Why Authentic Gestures Are Important, Even When No One Believes Them

Now perhaps more than ever, we are suspicious of our leaders and vigilant about questioning their motives and actions when it comes to diversity and inclusion. The recent incident involving a horrifying display of racism at a Starbucks store raises the question of whether the corporate response to it is just a public relations stunt or a genuine attempt to effect change.

The incident occurred this past April. Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson were arrested at a Starbucks location in Philadelphia without reason. The men, both black, asked to use the restroom. They were told it was reserved for paying customers, at which point they casually sat at a table to wait for a business acquaintance. Without reason the store manager called the police and the men were removed in handcuffs.

Shortly thereafter, Starbucks shut down their stores — first in the U.S. then Canada — to conduct anti-racism training. Almost immediately, there was skepticism about whether the four-hour training session was sincere. There was outcry to boycott stores.

Most corporations would have denounced the incident and pledged change. A routine public apology would have been the expected response. Instead Starbucks shut down all of their stores, losing millions of dollars in revenue.

Was it merely a PR stunt? I believe they are truly embarrassed and are making a grand gesture to prove that their shock and horror at the incident is authentic.

Consider this: with over 28,000 locations and 240,000 employees, can anyone reasonably believe Starbucks has full control over every employee’s actions? Absolutely not. There are always outliers who defy company values.

A culture is created and values embraced to ensure the most consistent experience possible. In the case of Starbucks, they endeavour to create a “third place” environment, a term introduced by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg.

It’s based on the idea that communities need neutral public spaces to gather and interact separately from their first place (home) and second place (work). The Philadelphia incident, which paints the coffee shop as a distinctly unsafe and unwelcoming place for some, is directly contrary to Starbucks’ third space ethos.

Adages like “walk your talk” or “put your money where your mouth is” are freely thrown about but seldom truly put into practice. In a letter to customers, president of Starbucks Canada Michael Conway wrote: “We’re closing our stores again now because we must never be complacent in our desire to be inclusive, to live our mission and values, and to create a culture of warmth and belonging every time …

This isn’t just about the events of Philadelphia, or about race, or about social challenges in America. This is about humanity.”

I believe that Starbucks’ leadership’s motivation is authentic, and although I can see why others are doubtful, it’s a step in the right direction. I hope we never become so jaded that any attempt on the part of leaders to eradicate discrimination is viewed only as insincere pandering. At a time when the public’s skepticism of leadership is at an all-time high, it’s more important than ever for leaders to make bold moves to demonstrate an authentic commitment to values, whether they are believed or not.

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