One year after becoming CEO of Starbucks, Kevin Johnson faced a leadership test when two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks. The men were waiting to meet a business associate, but they didn’t purchase anything while they were waiting. The store manager asked them to leave, and they refused, explaining that they were there to meet someone. The manager called the police because the men refused to leave, and the police arrested them.
Another patron at Starbucks recorded the arrest on her cell phone, and it quickly went viral. In an interview after the arrest, the woman who took the video mentions that she had been sitting there for a while, and she wasn’t asked to leave even though she didn’t order anything. Additionally, the video shows the business associate of the black men show up during the arrest, and he asks the manager and the police what the men had done wrong. The general public and those who witnessed the arrest labeled it as discriminatory and racist.
This happened on a Thursday and the following Monday, Johnson said that the manager no longer worked at the store. The arrests led to protests and sit ins at the Philadelphia Starbucks the days following the event.
In his apology statement and follow up video release shortly after the arrests, Johnson said, “The video shot by customers is very hard to watch and the actions in it are not representative of our Starbucks Mission and Values. Creating an environment that is both safe and welcoming for everyone is paramount for every store. Regretfully, our practices and training led to a bad outcome—the basis for the call to the Philadelphia police department was wrong.”
Before the incident, Starbucks had no companywide policy about asking customers to leave, and the decision was left to the discretion of each store manager. Because of this flexible policy, Starbucks had become a community hub–a place where anyone could sit without being required to spend money. Johnson mentioned this community in his apology when he said Starbucks works to create an environment that is “both safe and welcoming for everyone.”
Also in his apology, Johnson outlined the investigation he and the company would undertake. The apology detailed actionable steps Starbucks leadership would follow to learn from the situation, including meeting with community stakeholders to learn what they could have done better. Johnson took full responsibility for the actions of his employees, and he acknowledged that Starbucks customers were hurt by the arrests. Johnson acknowledged that employees needed more training, including about when to call authorities, and that the company needed to conduct a thorough analysis of the practices that lead to this incident.
After issuing his apology, Johnson went to Philadelphia and met with the two men face to face to involve them in dialogue on what Starbucks needed to do differently.
The week following the arrests, Starbucks announced it would temporarily close 8,000 stores to conduct unconscious bias training, which they did on May 29, 2018. A month after the arrests, Starbucks released a new “Use of Third Place Policy,” which states that anyone can use Starbucks and its facilities without making a purchase; it also explains what managers should do if a customer becomes disruptive. Additionally, the policy says that Starbucks seeks to create “a culture of warmth and belonging where everyone is welcome. This policy is intended to help maintain the third place environment in alignment with our mission ‘to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.’”
Practice of Ethical Leadership
Ann Skeet, senior director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, has created a Practice of Ethical Leadership. Using this model, we can ask the overall question: How is Johnson practicing ethical leadership? Additionally, we can consider what we learn about his character through his actions and his impact.
Along with character as a cornerstone for anyone’s practice of ethical leadership, we can look at the five additional ethical leadership practices Skeet identifies as a way to explore whether Johnson’s actions are enhancing his impact as an ethical leader in his role as Starbucks CEO.
- Creating Community: Did Johnson use Starbucks’ shared values as the cornerstone of his decision making after the arrests? Did his decision to close all Starbucks stores for unconscious bias training and to create a new “Third Space Policy” align with Starbucks’ mission and goals? Did his handling of the incident promote positive relationships between employees and customers? Did it encourage a sense of connectedness and shared values?
- Encouraging Ethical Conduct: Did Johnson openly acknowledge that his decision was based in ethics and morality? Did his apology and actions promote awareness of an ethical issue? Did it create a positive or negative difference in the communities Starbucks serves? Did it make a positive or negative difference for Starbucks employees and customers?
- Showing Discipline in One’s Role: Does Johnson explicitly accept responsibility for the incident and provide direction for a course correction? Does he identify ways to collaborate with others when necessary? Does he show he understands what his role is in fixing this problem?
- Clarifying Culture: Did Johnson clarify his values and the company’s values in his apology and with his subsequent actions? Did Johnson’s apology and follow-up actions uphold Starbucks’ mission and core values? Did he identify gaps between stated and actual values? Did Johnson’s apology help Starbucks employees figure out if their personal values align with the company’s?
- Designing Ethical Systems: Did Johnson’s actions have impact beyond Starbucks? Did they sent a precedent for other companies to follow? Did his apology create a conversation about unconscious bias in the workplace? How do his apology and the subsequent follow-up actions compare to other companies and CEOs that have faced similar problems?