Starbucks’ decision to forbid employees from wearing engagement rings or other rings with stones—while relaxing its policy on tattoos—was not only a blow to worker morale, but may cost the company business, based on the backlash inspired by the coffee giant’s declaration.
After Starbucks announced its new dress code in October 2014, customers, employees and employees’ spouses took to posting angry comments on social media and reacting to online news stories.
Responding to a news story on Syracuse.com, a poster calling himself “Justin” wrote: “So now my wife can’t wear her wedding ring during her shift? So who’s [sic] name do I put on the lawsuit when she’s harassed?
Another calling himself “Corey Jeppesen” wrote on the same website: “My wife just said that you’ve instituted a policy that she can’t wear her wedding ring to work anymore. Where are your brains?”
Some posters, who appeared to have no employee ties to Starbucks, found the new rules so offensive that they vowed to get their coffee elsewhere.
“I can’t think of a situation that has inspired comparable backlash in terms of the media’s involvement, but I work in companies each day that are updating and changing their dress code policies,” said Mila Grigg, CEO of MODA Image and Brand Consulting. “You will always have backlash over any dress code changes, even if they are just grumbles around the water cooler. You can’t please everyone, and the question a company must ask itself is if the decisions they are making represent the brand and goals of the business including its long-term goals.”
The new dress code allows employees to wear a plain wedding band with no stone, but disallows watches, bracelets and wristbands. The dress code includes rules on piercings (“less is more”), shoes (flats are “a must”), and hair (“no bright or unnatural colors”).
Starbucks spokesman Tom Kuhntold SHRM Online that the company now handles much more food than in the past—and plans to double its food business in the next five years. The change in dress code, he said, was necessary to comply with health regulations.
“We know this is an emotional topic and completely understand these laws are disappointing for our partners,” he said. “We had to make the change to follow local and state laws which require this regulation because jewelry, such as rings with jewels, bracelets, wristwatches or wristbands, can collect soil, debris and bacteria, which can contaminate food and beverages.”
Communication is Key
Stacia Pierce, a career expert and CEO of Ultimate Lifestyle Enterprises in Orlando, Fla., said it’s important to listen to employees’ needs and concerns when it comes to new dress codes.
“The best approach is to consider alternative solutions that create a win-win,” she said. “Starbucks should give considerable thought as to how they can comply with food and safety rules as well as not infringe upon the rights of employees. If an alternative solution is presented, it’s really in the best interest of the employer and employee to consider all options.”
For example, she said, requiring that employees wear protective gloves, rather than remove their rings, is one solution.
Grigg, however, said wearing protective gloves instead of removing jewelry may not fit Starbucks’ image as a warm, neighborhood gathering place. The concept behind the company, she noted, was “much like the cafes of Europe. Gloves may not be the best answer.”
The new rules also reverse the company’s previous policy on tattoos, which are now allowed except for on the face or throat, and which must avoid curse words, hateful comments, or lewd words and images.
“Our partners recently asked us to reconsider our tattoo policy, which is why we made the change to allow visible tattoos based on their feedback,” Kuhn said. “We were happy to act on their terrific ideas and valuable feedback, and we’ll do more going forward.”
Some Starbucks workers have started an online petition asking the company to change the new dress code policy. Others aired their complaints online.
“I wear a Medic Alert bracelet BECAUSE I HAVE TO!!!” wrote poster “Linda Woods” in response to an online news story about Starbucks’ policy. “No overrated coffee company or anyone else is going to tell me I cannot wear it.”
“Mary Pareisa,” who identified herself as a care provider at AccentCare in Petaluma, Calif., noted that banning medical identification bracelets “is very bad if you have an emergency.”
Other posters sided with Starbucks. One, calling himself “John Cohen,” wrote that although the new rules sound unfair, “a tattoo does not have the chance of breaking into someone’s drink, while a ring does.”
Another wrote: “Some people wear cheap, fake jewelry that breaks easy, and ends up in ice, drinks and food. Engagement rings get filthy in restaurants.”
A third suggested that Starbucks is simply protecting itself from lawsuits.
“A ban on rings with stones is … pretty common in bakeries and other businesses where you might have workers using their hands to work with food,” this person wrote. “If a stone falls off, that might not be realized until hours (or days) later. Next thing you know, we're reading how someone is suing Starbucks after choking on a diamond that somehow found its way into a pumpkin spice latte.”
Pierce of Ultimate Lifestyle Enterprises said Starbucks might have avoided this widespread backlash had the company first tested its new policy in a handful of stores before enforcing the dress code companywide.
“This approach could have prevented the change from becoming a big deal, decreasing morale or garnering national attention,” she said. “Now that they have gotten feedback from employees, it is a good idea to start considering the alternatives that protect both the customer and the employee.”
Grigg said that when companies are growing rapidly and introducing new products “you can never spend too much time communicating, educating and explaining the company brand inside the company as well as outside.”
“At the end of the day, people want to know you care and that they have been heard,” she said. “Sometimes that is all that actually matters—allowing employees to see the why behind the decisions.”
Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.