As a Black man who was born and raised in one of the most racially segregated cities in America, Chicago and now residing in the birthplace of the confederacy and the father of two adult Black sons, I watched the Starbucks drama through an all too familiar lens of concern, anger and gratitude that the two men were still alive. In full disclosure I have been arrested and jailed overnight for a crime I didn’t commit, all because a police officer had the authority to do so. I have also spent my entire professional career of almost 30 years training, recruiting, teaching and writing about issues of difference, social justice and diversity and inclusion. In short this incident hit home.
After some soul searching I have decided that rather than focusing my frustration on what went wrong I thought I should help make sure that the appropriate lessons are learned from this incident. Today I want to address the managers in the world who are well intentioned but at this moment are trying to figure out the best way to insure that their employees do not commit similar acts of racial aggression.For them I offer the following tips on what they could and should be doing to make sure their employees treat all customers with dignity, respect and good will.
First, it’s time to have a staff meeting. The incident should be used as a prompt for a larger discussion about customer service, stereotyping and racism. Managers should make sure that their employees understand that all guest are to be treated as customers. Notice I didn’t say all customers are to be treated like guest, I said all guest are to be treated as if they are customers. Anyone who enters the business should be treated as a guest who might become a customer. Our goal should be to treat them in such a manner that it encourages them to want to become our customers. We should not treat anyone regardless of how they look like we don’t want their business. Business need to make sure their employees focus on how people behave in their establishments not on how they look. Policies about bathroom use and utilizing the space, wifi and other amenities should be based on how one behaves within the establishment not on how one looks when they come into the establishment. I am not arguing against policies that say, “No shoes, no shirts, no service”, what I am advocating is that we can’t say we like dress shoes, but don’t like sandals.
Second, we have to discuss stereotypes, and racism with our employees so that it is clear to them that they are employed by a company that values and respects the humanity of everyone regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or socioeconomic status. If we go back to my guest analogy, I was raised that everyone who comes to your home is a guest whether they were invited or stopped by unannounced. Once when I was a boy a garbage man asked me for a drink of water. I went into the house and proceeded to find the worse cup we had to put some water in and take back out to the garbage man. My mother seeing me grab the worse plastic cup we had in the house immediately stopped me and made me get one of the best glasses in the house and fill it with water and take it out to the garbage man. “But he’s the garbage man”, I said in protest. “He’s a guest”, she said as she ushered me outside with the glass of water. We never spoke about that incident again but it’s one of the most powerful lessons I have ever learned about how to treat guest and how not to stereotype people. Managers must make sure their employees understand the same lesson my mother taught me. It’s not our job to place value judgements on the people who enter our establishments we are there to provide a service. If an employee can’t or doesn’t want to do that with courtesy and consistency then it should be made clear to that employee that their brand of service is no longer wanted nor needed.
Finally, it does not matter whether or not your employees believe that race and therefore racism are real or just a social construct. A persons perceptions are their reality and the outcomes of race and racism are very real and measurable. Similarly employees can argue that Santa Clause is not real but can still recognize that there are very real and measurable impacts as a result of the Santa Clause economy. Children and adults still cry sometimes when Santa does not bring them their desired gifts etc. Children and adults still have to engage their peers in discussions about the Christmas holiday, they are still exposed to the television specials, lights, trees, cards and all of the other realities that are a result of people acknowledging something that we all agree is not real. It’s not the reality or intent it’s the outcome. That is what the bottom line should be as managers conclude their staff meetings. We are concerned about the outcome of anyone who crosses our threshold. Our job is to provide a service to our guest that makes them appreciate our presence as guest in their community. After all, ultimately that is what we are guest in the communities in which we operate our businesses - guest. No one ever says, “The cup is half full”, they say, “The GLASS is half full”. Another reason my mothers lesson is always present in my mind when providing a service or working with people, and I hope t remains in yours as well.