Starbucks is working to distance itself from its former chief’s political ambitions—beginning with coaching its baristas.
The coffee chain’s former chief executive, Howard Schultz, recently announced that he’s considering running for president in 2020:
I love our country, and I am seriously considering running for president as a centrist independent.
— Howard Schultz (@HowardSchultz) January 28, 2019
The question I think we all should be asking ourselves is: at this time in America when there's so much evidence that our political system is broken – that both parties at the extreme are not representing the silent majority of the American people – isn't there a better way? pic.twitter.com/Gy1wf1cf8F
— Howard Schultz (@HowardSchultz) January 28, 2019
Though Schultz’s presidential big is entirely separate from Starbucks—he retired last year—Schultz became the face of the chain in his nearly 40 years of leadership.
Though responses are mixed as to whether Schultz’s announcement will affect Starbucks, it has thrust the brand back into headlines.
[The risk is] hard to know because it’s virtually unprecedented. Hired chief executives of big brands (former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina) have run for president. Business owners (Ross Perot, Donald Trump) have run or even won. But the harsh scrutiny and divisive rhetoric that a presidential campaign could unload on a publicly traded global consumer brand is uncharted territory, and may find its first test in the candidacy of Howard Schultz.
“What makes this different is that Starbucks is, if not the most important, at least one of the most recognizable consumer brands around the globe,” said Aaron Chatterji, a professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business who has studied CEO activism. “That’s very different, even compared to Trump, in terms of the Starbucks brand’s penetration all across America.”
Starbucks’ spokesman might be able to remain silent as questions swirl about Schultz, however the chain’s employees can’t take that route.
“No matter how they feel about it, [customers] are people expecting you to make political small talk despite the fact that your job is on the line if you say something in response that they disagree with or which upsets them,” a California Starbucks worker told Business Insider.
“I have to just put on a big smile and hope to God they don’t press me to comment beyond chuckling and anxiously trying to get to the next customer,” the employee added.
In Starbucks’ recent weekly staff update, the company instructed employees on how they should respond to questions and comments about Schultz’s political plans.
From the weekly update (emphasis not ours):
“… partners [i.e., employees] may be asked questions by customers or hear media speculation about Howard’s potential political intentions. We encourage you all to take a moment to review the talking points below with your partners.
If a customer asks if we are selling Howard’s book at Starbucks:
No, the books are available at bookstores and online.
If a customer attempts to investigate, or share aggressive political opinions, attempt to diffuse the situation by sharing:
We respect everyone’s opinion. Our goal is simply to create a warm and welcoming space where we can all gather, as a community, over great coffee.
If asked about Howard’s political intentions:
Howard’s future plans are up to him.
Starbucks’ chief executive, Kevin Johnson, also distanced the company from Schultz’s political choices.
On Monday, Johnson published a message to employees on the company’s newsroom. In it, he said that whether or not Schultz announces a presidential bid, “nothing changes” for the brand.
Howard has moved forward to the next chapter of his life, where he has expressed an interest in public service, and potentially public office. Whatever he decides, it is my personal belief that Howard will continue to make a positive impact on the lives he touches, and I wish him well.
Many of us will inevitably be asked if the company supports a possible presidential candidacy of Howard and what changes for Starbucks. As a company, we don’t get involved in national political campaigns. And nothing changes for Starbucks.
As we have for the past 48 years since Starbucks was founded, we will continue to live Our Mission and Values and create a great Starbucks customer experience in each of our stores.
… As we have always done, we remind you – that each of us, as citizens – has an opportunity to make our own informed decisions about politics and the future of our communities and our country. And as Starbucks partners, we have a responsibility to always recognize and respect the diversity of perspectives of all customers and partners on these topics.
Remaining separate from Schultz might be hard for the chain to achieve, however—especially when people begin to pick apart Schultz’s leadership decisions and the chain’s challenges throughout the years.
The Washington Post reported:
… Schultz’s leadership of the company is almost certain to come under greater scrutiny, questions about his motivation for running could get intermingled with Starbucks’ image, and its outsize reputation as a progressive employer could suffer bruises if stories were to emerge from disgruntled employees who get a bigger platform to air any grievances.
Despite the guidelines Starbucks gave, employees will probably still have to navigate a minefield of politically charged inquiries while taking customers’ orders.
Business Insider reported:
“I would expect that because of Schultz’s announcement, many customers will try to talk to us baristas about politics and Schultz while we are working,” one Starbucks worker from Connecticut told Business Insider.
“While I would personally be ok with this, I think it would make many baristas feel uncomfortable,” he continued. “As far as I know, we are not supposed to discuss politics while working, and we could easily be written up for it.”
Some employees are displeased over the directive, as well.
“We were told not to talk to customers about it,” said the employee, who added that workers were told that “if we are asked about his political goals or our opinions on it that we’re to say he was a great CEO to work for but that’s where our opinions end.”
The rephrased instructions irked the employee, who saw them as part of a pattern of stifling employees’ opinions. The shift supervisor felt similarly about the written instructions, finding it frustrating that Schultz was able to publicly discuss his politics when he worked at Starbucks while they were not.
However, Starbucks maintained that employees have a right to share their views—provided they stick to the chain’s mission.
The [Starbucks] spokesperson said the memo was meant to provide employees with ways to deal with potentially tense situations. Employees will not be penalized for sharing their views as long as they do so in a respectful way, the spokesperson added.
What do you think of Starbucks’ statements and employee guidance?