Starbucks’ ‘Race Relations’ Campaign Was Breeding Ground for Lawsuits, Experts Say

By Dana Wilkie Mar 25, 2015

Starbucks’ weeklong campaign urging employees to write “Race Together” on coffee cups to spark conversations about race relations was not only “absurd” and “irresponsible,” according to some employment law experts, but also had the potential to open the coffee giant to liability.

While Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz abruptly ended the campaign on March 22 after many criticized the effort, Schultz’s idea—however well-intentioned—could have created a breeding ground for lawsuits alleging discrimination, harassment, a hostile work environment and wrongful termination, employment law experts told SHRM Online.

“My recommendation to employers is to consider the risk and whether the negative impact on employees and customers is worth it,” said Karen Michael, president of Richmond, Va.-based KarenMichael PLC. “Beyond the legal risk, I think there will be broken co-worker and customer relationships.” 

On March 15, 2015, Schultz announced that he wanted to help improve race relations by having baristas write “Race Together” on coffee cups. He explained that he wanted to inspire a national dialogue about race relations.

He ended the initiative a week later, writing in a letter to employees that while he had hoped to “stimulate conversation, empathy and compassion toward one another,” he acknowledged that “this hasn't been easy for any of you.”

Critics suggested the coffee company was exploiting a sensitive issue for financial gain, and some pointed out that 16 of the company’s 19 executives are white.

Michael called the initiative “irresponsible” and “unfair to employees and customers,” and she added that the results could open an employer to hostile work environment lawsuits.

“Any employee who refuses to write ‘Race Together’ will be considered a racist,” she suggested. “There was also a form that employees were expected to fill out, with questions about how many times the customer went to the home of someone of another race. So Sam is white and he admits he hasn’t been to another person’s home of a different race. Does that mean that the barista now should shame this guy into believing he is racist?”

She also noted that such campaigns can inspire claims that the company incited customers to harass employees.

“Customers feel empowered to say whatever they want, and I fear they may be rude and disrespectful to Starbucks employees trying to have these conversations,” she said.

Ed Harold, a New Orleans-based employment law attorney with Fisher & Phillips, said employers are obligated under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect employees from racial harassment by customers.

“You can’t assume everyone’s going to respond to this in a respectful and intelligent manner,” Harold said. “I have this picture in my head of a customer looking at these words on their cup, and he’s having a bad morning, and it angers him and he says something nasty.”

Or: “Perhaps [a customer says] there was an affirmative action candidate in my law school and he was the dumbest guy I ever met in my life. If that offends an employee, and an employee reports it and a manager investigates, and then [the employee is] saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you told us you’re trying to start these conversations.’ ”

Employees also may claim they are discriminated against if, for instance, they are disciplined for taking too much time having race relations discussions or treated differently by managers because they refuse to write “Race Together” on cups, Michael said.

It could also become difficult for managers to discipline employees if the former has expressed strong opinions about race, Harold said. Manager statements made during the course of a race relations conversation could come back to be construed as racial prejudice, he said.

“The manager says, ‘I don’t think it’s right that we turn down every white person who has a criminal record, but when we try to turn down black people with criminal records, that’s a problem.’ Later, you terminate a black employee, and now you’re sitting in a deposition and the lawyers are saying, ‘Well, you said this and you really don’t like black people.’ Those conversations can be used against you in a lawsuit.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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