THE BLOG

Starbucks Coffee, Tea, or My Deepest Thoughts

03/19/2015 09:55 am ET | Updated May 19, 2015

"Walk like a barista," is likely to be heard at your local Starbucks. Employees of Starbucks have a new role, the occasional diversity trainer.

With particular focus on New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Oakland and Los Angeles, starting this week, you may get your exclusive caffeine fix as well as a potential racially charged discussion. Coffee baristas are not required, but encouraged to open dialogue with customers about race. Inviting discussion, they will write "Race Together" along with the customer names on some coffee cups.

Well-intentioned and well-known for his social advocacy, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wants to make a dent in problems with racial division. He has introduced a new program, "Race Together." Schultz doesn't want to be a "silent bystander," encourages the philosophy, "...staying silent is not who we are." But what is it that they have become? This remains to be seen with customer reaction.

But what criteria will they use to jump start the discussion is an important consideration. Random? Race? Urgency for morning coffee? Bad morning blues? Will customers in line patiently wait or chime in on the conversations. Will there be disagreements; you bet!

Starbucks administration is fully aware of the risks and claims that is well worth the messing with the apple cart. According to Linda Mills, a Starbucks spokeswoman, "We knew this wouldn't be easy, but we feel it's worth the discomfort." But the proof of the discomfort pudding lies directly on the comfort level of customers.

Customers on a caffeine hunt may not be receptive to these sensitive conversations and social media proves not so much.

As a trainer of diversity issues in the workplace for two decades, from my perspective it is clear that untrained baristas will likely be placed in antagonistic situations. Race relations have many complexities and baristas earn an hourly average of $10.00. They are paid to pour designer drinks, a far cry from conducting sensitive and difficult conversations. Of course there may be many successful conversations likely resulting from the "golden rule" but debates will ensue, and that is exactly what it will be, racially charged.

To quote Forest Gump ... "you never know what you're gonna get." In this case, instead of chocolate, life is like a cup of coffee.

Right or wrong, this is inviting dissension and potential and likely arguments considering the particular recent cases in New York, Florida, and Missouri.

This is likened to the proverbial Thanksgiving Day table conversation with family and friends; you avoid politics and religion. BUT this is not the people you love, these will be conversations with your provider of your coffee and caffeine fix. Hopefully Starbucks has a plan for intervention because it will be necessary in volatile situations. Thoughtful and polite discussion is expected but difficult when you are discussing sensitive issues with an unknown public.

Social media including the "Twitterverse," and National Public Radio have received backlash about discussing race relations over a coffee cup.

Of course, companies can take a stand about social issues and do so often. The risk and benefit of social stance is that people maintain the power of the purse to purchase or not to purchase. In this case, Schultz is risking alienation of some loyal customers that just don't want to share those deepest thoughts and opinions. Will they linger longer to chat about their opinions about race, grab their coffee and leave, or go to the coffee shop down the block? That is a consumer choice.

Perhaps the shopping experience will change. We have seen chief executives of companies discuss their opinions or corporate core values about social issues including Cinemark Theaters, Chick Fil-A, and Hobby Lobby. Starbucks has raised the bar by encouraging active discussions. If this type of one-on-one customer personal discussion proves successful, we may see other businesses espouse their values up close and personal.

To Starbuck or not to Starbuck, that is the question for consumers to answer.