In a civilized society public restrooms should be a human right not a matter of privilege or a flashpoint of discrimination.

I say this in the wake of the Starbucks incident that resulted in two African American men being arrested on April 14.  It’s a situation that looks bad from every angle for good reason.

The manager was hyper-aggressively enforcing policy, playing gatekeeper and failing in every aspect of transparency.  Where was the trespass warning?  Why were these men singled out?

The police complicated the situation by lending muscle to corporate interests rather than dialoguing with the parties involved as equals in a civil disagreement.  What crime was committed?

When the police cuffed the men on camera with patrons of the cafe openly questioning their actions, it highlighted inequality in our society, a kind of racism that happens every day but escapes the notice of those who aren’t subject to it.

For Starbucks, a simple policy action morphed into a PR nightmare; for Philadelphia it prompted a much larger social outcry.

An Issue of Access and Availability

Before I wade in too deep here let me qualify my point of view.  I am not black.  I’m not qualified to speak to the experience of being discriminated against because I haven’t ever been the target of discrimination.  I do consider myself an ally, and will speak in support of how messed up and all too frequent situations like this are in America.

What I really want to explore here is how things went wrong on the business side.  The perspective I have to offer is based on my professional experience, particularly in managing restroom access.

I was a General Manager and a Field Trainer for Borders Books.  I ran stores in major metropolitan areas like Chicago and LA.  The last store I ran, which I was at for 8 years, was easily the most difficult challenge of my career.  It had three entrances, a second floor cafe and was situated downtown in Santa Cruz, a coastal college town with a significant homeless population and pervasive issues of public drug usage.

When I started there, our store was one of two businesses with public restrooms.  We were essentially the only store with open access.  As the new kids on the block, we became the destination for all bathroom traffic downtown.  Every business sent tourists with a bathroom need at us with a wink and a nod.  Sure, you can do your “business” at Borders.

If only that led to actual business…

Our restrooms were thrashed on a daily basis.  Graffiti extended from floor to ceiling which had us repainting the walls and stalls frequently.  People would do unspeakable things every hour of the day and made our restrooms an unsafe environment for both staff and customers.  Complaints over the facilities came at us nonstop.  It was crazy.

While our restrooms weren’t as bad as those in the downtown Seattle store where staff started a needle collection to convince the company to close the bathrooms, there was the same risk that someone would dump needles in our trash or leave drug paraphernalia behind.

It happened.  Sadly this was our reality.  It’s the reality for a lot of stores and staff in densely populated areas.

Batten Down the Hatches

We became one of the first stores in the company to control our restrooms with coin operated locks but even those locks weren’t enough to quell crushing demand.  We had constant loitering in our office hallway as people waited for the door to open so they could sneak in.  To solve the issue we had to install another door at the end of the hall as an additional barrier—and we had to replace the first install with a heavy traffic door!

Closing off access was never a silver bullet solution.  We knew it would always be a situation that needed to be managed.

Essentially what locking our bathrooms did was create an everyday challenge for our staff as they had to make decisions on who would get access.  You can imagine how easily a power dynamic like that can turn into a situation of discrimination.

Isn’t that exactly what happened at the Philly Starbucks?

It wasn’t a fair (or wise) position to put our staff in but certainly better (read as safer) than what came before.  Maybe there’s a lesson in our experience that Starbucks, or others facing the same decisions, can learn from.

Enforcing an Untenable Policy

Clearly we needed to give staff tools (and structure) for dealing with difficult situations. A few simple rules evolved into a decision making process that met our needs 99% of the time:

  1. Is the person a cafe customer?  Yes, of course, we provide restrooms for our cafe patrons.  Not ordering a drink yet, let me explain our policy.  Typically we hand out tokens when you order, but we can make an exception if you need to go first.  Explaining policy to customers sets expectations and provides transparency.
  2. Is the customer pregnant?  Is there a child present?  Of course we allow families to use our restrooms (parent or child).  The reason we lock them is to ensure they are safe and clean for use.
  3. Is there an urgent need?  If the guest is demonstrating 3 out of the 5 steps of the potty dance, let them in before they pee on the floor for goodness sake.  It’s the decent thing to do regardless if they’re a customer or not.
  4. But what if I’m a book/music customer?  I buy stuff here all the time.  I’m sorry we don’t provide a public restroom because of safety issues.  It’s amazing how many people lacked the patience to listen to our policy explanation.  They would walk away before we even had a chance to make an exception.  And they couldn’t really blame us for trying to explain.
  5. Lastly, is it reasonable to make an exception?  Will it undercut policy?  If you’re willing to own what happens in the restroom and explain it to your coworkers, you get to walk the customer up and open the restroom with your key.  No tokens downstairs and no sending guests upstairs for the cafe to deal with.  Exceptions should never be convenient for staff to pass off.

