conversation” about a politically fraught, emotionally charged subject with somebody I don’t know. Heck, I can barely navigate the useless “Hi, how are you doing today?” exchange that prefaces most coffee transactions.

      “Hi, let’s talk abou—” NO. (insert picture of Grumpy Cat here.)

      What was wrong with the usual routine? I buy a cup of coffee (grande Pike Place, room for cream), you hand it to me, I smile and mumble thanks, you say “you’re welcome” in that chipper voice of yours, and then I go sip my coffee in silence while reading a novel at my table-for-one. Everybody gets what they want, and we’re all happy.

      Or, wait, how about this. Since you really want to talk about race, let’s talk about how somewhere between 25% – 40% of people among all races, colors, and creeds are introverts, and what we all want more than anything else is for ham-handed stumblebum do-gooders like Howard Schultz to SHUT UP AND LEAVE US ALONE. One more in a long list of reasons why it’s better to brew my own coffee.

      Whew. That was building up for a while.

      • I hear you. Who could be more introverted than a guy having his first cup of coffee in the morning while trying to get his head straight for the day ahead? Then some guy you don’t even know comes up and says, “Hey, cracka. I want to rap to you about your white privilege.”! He’s liable to get a full cup of my “privilege” right in the mug.

  10. I think that the Starbucks board of directors ought to be looking for a new CEO. Has this clueless well intentioned dunce thought of the potential liability issues? What if a nasty fight breaks out in one of their outlets? I think I will happily use my Keurig at home and enjoy my coffee in silence. Or go to a good bar where the discussion of political issues is discouraged.

    • Or, if no clearly established limitations and restraints are in place, how about the empowered “barista” steps into harassment with a customer who doesn’t want to engage and just wants some overpriced coffee…

  11. How can you have a serious conversation with the employees of a company that thinks a latte frappuccino with hazelnut syrup topped with whipped cream and served with a spoon is coffee. This is a surreal world they live in with no basis in reality.

    • If I were a CEO (“If I were a platypus…) I would use this as a test of whether I was surrounded by lackeys, ass-kissers and sycophants. Anyone who DIDN’T speak up and say, “I’m sorry, but this is the dumbest thing I ever heard in my life.” would be fired.

  12. I don’t even know how or what to order at Starbucks…

    I just want coffee…black…not decaf…but that’s not good enough for these people standing behind the counter taking my order. They start asking me all types of questions that I have no idea how to answer. Now, I’m already mad because some 17 year old is looking at me like I’m a relic from the dark ages and the people in line behind me are starting to get agitated, rolling their eyes and saying things under their breath about me… and NOW you want me to have a conversation about race? I can’t even get a black coffee!

    • I refuse to go to Starbucks. For the price of a Starbuck’s coffee, I can make on my own, with little to no effort, *each day*, the same cup of coffee (frills included) for a couple of weeks or more…

      It literally makes NO economic sense to buy coffee from Starbucks. In the amount of time it takes to go to Starbucks, leave your car, go to the store, order, pay, wait, take back to car and be on your merry way, you can make the same cup AT HOME before you leave. Even with a drive through.

      And you can do it 20 or 30 more times for the same amount of money and the same amount of time spent daily.

  13. Don’t drink that– Don’t drink that racist coffee. Starbucks is about 5 years too late. Julian Smith did the racist coffee thing, and had his own conversation with 1,703,654 subscribers.

  14. What you are missing out on Jack, is that Howard Schultz is just trying to give his employees a chance to put their race and gender studies degrees to work…

    Idea for the dig shamelessly stolen from Instapundit, although the wording is different.

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