Strange brews at Starbucks, Tim’s

Coffee foibles highlight HR headache
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/26/2018

There’s something strange brewing in our coffee. And it’s highlighting a headache for HR professionals and senior management at large organizations that have staff spread across the country.

Tim Hortons has taken a beating in the public eye. The once untouchable icon of all things Maple Leaf has plummeted in the eyes of Canadians. In 2017, a Leger survey of the top brands and companies in the nation ranked Timmies an impressive fourth.

In 2018? Well, they’re number 50 — ranked one spot behind Nestlé, which famously bought an aquifer in Ontario for bottled water out from under a municipality trying to secure a safe drinking water supply.

When the Leger survey was conducted, the doughnut chain was in the news for all the wrong reasons, with the impression that greedy franchise owners were lashing out at their own loyal workforce in response to an increased minimum wage in Ontario.

Just a couple of weeks ago, in the wake of the devastating bus crash in Saskatchewan that killed 16 and injured 13 others who were part of the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team, Tim Hortons found itself yet again in an unflattering spotlight.

A franchise owner outside Halifax created doughnuts with green-and-yellow sprinkles (the colours of the Broncos) and sold them as a tribute to the team. The proceeds? Well, they lined the pockets of the owner — a tone-deaf manager told a local newspaper that while the doughnuts were a gesture to the team, the proceeds would not be sent to Humboldt. Ouch.

Forget that the owner had made a donation (amount unknown) to the team. The damage was done. Tim Hortons was running its own “Humboldt Broncos Strong” doughnuts fundraiser in Saskatchewan that it planned to take national, but quickly had to backpedal, apologize and force the rogue franchise owner to do the right thing.

“Of course, the restaurant will be donating 100 per cent of proceeds from this doughnut to the Humboldt Broncos Hockey Club and we apologize for the misunderstanding,” said Chris Wakefield, a regional marketing lead at Tim Hortons. Of course.

Spotlight of idiots

But you don’t need a franchise scenario to find yourself in hot water. Starbucks, which eschews the franchise model in favour of company-owned stores, stepped into the spotlight of idiots last month. A manager at a Philadelphia location didn’t like the fact two black men came in, asked to use the washroom and then sat down without ordering anything while waiting for a friend.

The manager, apparently forgetting she works at Starbucks — where pretty much everybody hangs out for hours on end — asked them to leave. When they refused, she called police and had them arrested — which, of course, was caught on tape and posted to social media. Incredibly, the men were held for eight hours, according to their attorneys. Prosecutors, unsurprisingly, decided there was not enough evidence to charge them with a crime. 

A couple of days later, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson flew 4,500 kilometres from Seattle to Philly to personally apologize to the men for the incident, which he called “reprehensible.”

The video, shot by customers, was “very hard to watch,” he said in a statement. “Regretfully, our practices and training led to a bad outcome — the basis for the call to the Philadelphia police department was wrong.”

Coming soon on the menu for Starbucks employees is more training around unconscious bias as the company plans to “work with outside experts and community leaders to understand and adopt best practices.”

Lessons for HR

One of the biggest challenges for human resources professionals is ensuring not only that policies are in place, but that they are followed fairly and consistently.

Every organization has micro-cultures within it. I always chafe at the notion of a common corporate culture, because trying to instill a uniform one is like nailing Jell-O to the wall. Talk to employees at any company that has been awarded one of the myriad best employer awards out there and you’ll find more than a handful who are shocked and dismayed their employer is anywhere near the list.

Why? Because we know that, for the most part, people don’t leave companies, they leave their boss. And these supervisors, no matter how many training sessions you conduct or how well you’ve written policies, are not perfect. Some are well-intentioned, but flawed. Some are outright jerks. And, yes, some can be bigoted assholes.

What really matters is how the organization responds when facts come to light — and not just the ones that make headlines. Turning a blind eye to a bad manager who “gets results” only provides a breeding ground for behaviour that could blossom into something painful — including costly turnover and expensive constructive dismissal, psychological and sexual harassment lawsuits.

Does this mean there’s no point in efforts to improve culture? Of course not. But rooting out the rotten apples is just as important as having the right training and policies in place.

Or, to stick with our Tim Hortons and Starbucks theme, it only takes a few sour drops to curdle the cream.

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