Reality dictated that it was not possible for us to provide facilities for everyone downtown.  What we did was find a reasonable compromise, providing safe facilities for as many as we could, which was quite frankly more than our fair share of the burden.  And we tried to treat everyone respectfully.

Dealing With Pushback

The manager on duty would catch flack on bathroom policy with regularity.

Our service manager was essentially the last line of defense defusing complaints.  If staff didn’t make an exception when they should have, the manager would apologize for the lapse and take care of the issue personally.  If there was no reasonable cause for exception, we would reiterate the rules staff members are trained to follow.  Then we’d generally make a one-time exception unless the guest was being truly obnoxious.

And really the only people that had a problem with the policy were entitled pricks who showed an inclination to debase staff from the outset of the conversation.  We operated with a zero tolerance policy toward employee abuse and our customers knew it.  That’s really the only time we 86ed anyone.  We made being nice to our staff a better path to follow.

What we didn’t experience were complaints of racism or discrimination because we met each interaction as a unique opportunity.  More on that in a bit.

Perfection Is Not an Expectation

Most residents understood the downtown restroom dilemma.  With some explanation, tourists even sympathized with the drag it became on our staff, particularly when we were explaining as we personally walked them upstairs to the restroom.

Occasionally we’d have to deal with an adult temper tantrum.  It was almost always an entitled dude in a suit flaunting how much money he spent in our store while he never really spent any money in our store.

In the event I wasn’t floor managing and had to be called down to deal with an escalating complaint, I made it a point to:

  1. Be polite, greeting the customer on their side of the counter
  2. Respond to the complaint with empathy reflecting thoughts through active listening
  3. Show respect to staff in the decisions (and even mistakes) they made as I came to an understanding of the problem

I was upfront about all of this in my customer service training.  The staff understood how all levels of service flowed.  If I overrode them in a case of massive douchebaggery, it was strictly to get that person the fuck out of the store because they were making a scene.  That almost never happened because as a manager I didn’t want to set the precedent that tantrums prompted action in my store.  It would more likely get you kicked out.

We did screw the pooch occasionally.  Sometimes it wasn’t obvious that a parent was asking because their kid wasn’t with them.  Sometimes a staff member was overloaded and didn’t have time to make a reasonable exception.  Maybe it was the hundredth freaking person asking and they just stepped in front of another customer.

We learned from those situations and supported each other through all of the ups and downs that came our way.  Empathy starts at home with your own team.

I understood it was a difficult and sometimes unwinnable situation that our staff faced.  Conflict was always an opportunity that made us better prepared to meet our guest’s needs in the future.  We didn’t expect staff to be perfect; we expected them to be human and to view our guests as human as well.

It’s damned hard to discriminate against someone you see as a fellow human being.

Okay, So How Do You Manage Bias?

No mission statement or training regiment is going to eliminate innate bias on a corporate scale.  That responsibility falls on people, specifically leadership.  It flows from the top down like a cascade of accountability, from corporate to field structure to rank and file.

Clearly there is responsibility on the part of the C-Suite at Starbucks in this case.  Their people fucked up, which means they allowed their people to fuck up.  And I’m not just talking about the manager who made that series of service blunders.  I mean the whole  management chain because their manager wasn’t prepared with the appropriate skills and demeanor to serve her community as intended.

The manager could have course corrected at any point:

  1. She didn’t have to deny the men access to the bathroom.  (Initiating policy conflict)
  2. She didn’t need to approach and ask them if they were customers.  (Escalating conflict without cause)
  3. Certainly she didn’t need to call the police when the men had been in her cafe for 2 whole minutes and weren’t bothering anyone. (Involving outside parties without sufficient cause)
  4. Absolutely she could have stepped in as the men were being arrested to say that action was excessive.  (Failing to de-escalate / control what happens within her four walls)
  5. Ultimately she didn’t do anything until the blowback prompted her to quit her job.  (Embracing accountability too late)

These are all clearly failures of leadership that didn’t just appear out of nowhere.

So what now?  Starbucks announced as a first step they’ll be closing locations nationwide for a day of training.  Obviously this shows the company is willing to accept financial consequences for their failures.  That may satisfy many critics but will it address the core of the problem?  Will the training be substantive and promote meaningful change?

