Starbucks’ Baristas Say ‘Racial Bias’ Training “Missed The Mark Completely.” Here’s Why…

After a racially-sensitive PR nightmare engulfed the iconic coffee company in April, Starbucks closed all its stores and embarked on a ‘journey’ to give all 175,000 of its employees ‘racial bias education’ training. Here’s why it may have failed…

Last week, Starbucks closed all 8,000 of its stores for four hours nationwide to conduct ‘racial bias education’ training for nearly 175,000 of its employees. For a company that sells $12 million worth of coffee and assorted drinks per day, the loss of sales, whilst paying all of its employees, was a costly venture.

The ‘journey’s’ beginnings…

The unprecedented move was the company’s reaction to an April incident in Philadelphia where a store manager had two black men arrested because they had not bought anything. [The men were waiting for a colleague to have a business meeting.]

The arrests created a national outcry against Starbucks. Although the men sued Starbucks, the suit was settled quickly with each man agreeing to receive a “symbolic” $1 and, more importantly, Starbucks agreed to give $200,000 toward a program to benefit young entrepreneurs in Philadelphia’s public schools.

Starbucks, however, facing public protests and a boycott, embarked on a self-described ‘journey’ to train all its employees on May 29th in ‘racial bias education‘ training.


“I’ve spent the last few days in Philadelphia with my leadership team listening to the community, learning what we did wrong and the steps we need to take to fix it,” said Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, shortly after the incident.

“While this is not limited to Starbucks,” Johnson stated, “we’re committed to being a part of the solution. Closing our stores for racial bias training is just one step in a journey that requires dedication from every level of our company and partnerships in our local communities.”

For some, that ‘journey’ may have begun to appear like a slick PR campaign as the company began marketing the date of its all-employee training like a pseudo-hipster phrase, calling it “Five Twenty-Nine” (as opposed to May 29th)—sort of like “Four Twenty” (or April 20th).

With the stores closed on May 29th, “partners will go through a training program designed to address implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination and ensure everyone inside a Starbucks store feels safe and welcome,” Starbucks stated on its website.

Starbucks even enlisted the rapper Common to star in its training videos, as well as released some of the training materials (here) prior to the Five Twenty-Nine event.

“I was expecting so much more.”

However, now that Five Twenty-Nine has come and gone, Starbucks is facing additional criticism for a training program that “missed the mark completely,” according to two Starbucks baristas in Philadelphia (the city where the original incident took place).

Instead of addressing racial tension head on, the training mostly “beat around the bush,” said one of the baristas, a 24-year-old Latino man we’ll call Jamie. “I was really disappointed when I walked out of there because I was expecting so much more,” said the other barista, an 18-year-old black woman we will call Tina.


At the training, attendees were split up into small groups and given iPads to watch videos, a 68-page guide with information, and a journal titled “My Notebook,” where they responded to prompts by writing answers and filling in bubbles.

“It felt like we were off task the entire time because we didn’t reflect on the situation itself,” said Tina, who has worked at Starbucks for a year. “The training materials focused a lot on police brutality, which had nothing to do with the incident that happened.”

Here are six additional criticisms from the two Philadelphia baristas:
  1. The Training Hardly Addressed the Incident Itself
  2. The Focus on Police Brutality Was Upsetting
  3. The Training Felt More Like an African-American History Class
  4. The Presenting Leadership Team Was Not Diverse
  5. Pandering With (Rapper) Common
  6. Starbucks’s New Terminology Was Difficult to Swallow
[Read more details from these baristas here.]

“None of my employees could relate.”

The criticism of Starbucks’ training did not stop with the Philadelphia barista’s, though.

In Ferguson, MO, a store manager told Fast Company “his young largely African-American staff didn’t much appreciate being told they needed to attend a training session on racial bias.”

“None of my employees could relate,” says Lewis with a tired-sounding laugh. “They were like ‘This really happens? People behave like this?’ Honestly it was a painful day for many of us.”

According to another barista in Minnesota, the training was “kind of ridiculous.”

“Starbucks’ training was blanketed to every store, instead of being tailored to different demographics,” the barista noted. “The training only really covered how to not be racist towards African-Americans. Don’t get me wrong, that needed to be addressed, but a lot of the baristas at my store hoped it would touch base on other forms of discrimination toward POC [persons of color] and marginalized people.”

“Strange” and “offensive” terminology…

Another barista who identified as a white woman in New Jersey stated that she and her peers found Starbucks terminology “strange” and “offensive.”

Although she, found the training to be “an overall positive and well-constructed experience,” she also stated that “a few of my co-workers and I found the terminology ‘color brave‘ that was used to be strange. It was meant to serve as an antithesis to the idea of being “colorblind” regarding race, but we felt that it was an offensive way to approach viewing other races.

According to Starbucks, the Five Twenty-Nine training was only a first step in its ‘journey.’

Although there appears to be much for Starbucks to build upon (based on the feedback from baristas), as a PR campaign to dampened the public’s furor over the April arrests, Five Twenty-Nine appears to been a success.

If you are a Starbucks employee who attended the company’s the ‘racial bias education’ training and wish to tell us what you think, please do so in the comments below.

[Please tell us what city you work in as well.]

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