On branding, CSR and talent management

Starbucks proves organizations can overcome controversy

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl 

Starbucks has been in the news quite a bit lately for some of its employment-related programs and the impact on its employer brand. While the U.S.-based chain of coffee houses faced a certain amount of controversy a few weeks ago over its “Race Together” initiative designed to stimulate conversations about race relations, on the whole the impact on its employer brand has been quite positive. 

Some people objected to Starbucks’ foray into cause marketing by having baristas scrawl the hash tag “#RaceTogether” on customers’ coffee cups. Critics argued such tactics may have turned some people off by attempting to engage them in conversations about sensitive and controversial issues they weren’t necessarily comfortable having. 

People don’t generally want to discuss weighty topics such as race relations when they grab their morning coffee. I also don’t think baristas in a coffee house would tend to have sufficient background or training to discuss race relations with customers. 

After all, someone who pours your morning coffee isn’t likely to be an expert in diversity. Such conversations also have the potential to go horribly wrong if the barista says the wrong thing or a customer has a different perspective on the issue. 

Above all, this type of thing has the potential to create some very uncomfortable situations. It seems a little unfair to subject front-line workers to such awkwardness. I personally would be extremely uncomfortable as a front-line employee having to discuss issues like race relations with total strangers. 

Even though many people felt the implementation of the Race Together program was flawed and perhaps somewhat disingenuous, I believe most people got the impression Starbucks really does care about the topic of race relations. I personally believe the campaign was a legitimate attempt to further Starbucks’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) agenda in this area. 

While some might argue it was just a cynical attempt to sell more coffee by trying to brand the company as one that cares about diversity and inclusion, Starbucks decided to take a stand on an issue of importance to society. Like any CSR initiative, it had to be genuine in order to have a positive impact on the company’s brand. The campaign at least got people talking about the issue, even if Starbucks did get some flak for the way the program was implemented. 

Aside from the Race Together campaign, Starbucks also had quite a bit of positive media coverage recently for the extension of its tuition reimbursement program and its partnership with the City of Toronto to help tackle youth unemployment by hiring more young people as baristas. 

Extension of tuition reimbursement program 

Starbucks now offers 100 per cent tuition reimbursement for a full four-year bachelor’s degree to eligible full- and part-time employees in the United States through the Starbucks College Achievement Program. The program had originally provided full tuition reimbursement only to students in their freshman and sophomore years. 

The goal of the program, launched in partnership with Arizona State University (ASU), is to help employees access higher education and improve their future earning potential. According to Starbucks, about 70 per cent of its U.S. employees are students or aspiring students. That’s actually a little different from the stereotype of the overeducated barista with a university degree who was forced to take such a job because of the poor labour market. 

While some might question why Starbucks would want to provide free education that has little to do with the work employees are currently doing and help them become more marketable externally, this is actually a brilliant talent management strategy designed to increase employee retention and loyalty, enhance employee engagement and brand the organization as an employer of choice. 

Tackling youth unemployment 

While the Race Together and College Achievement Program appear to be U.S.-only initiatives, Starbucks Canada recently made a pledge in partnership with the City of Toronto that 10 per cent of its new barista hires will be young people. Mayor John Tory announced the program at a local Starbucks on April 13 as an extension of the Partnership to Advance Youth Employment (PAYE). 

Tory also challenged other employers to accept what he called the Mayor’s 10 Per Cent Challenge as a way to help tackle an unacceptably high youth unemployment rate. We need more employers to be like Starbucks if we are going to tackle this persistent problem in society. 

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