As a regional trainer, I can say that standing in front of a room of baristas talking about racial sensitivity is insufficient to address the problem exposed here.  Those on staff that might self-reflect on the problem wouldn’t have found themselves in that situation anyway.  This wasn’t the byproduct of empathy and self-awareness.  The staff that rolls eyes and doesn’t think it’s a problem won’t take the opportunity to self-examine.

And I can’t imagine what black staff members would be thinking during all of this.  Oh wait.  I do…

Innate bias is a product of human nature and not that easy to address through training.  In my opinion it’s better addressed through hiring and store culture.  Equality is an everyday commitment, not a one-off seminar.

Diversity, A Counter to Innate Bias

I don’t know if I needed training to call me out on my privilege, or even tell me that diversity was important, when I was promoted to General Manager at the age of 28.  Probably.  We all do really because it’s so easy to view the world from a comfortable perspective.  It’s much more challenging to step outside of ourselves and empathize.

As I managed, maintained, and trained a staff of 100+ employees in LA and beyond, I know that I became more self aware over time because of the people I worked with at all levels.  I did my best not to let my background as a young white guy reflect in my hiring and promotion decisions.

Eventually I learned to incorporate checks on my innate biases.  While reviewing applications, for example, the last thing I would look at was an applicant’s name.  That decision, prompted by Borders Management Training, was made to eliminate bias.  I incorporated it after reflecting on all levels of my decision making because it made sense to my business and my worldview.

Because of demands as a field trainer (for awhile I was the only GMFT for all of northern California), I leaned on my supervisors and managers to complete administrative tasks like scheduling interviews and following up on reference checks for me.  This wasn’t strictly in their job description, but it was part of training my leadership team for their next level of responsibility.  Preparing them for advancement opportunities was important to me.

This exposure allowed me to challenge in-store leaders on simple stuff like noticing which applicant they called first.  Did they push the name they couldn’t pronounce to the back of the pile?  How did they deal with that uncomfortable moment when they said a name wrong?  How did they welcome candidates who came to the store, especially when that person didn’t look like them?

These are small ways to establish culture in a store environment and they mean everything.

Culture multiplies, good or bad.  You extrapolate culture from store to store through district and regional management.  You build it chain wide by aligning leadership at all levels.  The higher up you go, the harder it gets to impact everyday behavior.  That’s just reality.

Culture divides even faster.  When something isn’t right, it festers.  Underpaid.  Underappreciated.  Overtaxed.  Unclear on expectations.  There’s a litany of things that can break down a team.  Without being inside Starbucks, it’s difficult to say what went wrong in Philadelphia.  It’s certainly worth looking at all levels of management.

It’s easy to be punitive.  It’s harder to heal because that means looking deep within your culture and owning mistakes.

How To Be Better With Race

Quite simply, diversity is a measure of equality in the workplace.

When a store reflects its community, all feel welcome whether you’re talking about applicants, coworkers, guests, or actual paying customers.  Having a diverse staff is an advantage in a competitive marketplace, so why not take the opportunity to embrace those ideals now if you’re Starbucks?

I’m glad to hear the CEO is willing to meet with and apologize to the men who were arrested.  You can’t understand the problem without that interaction.  He should also meet with staff at that location and debrief them on that conversation.  Humanize every angle.  Make it a learning experience.

Does this Philadelphia location reflect it’s community?  And if it does outwardly, do employees feel comfortable speaking out on issues of bias when they see it from coworkers and managers?  Was this action reflective of the individual or of the environment as a whole?  Was it the product of other stresses?

Diversity means little if staff doesn’t feel a sense of investment in the workplace.  This is a challenge that the staff needs to own.  This is a problem the whole chain needs to own.

The Larger Problem of Racism

I’ve spent the better part of this week home sick with my kids so I’ve had time (not as much as I’d like) to digest this issue and seek perspective.  In no way am I trying to minimize what this incident means in the larger context.

As Americans, we see daily examples in the news of how people of color are policed, as if law enforcement is an occupying force in their communities.  I can’t imagine how soul wearying it must be to find yourself in jeopardy for needing to use the restroom while black.

It’s all too clear how black lives are threatened in every interaction with law enforcement.  Sadly, I’ve heard personal stories of friends and coworkers that remind me how different others experience the world.  I found it chilling to hear from another parent detail of a routine traffic stop in Berkeley where the officer approached their car (with preschoolers in back) with his gun drawn.  She thought her brother was going to die in front of his kid.  Why?  Because he looked like someone.  Really?

Why is this still an issue in America?  Ridiculous.  Not acceptable.