Starbucks’ ”Race Together” stunt is working—just not for Starbucks

It’s easy to joke about the coffee chain’s awkward racial awareness campaign, but it’s having an impact

 
Starbucks store with customers lined up
(Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty)

So apparently Starbucks wants to turn tens of thousands of baristas into facilitators for discussions about race. Starbucks CEO Howard Schutlz recently announced that he wants the company’s front-line employees to write “Race Together” on the sides of customers’ cups. The idea is to inspire a conversation about race.

Not surprisingly, the plan has been thoroughly mocked online. Jokes abound, as do cynicism and outright disbelief.

MORE: Why Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is right to talk about race

More seriously, there’s a worry about the position the plan puts baristas in. It’s reminiscent of recent criticism of a plan by McDonald’s to require employees occasionally to engage in cuteness—dancing, singing, etc.—as part of the chain’s “pay with lovin’” campaign. The indignity that could imply is pretty clear. As for Starbucks employees, these are people in low-wage jobs who don’t need the extra hassle—or worse—that might come from being required to engage strangers on touchy topics.

But from a social point of view, it’s hard to fault Starbucks for trying. After all, of all the social ills facing modern society, racial prejudice, racial discrimination, and the resulting racial tension together constitute one of the big ones. And in fact, trying to do something—anything—that would help combat racism is a good example of what I would call true corporate social responsibility. That is, it’s a matter of a company taking on what it sees as a responsibility not to customers, or to employees, or to other specific stakeholders, but to society as a whole. Whether Starbucks or any other company actually has such a responsibility is another question. But if it does, then such a responsibility is emphatically a social one.

Naturally, some will be cynical. As is almost always the case when a big company makes big headlines, there will be conspiracy theorists who speculate that the campaign was never really intended to get baristas to engage customers, but to raise a ruckus and thereby garner Starbucks free exposure. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, blah blah blah.

That could certainly be the case. But that doesn’t mean the campaign couldn’t have social impact. Even if thousands of baristas are not going to be joining hands with customers to kick down racial barriers, the company has nonetheless started a dialogue about race. After all, the question everyone is talking about now is about just why it is that having employees engage customers on race would be such a problematic thing. The fact that the prospect is an awkward one is, after all, precisely a result of racial tension. So, we’re not talking about race, but (you’re reading this, aren’t you?) we’re talking about how hard it is to talk about race. And that, I think, amounts to the same thing.

MORE CHRIS MacDONALD ON BUSINESS ETHICS:

Chris MacDonald is director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management, and founding co-editor of the Business Ethics Journal Review.

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